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The Search for a Mature View of Industrial Research July 8, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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At the moment there is an interesting — if scattered — set of arguments about, proffered by senior historians, concerning what an appropriately mature handling of industrial research might look like.

In his essay “Time, Money, and History” (pdf, free) in the latest Isis, my colleague David Edgerton refers to the influence of the “spontaneous economics of academic research scientists,” which unduly privileges discussions of the importance of university-based research amid the much wider world of R&D, while also fixating on a more longstanding concern with how patronage might influence the course of research work (“filthy lucre”).  Most of the concerns still regularly expressed about the funding, independence, and broader importance of academic research were, by the 1960s, already widely circulated by purveyors of this spontaneous economics.

Amid particular ’60s-era concerns that science was being perverted by tighter connections to national defense and the economy, and stifled by more structured administration, some historians and sociologists of science were eager to dispel oft-voiced beliefs that science’s strange, new institutional situation represented a fundamental change in how science was done.  On this blog we have seen how Robert Merton was eager to argue that the competitive behaviors chronicled in James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968) were a longstanding feature of science, and not some twentieth-century pathology.  Similarly, in their 2007 essay, “The Commercialization of Science and the Response of STS,”1 Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent detect a nothing-new-to-see-here attitude as early as a 1960 commentary by Thomas Kuhn highlighting the history of the science-technology relation.

Also in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was an interesting sociological conflict over what role strains industrial researchers did and did not feel.  On the one hand, there were works by American sociologists taught or influenced by Merton, notably Simon Marcson’s The Scientist in American Industry (1960), William Kornhauser’s Scientists in Industry (1961), Warren Hagstrom’s The Scientific Community (1965), and Norman Storer’s The Social System of Science (1966).  These stressed the strain to be expected when those trained in the communal norms of science were subjected to the secrecy and administrative control of industry — according to the Mertonians, this was relatively new.

In this case, it was British sociologists who took up a nothing-special-to-see-here argument against them.  They argued that many scientists could, in fact, work happily in industrial settings.  The key work is Science, Industry, and Society (1970) by Stephen Cotgrove and Steven Box.

In N. D. Ellis’s like-minded 1969 essay, “The Occupation of Science,”2 he makes essentially the same point Edgerton still finds it necessary to make 43 years later:

Historians and sociologists have tended to avoid problems [relating to industrial research] by excluding applied science, and those engaged upon it from their discussions.  Their definitions of ‘science’ and the ‘scientist’ are often based upon an assumption that ‘pure’ research constitutes ‘real’ science, and that the academic environment is the most natural one for the scientists.

In his 1971 article, “Making Out in Industrial Research,”3 (jstor) Barry Barnes not only agreed with the British arguments against the American emphasis on strain, but used it as an opportunity to suggest a move beyond sociological frameworks centered on the particular norms of science.

Barnes, of course, would soon become a key proponent of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK).  Although the British sociology of industrial research paid no attention to knowledge-making processes, and although no SSK proponent would write much on industrial research again, there were at least two links between the literatures.  First, Barnes’s rejection of the Mertonian framework with respect to industrial research soon became a common feature of arguments in and around SSK.  Second, the British emphasis on not treating industrial settings as some sort of unnatural setting for science had echoes in SSK’s interest in treating competing knowledge claims “symmetrically”.

Now, interestingly, probably the main rallying point for SSK proponents and allies in the 1980s and 1990s was the claim that, contrary to an “ideology” of science holding it to be isolated from social influence, science was, in fact, pervaded, inside and out, by various political, economic, and cultural commitments.  Therefore, even historians of twentieth-century science claiming to adhere to a new mode of scholarship continued to adhere to the terms established by a much older scholarly interest in the tensions between patronage and academic independence — I’m thinking here of the various studies we have of the “Cold War University”.

However, Steven Shapin, one of the original SSK proponents, has maintained a certain respect throughout his career for the particularities of intellectual projects as they were originally articulated.  As we have seen, he has written an excellent gloss on 1930s-era Merton Thesis, explaining its intensions.

Similarly, his The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (2008, originally reviewed on this blog here and here) represented a strong revival of the original apolitical spirit to be found in SSK-style symmetry.

Chapters 4 and 5 of The Scientific Life recapitulate the American-British divide in the sociology of industrial research, except that the more pragmatic British view becomes “the view from the managers,” recovered from obscure trade journals (though Shapin does also credit the British sociologists).  Shapin’s book as a whole can be read specifically as a revival of the British sociology of industrial research, as well as a call for the study of industry-oriented research as something in and of itself, rather than as something that is of interest only because of the cultural tensions that must inhabit it.

A similar notion motivates Edgerton’s appeal that industrial research be studied simply because it represents such an enormous portion of work within the sciences, and because it is the research that matters most if we want to understand the relation between “science and the military” or “science and the nation”.  As he writes in his new piece, if you want to follow the actual money rather than the “spontaneous economics of academic research scientists”, most of the time you will be following it into industrial R&D.  As with Shapin, Edgerton does not take this research to exist in any interesting cultural tension with its patrons’ goals, because it has been explicitly undertaken in order to serve those goals.

In making their respective points, Shapin and Edgerton are trying to coax historians into a maturity concerning industrial research that they should have attained forty or more years ago. Mirowski, however, has no time for this beginner-level hand-holding, as there are more pressing issues to attend to.

For Mirowski, from Kuhn to Shapin, simply reinforcing points like the notion that science is “never pure” is to adopt a willful ahistoricism about the changing influences on science through time.  To him, such a posture is every bit as naive as claims that science is intrinsically academic.  It is to imply that any frictions we might detect in the way science is presently constituted is simply a case of “déjà vu” as scientific figures are once again forced to navigate yet another difficult nexus of patronage and politico-cultural boundaries.

Read, especially, Mirowski’s 2010 Mullins Lecture, “The Modern Commercialization of Science is a Passel of Ponzi Schemes” (pdf), paying particular attention to fn. 4 and his unusual take on David Kaiser’s arguments about the Cold War physics “bubble” (but also note fn. 17).

For Mirowski and Sent, what is needed is a still more mature history.  To them it is

imperative to specify in detail the fine structure of operation of each of the major players in the course of the organization of science: universities, corporations, and governments.  The disaggregration of science into its component structures (laboratories, clinics, field stations, classrooms, libraries, conferences) and the disaggregation of its managers into diverse agents (academics, corporate officers, government representatives, corporate trustees) is the first step toward constructing a sociologically aware account of the economics of science… [“Commercialization” 671, my emphasis]

The thrust of Mirowski’s criticism of works like Shapin’s is that they satisfy themselves with merely having taken industrial research seriously, without having reached the “fine structure” that reveals narratives like the one that he develops in his new book Science-Mart (2011).  If the general themes Mirowski discusses seem familiar from fifty-year-old discussions of the normative tensions in the science-industry relation, the institutional story documents what he takes to be a very novel, deep — and dangerous — shift over the past few decades in how research is funded, evaluated, and thus conducted.

Mirowski may, however, overreach in hinting that Shapin’s wish to take industrial research seriously constitutes complacency with the changing role of industry-oriented research in the academy.  I think this comes from his seeing links between Shapin’s anti-Mertonian denial of any inherent industry-science tension coupled to a posture of symmetry and some of the ideas informing neoliberal economics — an interesting subject that deserves its own post.  It is, in any case, an accusation that Shapin has sought to deflect in his recent BJHS piece, “The Ivory Tower: The History of a Figure of Speech and Its Cultural Uses“.  There he, too, expresses discomfort with the notion of the crusade for an ever-more “engaged” university, albeit in a less-developed way than Mirowski.

The danger for the historian in embracing Mirowski’s perspective is that there is the temptation (seeing as most historians are university-based and love to talk about the politics of academia) to fall back on old habits of making threats to the university the center of interest for the same old reasons relating to feeling the need to expose yet again the fact that accepting patronage involves inevitable compromises.

In any event, Shapin and Edgerton’s point that industrial research requires more concentrated attention stands, whatever detailed stories we might wish to tell about relations with the academy within that ambit.

1. In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, 3rd edition (MIT Press, 2007).

2. In Technology & Society 5/1 (1969): 33-41 — this journal, by the way, seems to have been a rather interesting, homespun endeavor published through Bath University Press

3. In Science Studies 1 (1971): 157-175.  Barnes’s competing framework was one offered by Howard Becker.


1. William Burns - July 8, 2012

Good article Will. I’m currently reading Bhide’s The Venturesome Economy (Princeton 2008) &he makes some arguments about (misplaced) techno nationalism & the nature of innovation in pharma & information technology. No citations of Edgerton or Mirowski but then the book I guess comes from the business sch. genre (the author studies venture capital firms). How do you see this kind of business/economics literature in relation to historical studies? On the surface it seems to have a more sophisticated take on the relations between science, innovation & the economy. Are you arguing for a historical version of this? (apologies for the abbreviated text but I am typing on my iPhone with great difficulty!)

2. Will Thomas - July 8, 2012

Hi William. Yeah, this post should be understood as focusing on the situation as it stands in history, and in certain branches of science studies. There’s certainly a much broader literature on these questions beyond our corner of things, and that is actually the literature that Mirowski is most concerned with — even in science studies, Mirowski expends more energy on Philip Kitcher than he does on Shapin.

But Mirowski’s major beef is with a “neoliberal” handling of research, which basically treats all research as a kind of entrepreneurial product, which is consumed by different customers in a general market for discrete units of intellectual commodities. To his thinking, this is an impoverished view of what actually constitutes a well-functioning body of knowledge, which can support long-term growth. It also tends to make no conceptual distinction between intellectual commodities with genuine epistemological values and those that are consumed in order to, say, market a drug, or to deny the validity of climate change (as documented in Oreskes and Conway), because the only basis for placing value on a unit of knowledge is the value that end-users assign to it. Neoliberalism is very postmodern!

Mirowski is definitely sour on business-school-type writers, who he would generally group as heavily influenced by neoliberal ideas. I can’t say precisely where Bhide falls without having read the book, though on first blush based on the self-desciption of the book, it does seem to fall in the knowledge-as-intellectual-commodity camp, basically applying the logic of comparative advantage to research.

I haven’t always found Mirowski the most reliable historian, because he tends to lump lots of different projects together as manifestations of a single ideological viewpoint, but he manages to connect more dots together than just about any author I know, and is always critically independent, extremely perceptive, and well worth reading.

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