A New Agency for Science Historians?

In his piece on "Historians and Science Policy,"

By | April 6, 1987

In his piece on "Historians and Science Policy," J.L. Heilbron makes a timely point with his usual cogency and wit.

The science of the twentieth century is distinctive in its scale, its specialization and its close coupling with economic and military concerns. An individual instrument such as the Superconducting Supercollider may cost billions of dollars. The payoffs on research in biotechnology can make or break long-established corporations. Plainly, the mechanisms by which science policy is articulated must grow and change along with science itself.

Over the past decade, historians and sociologists of science have been hard at work analyzing the workings of the American scientific community in the twentieth century. That analysis reveals a science more complex and more human than any found in the textbooks. Our modern world of science has 'grown and thrived with the clash of interest groups; with the use of concepts, techniques and theory to define "turf'; with the energizing work of charismatic leaders; with the role of research schools in organizing loyalties and agendas; with the drive to build political support and economic nourishment; and with the recurrent need to ensure the understanding of science by attentive publics within our pluralistic democracy.

What can this formal and informal work in the history of recent science offer, besides a good read in works as varied as James Watson's The Double Helix, Daniel Kevies' The Physicists and Margaret Rossiter's Women Scientists in America? Can the history of science offer organized support to policy-makers and, if so, how?

Heilbron is to be applauded for posing the question. His suggestion of a new agency under the patronage of the National Academy of Sciences, with funding from the National Science Foundation, deserves discussion. However, I am doubtful that our grasp of the historical component that should go into science policy is so strong, or the present and newly developing mechanisms that lie to hand so weak, that the launching of quite so ambitious a new group is the best way forward.

Educating the Public

The last several years have seen the growth of an impressive array of mechanisms for the discussion of policy concerns within a framework of historical analysis. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the Office of Technology Assessment and the Congressional Research Service have all shown notable and increasing historical sensitivity in recent reports; the Society for Social Studies of Science (founded in 1971) flourishes; the Center for History of Physics (sponsored by the American Institute of Physics), the Center for History of Chemistry (sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers), the Center for History of Electrical Engineering (sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) and the Charles Babbage Institute are among the growing range of discipline-centered centers active in the policy area. In addition, the newly resurgent History of Science Society and the Society for the History of Technology have important roles to play. Creation of a new, specially favored group does not make best sense at this time. Rather, the need is to nurture the mechanisms now in place and ensure they receive adequate intellectual resources, funding and publicity.

The other point is perhaps more subtle. Heilbron argues that "an informed, perceptive and independent historian may be able to distinguish immediate from long-term concerns, organizational evolution from bureaucratic imperialism, public from private interest…." Shades of Plato's philosopher-king, or would that it were so! If recent work in the sociology of twentieth-century knowledge has shown one thing, it is that the claim to be able to see the public interest more clearly is the last refuge of private-interest special pleading. What historians can provide is not a privileged view of the public interest, but a widening of the terms of policy discussions, and, thus, a more informed choice among competing private interests.

Despite my reservations, I hope that Heilbron's thoughtful proposal will stimulate interest in the history of recent science, and discussion of how historical knowledge may best be brought to bear on current issues.

Historians can contribute powerfully to knowledge, debate and action in the realm of science policy. But they will do it best when they educate a variety of attentive publics through their writings and teaching, and when they operate as informed partners in the multiple conversations of our pluralistic system, not as segregated experts in yet another new federal agency.

Thackray is Joseph Priestly Professor of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, Edgar Fahs Smith Hall, 215 S. 34th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104, and an editorial consultant to The Scientist.

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