The linear model’ did not exist: Reflections on the history and historiography of science and research in industry in the twentieth century

Histories of Twentieth Century Science

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Histories of Twentieth Century Science

Most histories of twentieth century science are concerned with the academic basic science that Bush wanted to promote, and the agencies that did indeed promote them: that, or something like it, is what ‘science’ is taken to mean. Certainly few general accounts of nineteenth and twentieth century science, technology and medicine give anything like enough weight to non-basic, non-academic research. This is true even when the small scale of the academic research enterprise, compared to ‘research and development’ or even ‘science and engineering’ is recognized, as in the case of the work of Bruno Latour.lxxiii This bias is obvious in the importance given to accounts of university research, but where its invisible power is best seen is in accounts of science and the military, science and government and science and industry. There is a systematic bias in these accounts towards the study of academic scientists in relation to these bodies. For the case of Britain, which I know best, there was a genre of writing on the history of science policy, which systematically confused the history of ‘science policy’ with the history of academic and related research. For example, the ‘Haldane principle’ of autonomy of research councils, which only applied to ‘fundamental’ research, and some cross-cutting research, is assumed to be the central guiding principle behind all state research funding.lxxiv For the US case there is a distinct tendency to focus on the OSRD and the NSF that it is as if these bodies were the only ones which mattered in mid-century science policy. In the case of science and the military the story in most literature is one of the entry of academics scientists into association with the military in times of war, and the continued funding of academic science (in the US case) by the military in the cold war.lxxv The historians of technology, have tended to focus on the most ‘academic’ of industrial research. An account by Donald Cardwell in 1957 made an interesting distinction between technology and ‘applied science’—technology the application of given laws was ‘the application of the results of science’ while ‘applied science’ was the actual investigation by the methods of ‘pure’ science, of laws relevant to the industry concerned: it was science restricted to the ‘foreseeable interests of industry.’ Cardwell saw it as new, and explicitly denied that it arose from other older industrial practices.lxxvi He denied too that the technologists evolved into the applied scientists—the pioneering German industrial labs were derived from academic examples, the staff were the products of universities and colleges that otherwise turned out teachers. A whole generation of studies of industrial research (and I too am guilty) have focused on research in industry and above all on central corporate research laboratories.
This profoundly academic-research-oriented model of twentieth-century science is all the more surprising in view of the long tradition of stressing the non-academic origins of modern science, particularly the craft traditions, and the insistence of much history of science, strengthened in the last 20 years, on the significance of industrial contexts for science, from dyeing to brewing to engine making. The idea that academic science is strongly dependent on, affected by, derivative of ‘technology’ has long been a commonplace of the history of nineteenth and twentieth century science. In that sense we have long since moved from a scientific conception of technology to a ‘technological conception of science.’lxxvii Indeed one historian suggests shifting from the usual historical use of ‘science-based industry’ to ‘industry-based science.’lxxviii Nevertheless there is a strong tendency to look at the industrial, technological and other contexts of academic science—rather than non-academic science as such.lxxix

Alternatives to the Academic Research Model of History of Science

Bush’s account of the development of research in the United States, is, paradoxically enough, a good place to start a sketch of an alternative picture.lxxx For Bush pointed out that the great bulk of research was applied research and was done in government and industry; he highlighted the increasing proportion of industry and government research. Simply recognizing the comparative scale of industrial and government research through the century is enough to transform the usual implicit maps of the twentieth-century research enterprise historians have worked with.lxxxi The history of innovation and innovation policy must surely focus on industry and government agencies concerned with it, rather than ‘science policy’.

Such a non-academic perspective can change our accounts of standard linear model cases. Take for example histories of the atomic bomb project which usually take the form implied by the linear model—they start with academic physics, and go through ‘big science’ to the atomic bomb: this is history taken from the biographies of academic physics as they move from pure to applied. For the historian of technology and the military there are many precedents, both industrial and military, to the bomb project, as is clear in Thomas Hughes’ quite distinct account of the Manhattan Project.lxxxii Indeed the Manhattan project is seen as possible because there were such precedents and capacities. But, one could see it a part of a process of development of the innovative capacity of the military and of large corporations, which extended their range to ‘pure’ nuclear physics. Indeed the whole of wartime R&D activity is best seen in this way—as an extension and strengthening of pre-existing military and industrial organizations, rather than the export of academic basic science into wartime bodies. Even in the post-war years, when the prestige of basic science, and particularly academic basic science, was very high, it is still useful to see industrial and military research as an upgrading of industrial facilities as much as an importation of academic models and personnel. To be sure, there was a wave of laboratory building far from production, and the bringing in of high-level academics, but there was expansion in all kinds of scientific activity after the war.lxxxiii At very best the ‘linear model’ to the extent we grant its existence at all will be a very small part of the picture.

I want to argue for a more general critique based on the observation that there is a systematic confusion in the literature between ‘science’ and scientific research, which is hardly noticed because so many analysts assume science to be research.lxxxiv It is important to distinguish between expertise, including scientific expertise, and research. The twentieth century belief that “Science implies the breaking of new ground,”lxxxv has made the history of science and expertise the history of research. Intellectuals, even engineers like Vannevar Bush, generally used ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ refer to scientific research. This is one reason why the history of science in business, or of science in government, or the university is, without this being clear, the history of research.lxxxvi Yet research was something new which increasingly came to define science, and scientific, even though only a small proportion of ‘scientists’ were ever engaged in it; the research revolution in the late nineteenth century, not merely a laboratory revolution, and that it extended right across the field of knowledge, and to many kinds of institution, was of huge significance.lxxxvii On the other hand we should not ignore the continuing importance of non-research technical expertise.lxxxviii Nor should we ignore the historical processes by which ‘research’ became so important, and we should resist the temptation to see ‘research’ as itself created with the realms of ‘pure science.’ We would do well to think about twentieth century ‘science’ as a great mass of non-research science, some ‘applied science,’ and a little bit of ‘basic science,’ if we grant the categories. ‘Research’ is not the norm for scientific activity, and within ‘research’ pure research is not the norm either.
Of course some historians of technology, and some historians of science, have looked at non-research science and technology, though both subjects are generally innovation and research centered.lxxxix As Ernst Homburg has pointed out, it is highly misleading to identify the beginnings of science in industry, with research, or more generally the significance of science in industry with the significance of research.xc However, in the literature on science in industry, although dominated by research, scholars have been careful to point to (though often without giving too much detail) that research was generally built on top of, or out of significant pre-existing scientific organizations.xci Scientists were first employed in routine jobs, for example in industry scientists are first employed for production, and the scientific role is upgraded with time till some is involved in ‘pure science.’ Indeed we can follow a line of analytical labs, development labs, and research labs, generally established in that order. In this alternative picture—the actual placing of ‘pure,’ ‘fundamental’ and ‘basic’ research is best understood as emerging (sometimes) from what academic researchers see as lower kinds of scientific activity. What we see is not the rise of science as such, but the rising prestige of the ‘researcher.’ This is not to say that particular individuals evolved in the same way —in many cases, each higher level meant the recruitment of new kinds of personnel from outside industry.xcii Such developments are familiar in cases of IG Farben, GE, AT&T and Du Pont, where research laboratories came after the establishment of many other sorts of laboratories. One of the best-studied cases in this context is IG Farben: it had around 2,000 chemists in the late 1920s, with around 1,000 classified as research chemists. The latter they worked in 50 laboratories, of which ten were large ‘main laboratories.’xciii In Britain too, the pattern was very similar—with research emerging out of existing scientific activity.xciv In the armed forces too ‘research’ was added to pre-existing scientific work, but of the uniformed branches and of civilian technical specialists. Certainly in the interwar years there emerged a large civilian research corps was gaining in power and prestige in the interwar years, gaining ground over other technical specialists, later supplemented by academic researchers.
Can a similar story be told for academic research? It can, for most academics were not researchers until well into the twentieth century. In the case of laboratories, these too were concerned with teaching when first introduced in the nineteenth century, then a place for analysis and testing, and then a ‘research laboratory’ focused on a research program.xcv Indeed the study of industrial research laboratories has provided materials for the reassessment of the history of academic research. Dennis argues research developed simultaneously, and in parallel ways in industry and the university.xcvi In medical schools too, laboratories are first teaching places, and their teaching staff lowly figures compared with the clinicians. Later research laboratories and researchers clearly have higher relative prestige.xcvii The research revolution in the universities, as in industry and government, was a slow one: even in the 1930s research was not universal in university departments of arts or sciences.xcviii In short the ‘linear model’ does not work for institutions, just as it does not work for innovations. The new institutions of science were not pioneered through fundamental work in the academy and then progressed linearly down to everyday practice; the reverse might be better, crude, approximation.

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