Whig History and Science Policy

Science Progress gave two historians a few column inches to remind us that not all science and technology narratives reflect the history of their disciplines.  Folks focused on nanotechnology will find the article of interest, but the main points are more broadly applicable than to just the really, really small.  The lessons, if you want to boil them down (which is a lousy thing to do with history, but expected in blogging) resemble some obvious statements, but statements that aren’t effectively applied and rarely considered when dealing with science and technology.  The Whig history mentioned here and in the Science Progress piece refers to historical treatments that treat current conditions as another step along a steady path of progress.

There is a history.  Nearly every person engaged with science and technology policy in the United States seems to think their field started and ended with Vannevar Bush in the late 1940s.  This ignores over 150 years of prior activity in the United States.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition and the U.S. Census are two ventures in the field that date back nearly to the founding of the republic.   The Forest Service and Geological Survey are also good pre-World War II examples of federal science and technology at work.

There were ‘losers’. Arguably Vannevar Bush is both a loser and a winner.  While his name and Science: The Endless Frontier still carry cachet in science policy circles, the plan in that document was not approved by President Truman.  He sought the advice of a different panel, chaired by John Steelman.  That report, and Steelman, are treated as footnotes by many, while the report is a good faith effort to chart the health of the national research enterprise – a valuable contribution to debates about how to support it, both then and now.

Change is usually incremental – Part of the consequence of ignoring history is to think of new developments as being more new than they actually are.  While World War II is usually acknowledged as an influence on post-war transformations of science and technology policy, the assessment stops there.  World War I (which saw the advent of the National Research Council) and the interwar period were also influential in establishing or refining some of the institutions that contributed to the post-war landscape of U.S. science policy.

So, what’s the bottom line?  Treating an initiative – or some acheivement – as an obvious outcome is to ignore history.  Science has a tendency to focus on the winners, on the successful experiments and theories.  For science policy to follow the same trend is to ignore knowledge that can be as vaulable and useful as what you can learn from the winners and success stories.

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