Lessons from history: why science policy needs to better understand the past


There is an understandable focus on the future in science policy discussions. We are often concerned with how investment in science and other research will contribute to future economic growth, health and well-being, and sustainable development. How should we invest now to bring about the future we want to see? What types of science should we support? How should that science be conducted? But the evidence that we draw upon is often about the past. What has been the result of previous investment? What impact did policies or the environment have previously? The science of science policy is largely a historical science.

Too often the analysis of the past that is used in discussions about science policy is flawed, based on anecdote or partial and distorted narratives. These stories are modified to fit present prejudice and don’t always provide the reliable representation of the past that we need for evidence-based policy making for science.

The Haldane Principle is a classic example of a myth about science policy itself. It is held up as the great bastion of UK science policy, but often without a critical analysis of where it comes from or its history. This thorough essay by David Edgerton should be compulsory reading for all researchers and people working in science policy. The result of this lack of historical context is that debates hinge around the adherence, or not, to this mythical principle which casts scientific decision making into an us (scientists) versus them (politicians) framework. Instead we need to replace this with a more nuanced debate about decision making that recognises that there are many other voices to be balanced in the question of who decides on science.

Poor understanding of the historical context also leads to inaccurate notions of how scientific discovery has happened in the past. There is a persistent narrative that science contributes most when scientists are left to pursue their curiosity, unencumbered by considerations of application. But is this really always true?

No. For example, there is an excellent discussion of Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism by Simon Schaffer in Nature from last year. Two quotes sum up the conclusions:

Maxwell’s magnificent work of the 1860s is an excellent example. Rather than a stately progression from abstract theory to solid application, it was the product of a web of markets, technologies, labs and calculators in the workshop of the world.

In sum, On Physical Lines of Force is an odd text to use as example of the unyielding purity of physical science. Maxwell’s formulae did not appear in their most familiar form until almost 25 years after its publication. The four famous equations linking electromagnetic forces and fluxes owe their elegant and economical vector form to a brilliant London telegraphist, Oliver Heaviside. He published them in 1885 in The Electrician, a trade journal for electrical engineers and businessmen.

As Peter Medawar wrote in the 1960s, we need to be careful not to get carried away by an excessively romantic notion of the pursuit of science. His thinking was explained and amplified by Tom Webb recently.

Sound analysis is also important in understanding how innovation has worked in the past. For example challenge prizes for innovation are often mentioned in the context of Harrison and the Longitude Prize. But as the Board of Longitude project shows the story is rather more complicated than is often appreciated, and even that “There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize“.

Historical evidence is important for the development of science policy, but we need to make sure it is the best evidence available. Experts in the history of science have a key role to play in the policy-making process of today.