Video – Chargaff’s ‘short’ play, Amphisbaena

Hell you! I hope everyone is keeping well enough. Spending so much time working at home creates different pressures, alters one’s goals, and brings about different kinds of product. This post concerns one such new ‘product’ that I have made with my wee sister. 

It is a video of Erwin Chargaff’s ‘short’ play, Amphisbaena, which he published as part of his 1963 Essays on Nucleic Acids. For those in the know, it is in this play that Chargaff coined his pithy expression that ‘molecular biology is essentially the practice of biochemistry without a license’. 

Antonia Berry provided all of the illustrations, and I am hugely grateful to her, especially for her patience as I loosely described what might be needed. Unfortunately I did all the audio recording myself, and I am quite the droner. If you would like to read the original, it can be found here!

But be warned, this will mean that you miss the bird, dog, and motorbike easter eggs planted throughout the video. Topics of conversation in the play include the arrangement of items in the cell, vitalism, molecular ‘action painting’, mechanistic philosophy, eugenics, and celebrity.

Chargaff is a very difficult character for the historian and philosopher of science to deal with, at least if we are wanting to avoid being shallow. In some ways he did invite shallowness, thanks to his being irritated by and irritable about so much of molecular biology due to its records of success on the public stage, in attracting funding, and prestige. Especially in contrast in comparison with his kind of chemistry. For sure, some of this might be sour grapes. But he also pursued a fascinating research programme which placed the scientist in quite a different relationship with their materials. I presented aspects of this last December in my seminar presentation at the University of Leeds, and I am very grateful to that audience for their questions and the lively discussion that followed. (Indeed, I might try and write blog posts tackling two particular questions that emerged: 1. ‘Why so uncritical about narrative? Can’t it cause problems for science as much as you might be interested in its productive epistemic functions?; 2. Can you provide examples where Narrative Science hasn’t worked?). 

I decided to record this play for a few reasons. The first is at the shallow level: here is an example of a scientist adopting an unusual form, a play, to share their criticisms of and concerns about molecular biology. It is not a simple polemic though, nor was he intending it to reach a popular audience – it was published in his Essays on Nucleic Acids after all, which is not a page-turner. Perhaps then it should be understood as a guide for other professional chemists dealing with or operating in close proximity to molecular biology. However, this is not the primary level at which I find Amphisbaena interesting.

In this play Chargaff, while clearly serving his own agenda, is quite candid about his own descriptive and discursive difficulties when it comes to creating a science of life and the living. Yes, much of that difficulty is expressed as dissatisfaction with the descriptive and discursive choices of molecular biology. But for himself, he well recognises the charges of mysticism and romanticism, ones which he can’t quite see a means of escaping even if they don’t seem fair. At least this is my reading, and I have not solved this puzzle for Chargaff, but I do think that the Narrative Science project can put the challenges he faced in a new light.

To someone like Chargaff, mechanistic explanations were only ever going to be disappointing, if not vulgar distractions. Rather like – to pick an example from thin air – expecting a movie and getting a static cartoon. Putative distinctions between narrative and mechanism have been sketched out by Thomas Bonnin in our most recent working paper ‘Narratives and/or Mechanisms in the Explanation of the Origin of Eukaryotes’. By the way, if you have an idea for a possible Working Paper, please do contact Prof. Mary Morgan directly. You can find her contact details here:

My own future tack is a little different, in as much as I think mechanism and narrative might be synonyms, two terms which we distribute unevenly according to the kinds of criteria that Bonnin and others have laid out. But these are immediately things that might be better discussed in the confines and conventions of a journal article. This post has all been by way of saying: Chargaff is an interesting figure for historians of biology in particular, and of science at large. Enjoy the show!

p.s. Sorry for my French and Latin – my pronunciation is clearly dire.

Narrative Science – making synbio histories

Hello you.

This post is 50% an opportunity to share some archival material that should be of interest to my synbio and history of bio readership, and 50% a reflection on the historicizing I have been getting up to. It comes off the back of a workshop I attended last week at Kent on ‘Synthetic biology and the public good‘, excellently organised by David Peace and Russell Moul, where I spoke to the title ‘When is synthetic biology? Which public’s good?’ I am in the process of putting together my first articles on the history of synbio and thanks to the Kent workshop, and a recent special issue of Studies A on ‘Narrative Science‘, I think I’m in a position to explain what it’s been like writing a history of emerging science. It’s been different!

First, the archival material.That button takes you to a PDF of a privately circulated report, written – as far as I can tell – by Prof. Hans Kornberg (then at the University of Leicester), on restriction enzymes and molecular biology, just as new potentials for genetic engineering began to become clear in the early 1970s. I cannot be certain of the author because it is unattributed, but as Kornberg was the person asked to prepare this kind of document ahead of the meeting it was written for, it seems a fair assumption. The meeting was the first of the newly established ‘Working Party on genetic engineering in microorganisms’ of the UK’s Associated Board of Research Councils, and the report was expressly written as a ‘child’s guide’ to molecular biology’s science and safety (the Committee Chairman, Sir Eric Ashby, used the child’s guide language when asking for it to be written). The WP had been established in response to the call for an international moratorium on particular forms of experimentation with DNA by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the US, which they had announced earlier that same year.

The big story of the recombinant DNA controversy has been told and retold many times, and new insights and perspectives are emerging all the time. Only a few weeks ago I got to see Luis Campos present his research on the Asilomar conference(s!), and he shared a tonne of exciting new archival material. Watch his space! One of the things he showed us I have since been able to find online. It’s a film, ‘”Hypothetical Risk: Cambridge City Council’s Hearings on Recombinant DNA Research”, recorded in the US in 1976. This was a public meeting called to discuss the appropriateness of recombinant DNA research taking place within Cambridge (Massachusetts), as a result of the City Council issuing its own moratorium, doing so on their own grounds, beyond any recommendation from the NAS.  It shows the interaction of science and society in terms that are both familiar and unfamiliar. There’s no point describing it when you can just watch it, and I’m exceedingly grateful to Campos for highlighting it in the first place.

Back in the UK the controversy played out in ways closely linked with the US. What I have been looking at are papers that have become available since those first histories were written, and which allow us to push the story further, and further forwards, to bring in synthetic biology. Below I have transcribed the WP ‘child’s guide’ because it is a fascinating snapshot into how DNA recombination was being discussed at the time by those guiding the UK research establishment, precisely within a context framed as controversial, and also because of what it can tell us about narrative in/for/of science. For my synbio readers, have a think about how recent developments such as CRISPR and ‘human genome write’ have played out in comparison with (in the legacy of?) these kinds of Working Party, and about how long we have anticipated the ‘great value in the industrial use of micro-organisms to make materials quite outside their normal repertoire.’

For my historian readers, I want to say one or two things on narrative in the document, and also what it has been like historicizing an emerging science. I am able to articulate both better thanks to the Studies A special issue mentioned above.

Narrative matters a lot for the WP report, and in ways that only become easy to appreciate once we take narrative as our focus. First it establishes that there are two narrative timelines, one playing out in public (and involving grand fears, alarm, emergency measures from the NAS, and so on), and a second playing out in private amongst those in the know, who have been talking about the potential dangers for quite some time. Second, the report places the UK experience in a different position from that underway in the US, by highlighting how Paul Berg’s concerns appear to be narrower than those which the UK Working Party intends to address. So the WP narrative is again emphasised as related to, but different from, the alternative timeline (Berg was author of the NAS moratorium statement). Third, the author recognises that the language at hand, particularly that of ‘genetic engineering’, is not ideal, especially for the purposes of a report such as this. Nevertheless a narrative has been commissioned and so as “there is no obvious simple alternative to describe the whole range of operations now available for the manipulation of the hereditary material of organisms and cells”, then ‘genetic engineering’ will have to do. Fourth and last, the report’s author uses surprise and twists as a way to position the reader with regard to key biological phenomena. In particular restriction enzymes have ‘quirks’, and more broadly “Most genetic engineering…in particular, that which is the subject of recent public concern – has depended on the exploitation of oddities”. So we are assured that the new biological technologies are weird in and of themselves, regardless of any scientific research.

In addition, narrative also helps explain my own work better.

One of the things that I have done by following synthetic biologists in a more ethnographic mode, is to pay attention to the ways in which history already matters for them,  be it in the ways they frame their research (for fellow scientists and for policy makers), where they see themselves in history, indeed even what kind of ‘biological time’ they see themselves operating with. All this history making by scientific actors is important in and of itself, but is also an entry point into a discussion of different kinds of narrative and who they work for. This was the theme of my talk at Kent, hence ‘When is synthetic biology? Which public’s good?’

As for my own history making, a nested Narrative Science discussion has been very helpful. Paul Roth draws attention to Allan Megill‘s analysis of Fernan Braudel‘s (told you it was nested!) The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1972 first English translation), and what it can teach us about narrative knowing and explanation. The way Megill unpacks the value of Braudel in the case of the Mediterranean captures a lot of how I have felt about synbio (obviously OBVIOUSLY Braudel is working on a far vaster, more complicated, and impressive scale than anything I have achieved. OBVIOUSLY).

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World is best seen, then, as a vast character analysis, in which Braudel broke down ‘the Mediterranean,’ which begins as an undifferentiated entity, into its constituent parts, with growing attention over the course of the book to the human processes that are carried out within this geohistorical space. … The Mediterranean tells us what ‘the Mediterranean’ was and, to some extent, what it still is. Braudel’s explanations are contributions to this end. The work is a vast recounting, into which explanations are stuck like pins into a pin cushion. It is likewise a vast narrative, though more an anatomizing narrative of character than a sequential narrative of action. ( Megill, 1989, p. 646, p. 646)

This has been how I have approached synbio, and it has often made me difficult for people (scientists, historians, social scientists) to understand, and has certainly made producing historical research slower and more difficult than anything I have attempted before. It is like picking up broken glass with your bare hands – you stand and stare, thinking for a long time about where to place your fingers.*

That’s all for now folks. Conference season beckons, and I’m a big fan of blogging as a way to think. You all just watched me do a bit of that. SORRY!

*No, I do not own a dustpan and brush.

Transcript: Briefing paper for ABRC [Advisory Board for the Research Councils] Working Party

  1. Background

In their recent public statement, a group of distinguished American molecular biologists, led by Paul Berg, drew attention to two classes of experiment which they felt presented particular hazards. Their first concern was with the experimental transfer of drug-resistance factors between bacteria; the second was with the linkage of animal viruses to other self-replicating systems, whether viruses or plasmids. They recommended that, to give time for a careful assessment of the problem, there should for the present, be a voluntary moratorium on such work. They further drew attention to the more general class of experiment, involving linkage of any animal DNA to plasmids or bacteriophages, and suggested caution in the planning and execution of such work.

There had been, for some time, a general awareness of the problem and, although the publication of the Berg statement precipitated rather dramatic action, discussions had already been going on, for example, within the MRC [Medical Research Council], about what level of hazard such work presented. Furthermore, as a consequence of the 1973 smallpox outbreak, a Government Working Party was set up, under the Chairmanship of Sir George Godber, the ex-Chief Medical Officer at DHSS [Department of Health and Social security], to consider the laboratory use of dangerous pathogens. That Working Party, partly as a result of representations made by the MRC’s representative on it, had already provisionally concluded that experiments similar to those envisaged by Berg should be carried out with precautions appropriate to the handling of pathogenic viruses. It seems likely that there will shortly be constituted a standing committee to draw up codes of practice appropriate to the handling of pathogens and no doubt the thinking of such a committee would be influenced by the outcome of this present ABRC Working Party’s deliberations.

It should perhaps be emphasised that concern, as expressed in earlier discussions we have held in this office, has ranged rather more widely that the areas defined by Berg and his colleagues; Berg’s concern was with the consequences of recently-developed techniques, based on biochemical procedures applied to DNA molecules, for the transfer of DNA into new situations and associations while at the same time maintaining its role as a genetic template. But the same end – and, a fortiori, comparable hazards – can be achieved, deliberately or accidentally, in other ways. It may well be that the ABRC Working Party’s area of concern should not be assumed too readily to be identical with Berg’s.


  1. Cell Biology

Although the term ‘genetic engineering’ has become a cliche debased by overuse, there is no obvious simple alternative to describe the whole range of operations now available for the manipulation of the hereditary material of organisms and cells. Early work in this area relied on the direct microsurgical approach – the transplantation of nuclei from one cell to another, or the localised destruction of chromosomes by ultraviolet radiation – and there is still distinguished work exploiting this area. As a case in point, Gurdon at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology has done a great deal to illuminate the interaction of nucleus and a cytoplasm, showing for example that a nucleus taken from a fully differentiated cell can, when transplanted to an enucleate egg, take over the characteristics and the role of an egg-cell nucleus. Perhaps brief consideration should be given by the Working Party to the implications of this work, partly because such direct techniques could well be used profitably in conjunction with more biochemical approaches.

Most genetic engineering, however – and in particular, that which is the subject of recent public concern – has depended on the exploitation of oddities. Thus a parainfluenza virus, the so-called Sendai virus, was observed to cause cells to sue to form giant cells and this quirk of behaviour has been very fully exploited, notably by Henry Harris at Oxford, to carry out, relatively quickly and simply, genetic analysis – for example the assigning of genes to particular chromosomes – which is inconveniently tedious if done by classical techniques of linkage analysis. Thus, if a mouse cell lacking some particular genetic competence, so that it will not survive in some medium adequate for normal cells, is fused with a human cell having the competence in question, the heterokaryon, as the product of fusion is called, will survive the challenge of exposure to the medium. As the cell undergoes mitosis there is a pull between the two rhythms of mouse and human nuclei and partitioning of the two sets of chromosomes will tend to be incomplete; most commonly, in mouse-human heterokaryons, progressive loss of human chromosomes occurs. By challenging the daughter cells, noting the correlation between loss of the capacity to survive in the challenging medium and loss of a particular human chromosome, the laboratory worker can assign the particular gene to a chromosome.

Although most work has been done so far on animal cells, Cocking at Nottingham has succeeded in digesting away plant cell walls, to leave naked protoplasts, thus allowing fusion of plant cells. Given the recently developed techniques of meristem culture, which apply the methods of tissue culture to the early stages of plant development, and which permit the growth of viable plants from meristematic cells, the way is now open to a sort of asexual genetic hybridization with all the advantages of being able to make crosses that would be impossible by normal fertilization methods and, by suitable challenges to the heterokaryons, of making selection for particular genetic characteristics.

As applied to animal systems the technique might appear to be limited by the problems of histoincompatibility. Thus, if a heterokaryon were introduced into the animal which had provided one of the cells used for fusion, the expression of the other cell’s characteristics might be expected to lead to rejection of the heterokaryon. But, again, an oddity has been identified that allows even this obstacle to be surmounted: the precursor cells of red blood cells, when used for fusion, do not contribute membrane antigens to the heterokaryon and are thus not recognised as foreign. This example perhaps illustrates the way in which research in this field, being so intensive, throws up ways to overcome apparently intractable difficulties; it would be dangerous to regard any manipulation as impossible.

Work on cell fusion, as with Gurdon’s on nuclear transplantation, is again not what is in Berg’s mind, but nevertheless achieves the same end result of bringing DNA, functionally competent, into new associations.


  1. Molecular Biology

To turn now to the more biochemical approaches: if one single event can be identified as precipitating the present concern it is the discovery of Berg at Stanford of the so-called ‘restriction enzymes’. These, in their natural role, are defensive enzymes which break down foreign DNA to stop its incorporation into the host. Each restriction enzyme breaks the DNA molecule only at points adjacent to certain sequences of bases; the parent organism does not have the particular sequences and is thus spared from attack by its own restriction enzymes.

It may be said parenthetically at this stage that the evolution of such a system is perhaps something which could have been encompassed effectively only by a micro organism, with enormous populations and rapid multiplication. Used as we are to the massive timescale of evolution in higher organisms, it is hard to appreciate how rapidly random change in micro organisms can produce adaptations significant for survival. This rapid adaptability is one of the crucial elements in the present problems.

To revert to restriction enzymes; one quirk of some of these enzymes is that they do not cut the two threads of the ‘double helix’ at the same point but instead make nicks some way apart. The consequences of enzyme action is thus to leave a single-threaded ‘sticky’ end to each DNA fragment which will readily recombine with the matching ‘sticky’ end of another fragment. A given enzyme acts only where there is a particular sequence of bases; so no matter what the source of the DNA, the sticky ends produced by cleavage with a given enzyme will all be of one or other matching base sequences and will therefore be able to recombine to form hybrid molecules of DNA. This oddity immediately provides a technique by which DNA’s from different sources can be ‘spliced’ together to form new molecules that ben be replicated to form identical copies, or translated to form the equivalent RNA’s and so used to code for the homologous protein molecules.

The full exploitation of the potentials of this ‘splicing’ techniques depends on the availability of other methods for selecting and handling the various DNAs before and after splicing; again useful natural systems have been identified.

One example is the use of ‘reverse transcriptases’. The existence of such enzymes, which allow the synthesis from an RNA molecule of the complementary DNA, was predicted on the basis that RNA tumour viruses can cause changes in the genome of the host cell. What reverse transcriptase allows in the laboratory is the use of RNA as a template for the synthesis of what are in effect genes. Thus, if erythroblasts, red blood cell precursors, are taken, their RNA will be predominantly that which leads to globin synthesis. RNA isolated from these cells can then be used for the synthesis, with the aid of reverse transcriptase, of a globin gene. Similar stratagems could be applied to any situation where the protein synthesis of a cell is stereotyped and biassed towards a single protein and thus would allow the production of DNA predominantly coding for a specific protein.

Three further techniques rely on natural mechanisms for introducing DNA into cells; first, some viruses can enter cells and there become incorporated into the cell’s genome (as can, in suitable circumstances, ordinary, non-viral DNA); second, bacteria may carry, in addition to their single chromosome, extrachromosomal genetic particles (plasmids) and by a process of sexual conjugation can transfer plasmids to other bacteria; thirdly, bacteriophages can, rather similarly, inject DNA into bacteria. Although many ‘phages are virulent and destroy the host bacterium, others simply replicate and form hereditary particles in the cell. By various combinations of these techniques the potential applications are generated.

Perhaps the simplest example would be to splice together DNA from two viruses; the consequence would be unpredictable but, given the large number of combinations of DNA possible, there must be a chance of producing recombinant hybrids showing particularly advantageous or hazardous characteristics. Host specificity in viruses appears to depend on the viruses’ protein coats, and if these were to be removed or changed the infectivity of the recombinant virus might be enhanced. We may therefore envisage a recombinant virus having, say, the infectivity of influenza or chickenpox and, at the same time producing diseases or disorders to which man is not normally susceptible. This sort of experiment is, of course, one which might be carried out by chance if the investigator accidently contributed viruses to which he himself was host.

It should perhaps be emphasised that experiments involving the incorporation, in a functional state, of DNA from Xenopus and from Drosophila into bacteria have already been successfully carried out; the essential feasibility of such procedures has therefore been validated beyond doubt.

There is a great deal of relevant detailed technology associated with this sort of operation; for example, some ‘phages have been isolated – the so-called defective ‘phages – which will be more infective, and replicate freely inside the host cell, if they have extra DNA spliced into them; normally this extra DNA is taken up from the host bacterium’s chromosome but could be spliced in by the restriction enzyme technique. Thus there is a built-in selection in favour of those ‘phages into which foreign DNA has been successfully spliced.


  1. Potential applications:

One [aborate?] possibility would be to attach DNA, from whatever source, to a bacteriophage and to use the ‘phage to infect bacteria. The bacteria could then be used to make large quantities of DNA or, by extension, the protein for which the DNA codes. It is at this point that the commercial implications loom large because there must be a theoretical possibility of making proteins, for example, insulin, which are at present made by unsatisfactorily ‘messy’ extractions from animal tissues.

An extreme example of what might, conjecturally, be possible using a range of the techniques so far mentioned would be directed towards the cure of human anaemias characterised by defective globin production. From erythroblast RNA from a normal subject’s cells, globin DNA could be made by the use of reverse transcriptase. By means of restriction enzymes this DNA could be spliced into a defective ‘phage and the ‘phage used to convey the DNA into a bacterium for synthesis of larger quantities. The DNA might then be incorporated into the cells of an anaemic subject or could be attached to some virus that would assist incorporation, and thus carry the globin gene into deficient cells. Although the scheme may seem rather far-fetched, this particular programme of experiments is actually being planned.

The hazards of experiments such as this last are perhaps limited to the anaemic subjects exposed to the globin DNA rather than being widespread (and there is at least a reasonable possibility of validating the method by animal experiments before applying it to a human subject). An obvious danger would be that genes other than the globin gene might be introduced into the host’s cells. Or the ‘new’ globin gene might fail to respond to the control mechanisms and lead to uncontrolled synthesis of globin in all, or many, of the cells of the body.


  1. Plasmids

When we turn to bacterial plasmids, the situation is basically a simple one. Plasmids represent extrachromosomal elements which may interchange between bacteria and which represent a pool of genetic versatility, ever changing and interacting with the environmental factors. They represent an important adaptive resource in allowing populations of bacteria rapidly to come to terms with new situations. There is no reason why plasmid DNA should not be subject to splicing procedures with restriction enzymes and used, in the same way as ‘phage, to introduce new DNA into bacteria.

Unintentional genetic engineering has already greatly influenced bacterial capabilities; the indiscriminate use of antibiotics, in medical practice and in animal husbandry, has led to the widespread occurrence of drug-resistance plasmids. It is therefore perhaps surprising at first sight that experiments in this area should head the embargo list proposed by the US Academy’ of Sciences; certainly it would be strange if work intended to tackle the problems of drug-resistance were to suffer. Indeed, given the extreme versatility of bacteria, it might perhaps be thought that the hazards of experimental intervention are small, but nevertheless a realistic possibility might be the experimental transfer of resistance factors to an unrelated species of bacteria not normally possessing them. An injudicious experiment of this sort might seriously weaken the clinician’s armentarium of drugs.


  1. Perspectives:

It might be thought immediately attractive to compare the possible hazards of these procedures with those of work with radioactive materials. But there are two fundamental differences. First, radioactivity is inherently self-limiting whereas the biohazards in question are, potentially at any rate, self-propagating. Second, there is a possibility in the biological system of mutation, either spontaneous or caused by deliberate exposure to chemical or other mutagens, which could convert something innocent into a hazard. The problems may be especially serious where a laboratory has large numbers of cultured cells, especially if or human origin, which could act as a reservoir for replication and mutation of DNA.

The potential benefits of such techniques, quite apart from their enormous value as research tools, would be to alter and select genetic characteristics in animals and plants far more readily and purposively than by conventional techniques of breeding. In addition to the agricultural implications of such possibilities there may also be great value in the industrial use of micro-organisms to make materials quite outside their normal repertoire.

The hazards, quite apart from those immediately suffered by the experimenter or by experimental subjects – who must be assumed to be aware of the risk – are the creation and dissemination of new pathogens, whether of man, animals or plants. It should be borne in mind that the cost of the 1973 outbreak of smallpox, quite apart from the loss of life, was reckoned by the Committee of Inquiry to run into millions of pounds. Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease have been similarly costly. It might be argued that a single unfortunate experiment in genetic engineering could have consequences of the same, or greater, order of magnitude.


Should I do my PhD as a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership?

The primary audience for this post are people currently deciding whether or not to pursue a PhD (in the humanities/closely aligned social sciences), and who are considering the option of applying for one of a number of recently advertised Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships. So hello to them(!), and please do feel free to get in touch.

There are other kinds of people though who are also directly interested in the subject of the CDP, perhaps because they are awarding them, or because they are researching different approaches to graduate funding, or just have a general interest in higher education. For these people I will flag some points here and there, but my primary audience remains people deciding whether or not to apply for a CDP.

First things first, this post will not help you decide whether or not to do a PhD. You can probably google that and get a bunch of different posts explaining all the things you need to consider, and I would urge anyone considering to pursue a PhD to really think about why and how it fits in with a number of different life plans.

Second thing, I have to declare two interests. My own PhD was funded as a CDP (then called a Collaborative Doctoral Award). More importantly, I am part of a supervisory team that has recently advertised a CDP between the University of Edinburgh and National Museums Scotland. If then you are looking for a completely unbiased assessment of the CDP, I am not the person for you (indeed the initial idea for this post was to introduce the project we are advertising more broadly, but then I saw this message from Rebekah Higgitt, which made me want to write something more general). If however you are wanting to look inside how things can/have played out with CDPs from someone with a little experience of them, then do read on.

Third thing: I am not advocating for the CDP as a method for funding postdoctoral research. I think the aims and effectiveness of the CDP are important questions, just as they are for any funding method, and should be subject to considerable scrutiny, just as any funding method should be. There are for instance good questions about rates of drop-out in CDP candidates as opposed to other kinds of PhD funding, or rates of funded projects not getting enough applicants, and of course how and who gets to decide which projects get funded. I will not be addressing any of these things here (because I have done precisely zero research on them), but they should be born in mind. If you know of statistics or work on these questions do include them in the comments.

What I will do now is guess at the kinds of questions a person looking at CDPs might have in their head, and provide responses. It would be better to have actual questions from such folks, so please do include them in the below. (If you are interested in pursuing a project at Edinburgh and have something more administrative in mind please do contact the STIS Postgraduate Admissions Adviser on ).

1. Why would I want to do a project where all the content and questions have already been decided for me?

They have not been. What the final project looks like can change in very considerable respects from how it is outlined in the CDP project description. This is true of any PhD project, not just the CDP. What you end up producing can and will be very different from how you start. (This is a general rule for all research projects, PhD or otherwise!). Of course it is the case that these particular project starting points happen to be strong starting points: a group of people who care about these research fields have put considerable time and energy into building a significant, valuable, and manageable research programme. CDP projects are not easy to get funded. So at the outset you are of course committing yourself to pursuing the intellectual and collaborative agenda laid out in the project description. BUT your own input will no doubt make you want to question things like: the best cases to use; the most exciting analysis to explore; the extent to which it ought to be more cross disciplinary; or indeed something more fundamental. You might, for instance, come to question the fundamental assumptions that the project leaders made at the outset, with ramifications and implications that are far from cosmetic. Different supervisory teams will manage the students relationship with the project outline differently, just as different supervisors manage their PhD students differently, regardless of how those students are funded. Some will try and keep you to a more rigid structure of their own design, others will give you more freedom than is healthy. In this context, the existence of a project outline becomes something of a focal point for discussion and debate.

While I have just emphasised that a lot will be up for discussion and debate, it is highly likely that some aspects will not be. You will not be able to transmute a project on the history of religion and alchemy in the C17th into a project on the manufacturing of gold in the C21st. You will need to be committed to key parts of the agenda of the project, and indeed, that agenda will always have to be acceptable to your advisory team. Moreover, the C in the CDP, the collaboration, is one of the single most important things to consider. If you cannot picture yourself working closely with the collaborative partner in a range of ways, many of which will already be prescribed in the project outline, then absolutely do not apply. The collaboration is a defining feature, and often riskiest part of the CDP (offering also the chance of high rewards). If you do not think you will find a way to make a success of the collaboration (which, again, there will be many ways to achieve, leaving you room to explore and experiment) then you are best pursuing other forms of funding.

2. These projects are fine, but isn’t it better to win funding that will allow me to pursue the independent idea I already have?

It is of course always worth keeping your options open, and those of you who have the time to put together independent funding applications to support your bespoke PhD project, go for it! However, every single person who has ever pursued a PhD has had to sell that idea to a department, and in the process, it is highly likely that they have had to alter that project considerably in order for it to be accepted. The image of the independent brilliant researcher pursuing THE ONE THING that they care about and being BRILLIANT because they saw it through to the end, that person is a myth designed to make everyone feel inferior.

So you’re always going to have to negotiate a little with other people about what your PhD research will look like. Moreover, you might be the kind of person who can look at the CDP project as a challenge, something for you to take on and make your own, rather than needing a pre-existing idea of your own. I will be honest, when I applied to do my CDP, I did not give a flying F. about agriculture. What I did care about was heredity, botany, and science and society. There were enough of those elements in the CDP project that I was applying to that I was confident I could make it a success. Over the years of the PhD I came to appreciate the broader agenda of my research project, I came to see agriculture in completely different ways, and ultimately ended up being a big advocate for the pursuit of research into the history of agricultural science (in part because I used to be the kind of dunderhead who would dismiss agriculture as boring). So, even if the whole CDP project is not ideal for you, perhaps there are large chunks of it that do speak to your interests. I would not be in the least bit surprised if those interests came to play a large role in your completed PhD. Again though, as with any PhD, this would be part of an ongoing process of negotiation and deliberation between yourself and your supervisory team.

3. What do I get out of doing a CDP rather than some other kind of PhD?

The added value of the CDP comes from working between the University and the Collaborative Partner. That collaboration will be connected to most of what you do, sometimes very directly, other times a little more loosely. You will have opportunities to learn and do things that, while other kinds of PhD student are not disbarred from doing them (working with museums etc.) they will not do them in such a systematic way. Having a collaborative partner means having access to an institution that will take an interest in you, give you opportunities, completely different insights, new skills, methodological and intellectual concerns, and alternative perspectives from those you’ll get in your home department.

Another way to put the same points – from the perspective of someone who completed a CDP – is to explain what collaborative partners will get out of you. I have met a number of people who completed CDPs and we all often say the same thing: we were really really productive on behalf of our collaborative partner! In anecdotal evidence, I did hear one case where this strayed into exploitation, but thankfully that kind of thing is pretty rare (always be ready to speak to your supervisors if you feel uncomfortable with the amount or kinds of work that are being expected from you. For instance, you are not free PR for the University or for the Collaborative partner, though many motivations might lead you to do and say things that reflect well on them.) Provided these relationships and expectations are kept healthy, then pursuing a CDP really does give you the opportunity to develop tangible skills outside of the typical PhD formula which will stand you in good stead in any future path that you take, whether you intend to become an author, start a business, work in museums, become a teacher, go travelling, pursue research, or whatever.

4. My lecturer says that people who do CDPs aren’t as clever as people who do other kinds of PhD, because all that messing around with museums and collaborators takes time away from BIG THOUGHT. Surely a PhD should just be about being clever?

First, tell your lecturer to go fudge themselves (and then read a little about the ways in which “true” intelligence has been determined in different historical contexts). Second, and I will now check my privilege (because I am a straight, white, middle class man who works at a university) but I honestly think (or perhaps just strongly hope) that the pursuit of a CDP will not rebound against you going forward. I would like to say that it definitely won’t, but there will always be people who want to make a strong distinction between what they see as being “worthwhile scholarly activities” and ‘outreach’, ‘public engagement’, ‘impact’, or whatever word gets applied to the activities you become invested in through your CDP. Moreover, your collaborations will involve many things that are not the least bit ‘public engagementy’. (For instance I built an archive. I am still waiting to be asked to appear on the Culture Show).

The reason I feel confident in telling you this, is that I have only heard one person say something to the effect of question 4, and that person was an idiot who didn’t really understand how varied any kind of PhD work can be, and how important ‘outreach’ etc. are for the contemporary researcher. Yes, there are facile activities one can engage in, and I would recommend avoiding those. But if you have a clear sense of the intellectual agenda you are pursuing, you can pursue it in multiple ways, not just by reading and writing. I’d say there is zero correlation between doing a CDP and having lower academic or intellectual aptitude (but then I would say that….)


So there you have it folks. Sorry if those questions weren’t your questions. Please do include them below and I will do what I can to address them.

Those of you looking at the advertised CDPs, do make sure to get in touch with the people offering them. They will be excited to hear from you, so don’t be shy, and do give serious thought to whether that project can work for you.

Another thing to say is that these views are entirely my own and do not reflect the views of the University of Edinburgh or collaborative partners such as National Museums Scotland. I wrote this on my own personal blog for a reason! Plenty of people will disagree with the things I have said or take issue with my suggestions. They can write whatever they like in the comments below.

Seeking panel contributors for BSHS: Engineers – practice, profession, and epistemology

Hello you.

Right, I am hoping the internet will be able to help me put together a panel on this theme for the next BSHS meeting (York, 6-9 July 2017). I had already been emailing a few people before and after the break, but alas, they either can’t make the meeting or are overcommitted. SO! If you, or someone you know, might be interested in contributing a paper to such a session please get in touch with me (Doesn’t matter if you’re early career or whatever.) You need to get in touch with me before 15th of Jan, in time for the final deadline of the 19th.

What follows is a draft abstract, just to give you all the gist. I’d be happy to revise it in collaboration with whomsoever fancies joining!

Engineers – practice, profession, and epistemology
If historians and philosophers of science have already revised the roles of instrumentation in experimentation and theory production, thoroughly historicized ideas of pure and applied science, and made the case for working across histories of science, technology, and medicine, then engineers – a largely untapped resource – ought to have been subject to a flourishing of research. The latter has yet to emerge. If this is simply because engineers have, by and large, operated in spheres distant from our scientific actors then how that distance is produced makes them all the more worthy of attention. If instead this is because engineers have been thought the preserve of historians of technology, then some very old prejudices are alive and well. Engineers are prime candidates for reimagining and rediscovering what we think we already know about the history of science and technology, and what that history means today.
Though our own papers only cover a narrow range of themes and periods, we can suggest what new histories will be produced by a wider reorientation around engineers. Civil and agricultural engineers have mattered hugely for changes to landscape, nation and empire. Hydraulic engineering has contributed to the same with further significances for industry and health. Mechanical engineers have likewise been instrumental for changing or maintaining production methods, the military, and so on. The range of professionalised engineers (to be defined how? dated from when?) has multiplied over time to include the electrical, chemical, medical, software, and perhaps also biological, all of whom may be ‘professionalised’ to a greater or lesser degree. This is to say nothing of how engineering epistemology is or is not significantly distinct from ways of knowing or notions of objectivity already attended to by historians of science and technology elsewhere.
Engineering can therefore help us to escape disciplinary storytelling in the sciences, provide new grounds for a synthesis of existing case studies over the longue durée, while changing the focus of our research to areas of intersection, be those social, political, geographical, economic or moral. Indeed, the value that engineering can bring to HPS is thanks in large part to the intersections occupied by engineers. On the terms of practice, profession and epistemology, engineering currently receives strikingly more attention in science and technology studies (which has been providing dedicated teaching to engineering students – as distinct from science students – for decades), and is gathering some momentum in philosophy. To put the panel a different way: why should philosophers and social scientists have all the fun?

Engineering, technology, plants, and the environment: An update on my beings

It is a pleasure to write once more. “Hello to both of my readers!”

It’s been a while since I posted anything here. Blogging has instead become part of what I do for the projects that I work on, so you have been reading me whether or not you know it, and perhaps against your better judgment. I am writing this post now because 1) I have a short video of a presentation on technology and the environment to share, 2) there is an exciting workshop this week on agricultural science which it is worth you knowing about, and 3) I spy some interesting things emerging from my vantage point, and I’d like to know if you see them too, or if you think I’m talking pap.

1) ‘Plants are technologies’

At the end of April, Jon Agar and Jacob Ward (couldn’t find a link, sorry!) organised the Technology, Environment and Modern Britain conference. It was put together in quite a unique way, with all the speakers sharing papers beforehand, and then having 10 minutes to speak, with the aim being that we get ample time to discuss as many perspectives as possible. Knowing that we had the circulated paper AND then the opportunity to talk was liberating, and allowed me to do a two-pronged attack. In the pre-circulated paper I explained the motivations and historiography behind my pursuing a history of plants as technologies, building on Barbara Hahn‘s argument in Making Tobacco Bright.  When it came to the day though, I made my case in a different way, by using as much of everyone else’s pre-circulated material as I could to show what such a history would look like. If you’re interested in better integrating histories of the environment and technology, then please do have a watch of the video, and (as I intend to draft research proposals around all this), any feedback will be greatly appreciated!

2) Agricultural science workshop

Beginning tomorrow and continuing to Friday, Miguel Garcia-Sancho and Dmitriy Myelnikov up here in Edinburgh have organised a workshop on the history of agricultural science in the UK, all part of Miguel’s Historicising Dolly project. You can find out more about ‘Polices and practices in the history of farm animal research, 1900-present‘ from the eventbrite page. It’s got an incredible lineup, and while the overall event is dedicated to animal research in particular, Paul Brassley and I will be presenting research on plants, and I am hoping some of the UK plant crew (the likes of Berris Charnley, Sarah Wilmot, Helen Curry …and the even better ones I haven’t got at my finger tips)  might be in the audience for discussion. But I haven’t spoken to any of them to check. Because one of the first things they make you forget on joining the academy is how to be a human person.

3) Methods in philosophy of science

Making the move to studying the present/near present, as I am currently doing as part of Jane Calvert‘s Engineering Life project, you get to see more clearly how a range of different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences work with scientist or engineer collaborators. One area that is particularly interesting is the philosophy of science. As greater numbers have turned towards the investigation of scientific practice, some have ended up pursuing more ethnographic methods: laboratory observations and such like. Indeed, in a few weeks the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice, as part of their sixth biennial conference, have organised an entire day for postgraduate researchers to spend time talking and thinking about different kinds of method in the philosophy of science. The exciting thing that I see from my vantage is that there is plenty of room for integration between HPS and STS when it comes to such methods. This possibility ended up being a key part of the discussion at ‘Philosophy of biology meets social studies of biosciences,’ organised by Michela Massimi, which I am hoping will lead to future collaborations between Philosophy and STIS in Edinburgh.  As you can see from this post, I am trying to share what I see from my position, and I see lots of important things converging. BUT: what does the world think of this?