Situating Science in the First World War + bonus info on my new postdoc project

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks, so while this post is ostensibly about the excellent history of science in the First World War conference I have just attended in Kent, I am also going to take the opportunity to introduce the new postdoc project I am on. Synergy you lucky devils, synergy! (Synergy is a homophone-portmanteau that means “doing things simultaneously because you’ve no more energy“).


VISIT THE SITE! Have a look at the project, see if there is anyone you know who might be interested.

VISIT THE SITE! Have a look at the project, see if there is anyone you know who might be interested.

Cultivating Innovation’ is headed by Professors Greg Radick and Graeme Gooday here with me at the University of Leeds. The aim is to increase public appreciation and understanding of the role of intellectual property in science today, with a focus on plant breeding and agricultural industries. Over the course of the next 12 months I will be working with teachers to produce A-level materials (which will work within the existing to curriculum to – at the very least –  introduce students to the notion of intellectual property, a fundamentally important concept for all, regardless of intentions to go into industry, public service, business, or higher education etc.), and collaborating with contemporary practitioners (plant breeders, public policy makers, lawyers, economists, anyone who will talk to me really). We have already managed to collect some very interesting people thanks to the website, so please do share these details with people that you think might be interested. There will also be an associated conference next summer, to which I am keen to attract a wide variety of individuals, so like I say; fly my prettys, fly!!

Right, science and the Great War.

A big thank you to Don Leggett who organised the conference, and made sure historians of science could begin the FWW centenary years with a bang. I poked him in the pub and said “publication?” and he seemed to have a plan in mind, so you might all get to see some of the papers in print soon/before the end of 2018.

I am writing this post on the train back up to Leeds, so it is only going to be structured around some key thoughts. Ideally I would give some kind of breakdown of each paper and how they interlinked, but I have to say, for such a potentially ‘narrow’ subject, the papers were attempting a wide variety of challenges, bringing the First World War and the history of science together in some very different ways.

War speeding up things already in motion: Firstly, I was surprised by the regularity with which people evoked this sort of notion. At the recent BSHS conference in St Andrews (you can listen to the paper that I gave on Latour and the history of agricultural experiment here) I attended a panel organised by Michael Weatherburn. The panel took the form of an open discussion, and all in attendance agreed that this sort of general ‘the war was a catalyst/sped things up’ was very well worn. I avoided it in my own paper in Kent by relying on a different cliché, that of war as an ‘opportunity’. I chose this cliché, because at the very least it leaves the motivations and actions of my historical actors firmly in view. There is no teleology implied in an ‘opportunity’, which can, after all, enter the category of ‘missed’. Having said this, Michael’s paper in Kent actually gave a pretty good example of why the language of opportunity is problematic. Following the Great War, the advocates for ‘scientific management’ that he has studied in his recently submitted PhD thesis, used the language of the ‘war providing a missed opportunity’ – i.e. the war would have been won quicker and with less loss of life if only scientific management techniques had been adopted –  in their efforts to have them adopted (thereby securing their positions as valuable experts). Translating this lesson to my paper, perhaps by labelling the work that my agricultural scientists got up to during the war as an ‘opportunity’ I am also implying something normative, i.e. this was work they ought to have done. What if it shouldn’t have been? What if scientists were right to refuse to do certain things, or protect certain elements of their habits of work? (By ‘right’ I mean that there were cultural/social/economic/political value judgements going on, all the way up and all the way down, that ought to have been subject to some form of negotiation rather than overthrown in the name of king and country). This potential is all the more troubling, as I myself do not consider these ‘opportunities’ unproblematic. It is not particularly clear how happy agricultural scientists (or scientists more generally) were about taking on war work, even if it had a vaguely scientific air about it. These opportunities are often of the nature ‘I am going to stab you in the eye, unless you take the opportunity to give me all your sweets’. So in short, we still don’t have a general overarching narrative for science and the First World War beyond: bigger, faster, stronger. But then, perhaps we don’t need one? (Unless a broadcaster calls and asks us to have a chat on the telly).

Innovation: It was clear from all of the papers on technology, and there were a nice smattering of different forms of tech, from Liz Bruton’s oscellators, to Adrian Smith’s planes and Paul Cornish’s machine guns, that the First World War prompted a good deal of innovation – some unusual (the pigeons kept inside tanks to act as battlefield messengers in Brian Hall’s paper were a particular high point) while others eminently practical and patentable, such as the Fullerphone that featured in Graeme Gooday’s plenary lecture.  The majority of people – a category which in this case includes scientists – had no compunction about pursuing a strengthening of their own economic position regardless of the wartime context. Indeed, in my own paper, adopting the perspective of the ‘First World War’ has caused me to emphasise the extent to which organisations such as the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, were something of a reward for the wartime service of agricultural science (in the new postwar world of reconstruction, which came with a greater emphasis on the need for autarky – or at the very least a strong agricultural industry) and, perhaps more importantly, a reward for the particular agricultural scientists associated with them; namely George Stapledon and Rowland Biffen. I will be thinking more about this as I go on to turn my paper into a publication, so please do get in touch if you have any suggestions on agriculture/science/First World War. More importantly – what do we make of this connection between war, innovation, and the growth of certain industries? It was provactively suggested in one of the Q and A sessions that to point the arrow in the direction of war-science-industry is – on most readings – to commit oneself to something of a Marxist position. Perhaps no bad thing in and of itself, and surely (as ever) the easy way to sidestep any problematic historiographical consequences would be to remove the essentialist element of this equation; war needent ALWAYS provoke technoscientifc innovation, which needent ALWAYS result in growth for the industry that emerges/takes responsibility for the innovation. However, then we are left with a fairly hollow looking historical argument, something like ‘war is a pretty good reason for scientists/engineers etc. to get out of bed in the morning, on the whole this increases the amount of innovation, which in turn increases the chances of valuable innovation, though even then a whole host of other political/legal/economic conditions need to pertain in order for this potentially valuable innovation to be capitalised upon, leading to industrial growth’. Not very sexy really.

The intellectual legacy of the First World War: I didn’t get to ask the question that I was prompted to ask by the second session of the day, so instead I am going to post it here. This session included Roy MacLeod, June Barrow-Green and Robert Bud. Between them they respectively focussed on the First World War and professors, mathematicians, and the consequences of the war for what ‘science’ meant – the latter primarily with regard to the self-identification of scientists and within the public memory of this ‘scientific’ war. Some of you might think the question I wanted to ask – which I will share shortly – is methodologically problematic, or based on some fundamentally flawed assumptions – but I am of the view that HPS is sufficiently sophisticated to handle this question in ways that are exciting, productive and – most importantly – historiographically robust. I wanted to ask – “Was there an intellectual legacy of the First World War?” Big question, and I’m sure there’s plenty of work out there (not all of which I am likely to trust at face value) that addresses it directly. Listening to MacLeod, Barrow-Green and particularly Bud’s paper – which dealt with scientists who were themselves dealing with what science meant/should mean/could mean, and so on – made me wonder how much of some general idea of ‘civilization’ was actually constitutive of intellectual labour in the C2oth? We know from the work of Peter Bowler and others, that the idea of progress for instance was crucially important for science in the nineteenth century, but where do these historiographies lead into the twentieth? Were biology/chemistry/physics changed – either in the models most typically used by scientists, the language they used, their preferred experimental methods etc. – thanks to the war? I’d like to think the answer might be yes, but perhaps we’re still too close to the period – even 100 years on – to be able to attempt the project. Perhaps not.

 I’ve already broken my 1000 word maximum blog post rule so bye!

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