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?


Looking for potential PhD students (history and philosophy of biology)

Hello all, please don’t bother sticking this on any email lists, this is an informal search for potential candidates. Details below.

Professor Gregory Radick at the University of Leeds is looking for a completed, or soon to complete MA/MSc student in HPS/STS who would be interested in pursuing PhD research in the history and philosophy of biology, with a particular emphasis on the plant sciences. The student would work with Prof Radick to make an application for AHRC funding which would cover their fees and provide a maintenance grant (EU students would be eligible only for the funding of their fees, and would not be eligible for the maintenance grant). If you are interested, or know someone potentially suitable, please contact either Prof Radick or Dr Dominic Berry Please do so at the earliest possible time, as the funding window will soon close.

#shirtstorm trepanning

This isn’t a post. It is trepanning. Other people have written very eloquently on #shirtstorm, in a fully informed way, so I hold my hands up: this teeny tiny post only exists because I’ve been sat looking at bits of the internet I can normally ignore, and the disappointment and frustration has given me a headache (pooooor meeeeee!). The only use for this post is to convince my brain I’ve said something, so that I can get on with my evening. It is purely selfish. Apologies if it’s the kind of activity that is actually worse than saying nothing, as I say, this is about improving my own mental state, it is fundamentally selfish.

If you think that shirt was harmless, you either have absolutely no imagination, or are sexist. If the former, I’m sorry that you are going to miss everything that is interesting, if the latter, crikey, really!? Sheesh. OK.

This wasn’t useful. The only useful thing I can do will be in a couple of months, when I get to work with schools as part of my research project, and can dedicate some time to emphasising that science doesn’t belong to men. I’d like to think I would have done this anyway, but perhaps not? Perhaps only spending a little time being reminded what people out there think would have prompted me, as it has now. There’s obviously much more that I could do that is useful, but job, grants, lazy, beer….

I encourage other headache ridden useless individuals to make themselves feel better in the comments below. People who think the shirt was harmless, I won’t be responding to you, if you want me to teach you things you’ll have to be enrolled on a degree course.

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!

Listen to my #BSHS14 paper – ‘The History of Agricultural Experiment: A Latourian Synthesis of Genetics’

Hello you.
I have uploaded a video (including slides) of the paper I delivered at the 2014 British Society for the History of Science annual conference, hosted by the University of St Andrews. My very sincere thanks to all the organisers. I would also like to thank Giuditta Parolini, who organised the two panel session on the ‘history of agricultural experiment’ in which I presented my work, and Jonathan Harwood, who gave a thorough and generous response to all the papers presented there. With a bit of luck, some version of this paper might well get submitted to a journal. Exciting! (For me). Lastly, my thanks to Chris Kenny, who gave me his time (when I didn’t know where to begin researching the history of experiment) and then set me to work on Latour. If any of you ever get to ask Dr. Kenny for advice, take both!

It is remarkable to me that someone hasn’t made this argument before, which makes me suspicious. If you know of such an example, or allusion, please do pass it on. I would also welcome any criticisms and comments, which will help as I continue to write. Thanks!

Download my thesis – ‘Genetics, Statistics, and Regulation at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, 1919-1969’

Hello all, this is a short post to announce that I am making my thesis available online. It can be downloaded (entire or by chapter) via the links below.

There are two main groups of people I am hoping will read it. Firstly, current employees of NIAB (who I kept in mind throughout the writing process) and secondly,  historians of plant breeding/agriculture, (who were the main historiographical audiences). As you can see though, I address a number of different subjects, including the First and Second World Wars, randomized control trials, and genetics.

To my first audience – I hope you enjoy it! I have kept NIAB in focus throughout, and while you might not agree with everything you find, or might want to question some of my interpretations, my main hope is that you can get a sense of the history behind the Institute. If you already have a sense of that history, all the more reason for you to read this! Please do send any criticisms, or questions, or comments to me, or indeed write them in reply to this blog post.

To my second audience – I hope you enjoy it! I understand the vast distance between thesis writing and publishable writing, and with luck, I hope most of this will be coming to you in a much more polished format some time soon (i.e. over the next ten to fifteen years). Working on NIAB was a great challenge, and the archival materials really are worthy of greater study than I could achieve all by my lonesome.

If you want to know why each chapter is titled ‘Seed Multiplier’ or something similar, you will need to read the Introduction. Similarly, if you hate having to read over the watermarks, email me! Depending on how well I know you, you just might get a prettier version. No idea if the watermark does anything other than help me sleep at night, but it’s there.

WHOLE THESIS: ‘Genetics, Statistics, and Regulation at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, 1919-1969’


1. Seed Multiplier: The Wartime Founding of NIAB and the OSTS, 1914-1921

2. Field Trialler: Trialling Methods and the Resistible Rise of Randomization, 1921-1931

3. Plant Identifier: The ‘Cereal Synonym Committee’ and the Commercial Life of Genetics, 1930-1937

4. National Institute: Agricultural science in the Second World War, 1939-1955

5. Independent: Reinventing NIAB in the productivist era, 1955-1970



Appendix 1: NIAB Archive Handlist (hosted on NIAB archive website)

Appendix 2: Trial centres that cooperated with NIAB’s county oat trials