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Archive for September, 2021

1/2 idea No. 36: Cronon-style biotech

By Jon Agar, on 3 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

Like many, I am a great admirer of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, published in 1991. It is a history of the growth of the city, and the transformation of the regions around, as natural resources were brought to the centre and processed. It’s a story of grain, lumber, pigs and cows. It is a story of the past, but also the future. Literally, indeed, ‘futures’: how organic life became systematically processed, standardised, commodified, and, eventually, dematerialised, sold as  promises of future delivery. It draws the line between the technology of grain elevators and modern finance. It is extraordinary.

In terms of historical method, Nature’s Metropolis shows what an integrated environmental, urban and technological history can do if the historian follows material flows. The grain from the hinterlands that arrives in standardised sacks to be sold in central markets, or the livestock herded from afar to the central slaughterhouses, to be sent out again as commodified products, are the materials of interest.

In 2006-2007 I was lucky enough to spend a year in Boston. This research idea comes from time spent in that city, which then was very much in its biotech boom phase. I compiled a detailed list of Boston biotech companies, and I still have the 49-page Word document. Here are just some of the biotech ‘B’s of Boston: Biogen, Biomeasure Inc., Biopure Corp., Biotricity, Biotrofic Inc, BioVentures, Biovest, BioVex and Biovolutions Inc. I wonder how many still exist.

Reading Cronon in Boston gave me an idea. What would we find out if we followed the material flows into and out of the biotechnology centres? Does biotech transform nature in any even vaguely comparable way to the ways that Chicago’s lumberyards, stockyards and grain elevators transformed wood, meat and grain? What are the regional effects? How might it reach into the past and future?

Biotech is usually analysed from the perspective of innovation studies (does it return on investment?), or as the vehicle that carried commercial, entrepreneurial culture into the life sciences (does it undermine traditional academic values?). or around questions of the public response to GM foods. Taking inspiration from Cronon, but also from (the good) Latour’s analysis of the levering power of laboratories, as well as from recent scholarship that has focussed on the history of the laboratory animal, following the material in and out of biotech centres might provide a different path to studying the modern life sciences.

1/2 idea No. 35: Wellcome science policy review

By Jon Agar, on 3 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

The historical analysis of UK science policy is very patchy. Some organisations active in funding or shaping science are well studied (for example, we have quite a few papers on aspects of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research), but others, for various reasons, are more obscure, at least from the perspective of independent, primary-source-evidence-led investigation.

There are several causes of obscurity.

One is commercial secrecy. For much of the twentieth-century, most UK science was publicly-funded, even if much of the research was conducted by industry. Since the end of the Cold War, the predominant proportion of UK science has both been funded and conducted within the private sector. Yet science policy analysis still focusses mostly on government (mine included). According to most recent ONS figures (2019), £38.5 billion is expended on R&D in the UK, of which 2/3rds (£25.9b) is in the business sector.

According to the EU 2020 R&D Scoreboard, the list of UK companies that spent more than £300 million on R&D were:


GLAXOSMITHKLINE Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology 5068.0
ASTRAZENECA Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology 4795.3
HSBC Banks 1856.9
ROLLS-ROYCE Aerospace & Defence 1305.8
APTIV Automobiles & Parts 1037.0
BARCLAYS Banks 1001.0
ROYAL DUTCH SHELL Oil & Gas Producers 856.3
UNILEVER Food Producers 840.0
BT Fixed Line Telecommunications 629.6
ATLASSIAN CORPORATION Software & Computer Services 515.5
MICRO FOCUS INTERNATIONAL Software & Computer Services 452.4
NATWEST Banks 443.8
RELX GROUP Media 388.9
MELROSE INDUSTRIES Industrial Engineering 386.6
DELPHI TECHNOLOGIES Automobiles & Parts 363.2
BP Oil & Gas Producers 324.0
BAT Tobacco 320.0
DYSON JAMES Household Goods & Home Construction 309.5
EXPERIAN Support Services 304.4
RECKITT BENCKISER Household Goods & Home Construction 300.2

We can see the predominance of pharmaceuticals, and we all now know something about what Astrazeneca does. But what I find striking about this list is how little we know, in reliable detail, about much of this private science. The Atlassian Corporation’s R&D spend (£515.5m) is comparable to Cambridge University’s research income for 2018 (£524.9m), yet I think it is fair to say the latter is better known than the former.

The list of top R&D-spending companies in the UK changes over time, partly due to the changing fortunes of business, partly due to how and what is counted as research and development. A similar table from the R&D Scoreboard of 2007 has some of the same names (Astrazeneca, BT, Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell, HSBC, BP, etc) but also different ones (Smiths General, Vodafone, Shire, Reuters). Historians of recent UK science have not addressed these patterns of continuity and change of private science.

But there are also reasons other than commercial discretion that have discouraged detailed analysis of bodies important for UK science.

Which brings me to the Wellcome.

The Wellcome Trust is a private foundation that funds (broadly speaking) biomedical and health research. The overall funding from private foundations is, objectively, relatively small (private non-profit bodies funded just 4% of UK R&D in 2019), but it has considerable strategic significance. Partly this significance is due to the speed and nimbleness that private foundations can act in response to changing challenges, albeit as constrained within charitable aims. Private foundations, by leading, can make publicly-funded science policy follow. This leadership effect is one reason why the accountability of publicly-funded science is not complete without an analysis of privately-funded science.

Within the UK landscape of science funding, the Wellcome is the most significant. It spends more, it has a higher profile, and it is an essential partner and patron for many research institutes and university centres in (as well as beyond) the UK. While it has its origins in the foundation set up after the death of Henry Wellcome in 1936, its contemporary influence rests on decisions taken in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1986, the Wellcome company was floated on the stock market, the foundation sold its shared, and a large diversified charitable fund was created. When the Wellcome company subsequently merged with Glaxo in 1992, more shares were sold, raising a further £2.3 billion. The Wellcome Trust’s investment fund now stands at £29.1 billion, and the revenue funds considerable amounts of science.

But what science?

The key decision-makers in philanthropic foundations are trustees. Trustees, by charity law, are bounded by the charitable aims, but within these bounds there is considerable flexibility. Trustees – and their interests, commitments, values, experience, background, and worldviews – should therefore be the focus of analysis to understand the science and science policy consequences of philanthropic foundations. In history of science we have an excellent worked example of such an analysis: Lily Kay’s The Molecular Vision of Life (1992), a terrific study of the consequences of the interests of the trustees on the science funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in the mid-twentieth century.

The proposal, therefore, is for an analysis of the Wellcome Trust along the model of Kay’s analysis of the Rockefeller Foundation.

One might wonder why such studies do not already exist, given the importance of science to solving the world’s problems, and the strategic significance of the Wellcome? We can (largely) discount commercial secrecy, since the Wellcome is a non-profit body. Of course as a private body it is not obliged to be accountable in the same way as publicly-funded bodies are (to Parliament, to public audit, and, ultimately, to historians via scrutiny of public records). Nor is it accountable to share-holders, as some companies are. Private means private. But, as argued above, the leadership effect should prompt us to inquire about how decision are taken when they have broader, including public, influence. Even press scrutiny is rare, although Natasha Loder’s article in Nature from 2000 comes close.

I suspect the absence of analysis comes from two sources, one stemming from academic self-interest (why jeopardise future research applications?), and one that comes from a general feeling that the Wellcome is a force for good, which I have no reason to doubt is the case. Who, after all, would not cheer on the people who support ‘science to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone‘? Who doesn’t want to see mental health, infectious disease and climate change tackled?

But, there is too much at stake to assume the best of the best. I think science is too important for us not ask for as full-as-possible, open, independent, evidence-driven accounts of how the decisions that have shaped it have been taken. This argument applies to understanding how decisions are taken not only in government, but also in private bodies, including companies and foundations.

1/2 idea No. 34: Experimental History of Science (or Nature Writing) Conference

By Jon Agar, on 1 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

This is not a research idea, but it is an idea about how to try research out.

You might have noticed that several of my 1/2 research ideas are proposals to experiment in terms of method or form. (For example, here, here and here.)

What I would like to see happen is a forum to host trials of experimental historiography.

Who is up for an experimental history of science conference?

It would be a space to take a risk, try something out, and get a response. It would aim to find new historiographical paths and possibilities. Some might work in hoped for, or, even better, unexpected ways.  It might shake things up. It would most definitely applaud interesting flops. It would be fun.

I think I can organise the basics of time and space. In other words, I can find rooms and equipment for a day workshop.

Beyond that I think a few guidelines are necessary:

  1. Proposals are sought for ‘papers’, ‘events’, ‘interventions’, that have an explicit aim to experiment in how history of science is conducted or presented, ie experiments in method or form.
  2. Experiments in research question are moot, since they might be answered through conventional methods or presented in conventional forms, but more radical proposals might be considered.
  3. The method, form or question should depart from usual practice in interesting and bold ways.
  4. The choice of the method, form or question should be justifiable and reasoned. Mere anarchy is boring.
  5. The experimental aim should be articulable and clear.
  6. The apparatus should be realistically achievable, although a challenge is welcome.
  7. There should be a criterion for ‘success’, even if it is not met in practice.

That’s a start. Might need tweaking.

If such a conference or workshop sounds exciting then contact me. Happy to collaborate in putting it together.


(I’ve suggested history of science because that, along with history of technology, is my main research area. But the idea would also be good to try in the genre of nature writing, not least because it has its own entrapping conventions and well-trodden paths.)


1/2 idea No. 33: Radar science/flash/pulse science

By Jon Agar, on 1 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

This idea goes back to conversations about research collaboration Jeff Hughes and I had back in the 1990s. We were both interested in the mobilisation of scientists during the Second World War. Jeff’s research was on interwar nuclear science, and mine was on post-war radio astronomy. His scientists went into war labs and mine came out of them. We started drafting a paper on scientists at the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), home of UK wartime radar. We argued that the scientists at TRE learned particular ways of working, and, not least, promoting, projects, as well as gaining entrance to influential networks of contacts across military, academia and government. These networks in turn shaped post-war science. We gave some talks on it at the time, but the paper was never published.

I drew on some of insights in the ‘radar sciences’ section of my Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond book.

But this idea is narrower.

Working on radar exposed scientists from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds to the techniques of manipulating “pulses”, loosely defined, of electrical current. The significance of this expertise in the manipulation and storage of discrete electrical current can be seen in, for example, the success of the team under F.C. Williams and Tom Kilburn, both ex-TRE, in being able to build the electronic, stored-program computer at Manchester University, working as early as 1948, ahead of other groups. The pulse-storage CRT “Williams Tubes” were at its centre.

The research question would be: by following technique, what were the consequences of shared, wartime, practical experience in pulsed electronics in the post-war sciences?

Another case study, for example, might be George Porter, radar officer in the Navy during the war, who, post-war, used pulse techniques and flash photolysis in investigating fast reactions, work that subsequently won a Nobel prize. Was there a connection between the war and post-war work? The scales of space and time – picoseconds, nanoseconds – are also interesting to me (I explain my interest in scale elsewhere).

There are plenty of other candidate case studies for this proposal of a practice-centred history of important threads of twentieth-century science. The trick, I feel, would be to follow techniques across disciplinary boundaries as they are picked up and applied away from radar.

1/2 idea No. 32: Black Museum/Criminal shaping of technology

By Jon Agar, on 1 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

The sociological investigation of technology through the examination of how different social groups interpret, build, or challenge devices, machines and systems is very familiar now. Pinch and Bijker’s ‘Social construction of technology’ is over thirty years old. But there is still work to be done.

The idea here is very simple. Does it make any sense to consider criminals as a ‘relevant social group’ in SCOT terms? If so are there distinctive ways that can be discerned of the criminal shaping of technology?

‘Criminal’ is, of course, an almost ridiculously heterogeneous grouping. It is quite possible that the sheer diversity within criminality means this project is foolish. But there are shared features, and these features might point to shared interests and therefore shared characteristics of shaping technology.

What are these features? First, criminals must, at some level, be deceitful. What is done must be hidden to some degree from legal authority. Second. criminal processes must be both dependent – even parasitic – on legal bodies, systems, organisations, but also, at crucial points, disconnected. This pattern of connection/disconnection makes manufacturing, consumption and maintenance of technology possibly distinctive. Third, criminals have to work at speed – the longer a criminal act is ongoing the more likely the chances of detection. Working outside the system and at speed encourages bricolage – perhaps a distinctive, emergent feature of criminal technology. Fourth, some, but of course not all, criminals are willing to resort to violence, which the technologies of violence enable. You can, I am sure, extend this list.

As a sideshoot of my Government Machine project, I traced the history of ID card systems, a deeply fascinating combination of infrastructures of identity, bureaucratic information technologies, and interface between citizen and state.  What was clear, too, was that, in the UK when these systems were introduced in 1916 and 1939, they enabled new crimes, often but not exclusively of fraud. The criminal shaping of the technology, such as the forgery of a card, was deceitful, dependent on the official system (in order to work), but disconnected too (the fake ID didn’t appear on the central system), and were used speedily and briefly (or the fraudster was caught). No direct violence in these cases.

So one case suggests some of the features of the criminal shaping of technology. But what features would become prominent of more case studies accumulated?

It struck me some time ago that museum collections might help as sources of such case studies. In particular, the Metropolitan Police (ie “Scotland Yard”) has maintained a so-called “Black Museum” of the artefactual residues of crime since the 1870s. For most of its history it has been strictly off-limits to the public, although in the early 21st century it was renamed the Crime Museum and opened a fraction of its collection to visits. Currently it is closed for Covid reasons, I think. If it ever becomes open again, then one possible project might therefore be a sociological study of criminal-made artefacts as shaped technologies.