Most would agree that the history of science and science policy are somehow linked: the various incarnations of history of science as a field of study aim to uncover “how science works”, be it through a “traditional” focus on a more or less linear intellectual progression, through the lens of its relationship with a broader social and political sphere, or by looking at its deeper social interactions between scientists. In this sense, I’m convinced that almost any historian of science—especially those operating in the context of having to “justify” the impact of their work—would recognize, on some level, important connections between the knowledge they produce and science policy. One could even argue that the raison d’être of modern science policy lies in the realization that science itself does not operate as an isolated endeavour—it’s too important to be run only by practicing scientists. But can we say something more specific about what ties the history of science and science policy in the making? I hope to put forth a few partial suggestions to help answer this question or, at the very least, provide some food for thought.
My first point is that we should not only be looking at the theories, but also the practices or crafts of historians and so-called “policy-wonks”. I would contend that there has been very little thought given to how, in practice, skills and knowledge acquired from the history of science are directly transferred to science policy. While there is no lack of discussion about the importance of getting scientists involved in policy or getting historians of science involved in science education, much less has been said about historians doing science policy. I’ll be the first to admit that, as someone working in both fields, there is some degree of self-interest in making some of these linkages more explicit. However, my point is not so much that the history of science and science policy are more “similar” than previously thought, but that, in practice, the linkages are more subtle and not necessarily where one might expect them.
In 2007, Zuoyue Wang and Naomi Oreskes wrote about the need to have historians of science more involved in public policy debates 1. They highlighted the fact that Oreskes—as well as previous historians’—attempts at influencing American science policy (most notably through testimony before congress and providing high-level advice to government) have been a generally “sympathetic” but “detached” position to that of the scientists, providing the necessary “historical perspective” to public policy.
At the recent History of Science Society Annual Meeting, the same topic came up in the context of a panel (that included Naomi Oreskes) entitled, “The Science, Politics and Publics of Climate Change”. The presentations and discussion focused on, among other topics, new ways of thinking about expertise, accountability and governance both within and beyond the confines of the scientific community. Indeed, partly due to the nature (and implications) of scientific knowledge about climate change, this issue in particular has lead philosophers, sociologists and historians to develop a better understanding of the dynamics between science and politics. It seems clear that a better history of climate science can help understand modern debates. James Roger Fleming, another historian who recently published a book on climate and weather modification (in the broader context of the history of climate science), presents his work in a similar light: as an effort to make a difference in public policy through a more rigorous historical perspective. And yet, as an audience member’s question to the panel revealed, it remains difficult to precisely define the role of most social scientists in such debates (or how they can make a difference within the current framework), perhaps echoing the need for more discussions along the lines of a recent post on different types of proposals for generating socially-relevant knowledge.
But let’s leave the “war room” for the “trenches” of science policy, far from congressional hearings or directly defining national climate policies. As we move away from more contentious issues such as climate science, perhaps the “shop floor” is a more apt term than “trenches”. I’m referring to most day-to-day science policy, a term which I understand as policy for science or for the provision of scientific advice—basically, managing science. In fact, I am always amazed that there remains confusion or disagreement over what “science policy” means, which might be an important barrier to identifying key tools and knowledge for its practice as a profession. Though science policy is a largely decentralized endeavour, several common themes can be identified on a national level (as exemplified by discussions at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference): fostering innovation, encouraging different forms of collaboration, targeting science to address priority issues, etc. These are topics that have proven to be within the reach of the history of science, but more broadly, science policy as a practice can be viewed as the provision of a service in such areas.
Within current—mainly public, but also private—structures, the science policy “expert” is usually a generalist of sorts, focused on processes (more than the content itself), both within the science and the policy realm, that more often than not lead to the development of the apolitical and below-the-radar (but crucial) “small-p” policies. One distinction between science policy and science-based policy is that the latter focuses less on the content of the science than the way it is done, communicated, etc. So, like historians of science, those working in the science policy field accumulate and analyze evidence largely based on past or ongoing “instances” taken within their specific institutional, social, economic and political contexts.
My second point thus relates to the fact that, in the same way historians of science are more and more inclined to look beyond scientific elites to understand the work of the bulk of the scientific field, there should be attempts to better understand the slightly less glamorous “shop floor” of science policy. While there are several cases where the work of historians of science directly leads to the development of science policy tools—the work of physicist and historian of science Derek de Solla Price on the growth of science and citation practices immediately comes to mind—I believe the more central contributions are related to holistic and “long-term” ways of thinking about science, as part of a rigorous approach to developing evidence-based science policy.
It remains to be seen whether or not these perspectives begin to accurately reflect links between the practice of science policy and history (as well as other areas of the humanities and social sciences). Certainly, the characteristics of the current (or desired) relationship between the two professions need to be refined further. This, in turn, would have implications that go beyond the knowledge and theories about science, extending to the training, worldviews, institutions and methods associated with historians and science policy experts. Naturally, ensuring elite social scientists have a “policy” voice on contemporary scientific issues is essential. But there is also much to be gained from both a better sociological or historical understanding of the science policy process, as well as a more comprehensive understanding of how the history of science as a discipline can be used on the policy “shop floor”.
- Zuoyue Wang and Naomi Oreskes (2007). “History of Science and American Science Policy”, Isis 99, 265-373. ↩