Between history of science and science policy: Moving from the “war room” to the “shop floor”

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.

Scientists and historian of science James Roger Fleming (right) testifying before congress on the impacts of large-scale climate intervention

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.

A map of science based on citation patterns (From: Rosvall and Bergstrom (2007), PNAS 105(4), pp. 1118-1123).

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”.

  1. Zuoyue Wang and Naomi Oreskes (2007). “History of Science and American Science Policy”, Isis 99, 265-373.


  • W. Dean Reply

    Matthew Wallace,

    It’s not exactly clear to me what you’re asking, but I’m going to assume you’re trying to figure out what sort of “institutional role” the history of science can play in policy-making.

    On this question I’d have to partly agree with the audience member who wondered what the historians were doing there. I don’t see how history as a discipline can take part in science policy. Most science-related policy decisions come down to politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats being briefed by experts in some specialized area of science. But it also seems obvious to me that [1] some historians, in some contexts, would be useful and [2] that historians would be better policy-makers than those from a number of other academic backgrounds (lawyers, for example). In other words, the only role I see for a historian in policy-making is as a bureaucrat.

    Moreover, I think the reason history as a discipline has no place at the table should be obvious. History provides context and perspective to decision-making, something that the people around the table ought to have already; and if they don’t, you’re not going to give it to them in a 40 minute presentation.

  • Curtis Forbes
    Curtis Forbes Reply

    Very interesting post, Matthew. I’m sort of surprised we haven’t run into each other at any of the Canadian Science Policy Conferences, or the intervening PIPSC conference. Maybe next year!

    It seems pretty clear to me that history has a lot of policy relevance, and that history of science, therefore, has a lot of relevance for science policy. I share in your search for the proper role of history and philosophy of science in actual science policy-making, as well as the proper role of non-bureaucratic historians and philosophers of science in such processes, should there be such a role available.

    I don’t think that “institutionalized” roles for history in the policy-making process are going to be the right ones, however, and I’m not sure that you think that either. As a bureaucrat doing policy analysis at Environment Canada taking time to do a bit of science studies, it’s clear that you see something valuable in studying the history of science, though you’re not quite sure how to best bring historical context to bear on the practice of policy-making in general.

    I suspect that each situation will be different, but that almost all science-policy making could use the input of a historian of science at some point in the process. Many senior science policy-makers in Canada have expressed similar sentiments to me, so I think that’s a pretty defensible claim. For example, I don’t think it’s coincidental that the head of science policy at Environment Canada – Philip Enros – has a PhD in the history of science, from our own Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Philip often has expressed how useful the skills and knowledge he developed at the IHPST have been in dealing with complicated science policy issues, and he has encouraged people here to think about policy work as a viable, and laudable, alternative career path. Without historical context, science policy is blind to the reasons why existing policies are the way they are, and why changing conditions may require rethinking existing policies.

    Dean’s suggestion that history has no place at the policy-making table because it provides context and perspective completely baffles me. It seems like that is exactly what science policy-makers often need, even if only for a reason Matthew points out: historians can provide “holistic and “long-term” ways of thinking about science, as part of a rigorous approach to developing evidence-based science policy.” Without historical context, policy-makers will be left without a lot of important evidence that should be informing their decisions.

    The idea that nothing about history can be taught to non-historians in a short period of time also seems to me to be simply false, not only intuitively but also empirically speaking. Targeted briefs for policy-makers from working scientists are often very short, but nevertheless extremely helpful. Targeted briefs on the history of science, and the history of related science policy, should, I think, prove similarly invaluable in a variety of policy-making situations, regardless of the policy-makers’ own historical training (or lack thereof).

  • Matthew Wallace
    Matthew Wallace Reply

    Very interesting comments. Indeed, I think there is a role for historians at the science policy table both in terms of what could seen in a similar way to scientific “briefings” (or targeted, generally high-level, historical perspectives), but also in perhaps less tangible manner, whether “institutionalized” or not.

    The former seems fairly clear, based on the type of knowledge and issues associated with science policy, although Dean W. does highlight the need to clarify exactly what type of knowledge is being brought to the table by historians, beyond a sort of generalized “perspective” that policymakers should possess already. Like Curtis, my feeling is the various sorts of knowledge history of science produces (in the many incarnations and trends of the discipline) are quite different from a basic “common sense”-type historical perspective that good policymakers have.

    I perhaps have more difficulty in defining the second type of connection, and how history of science bears on the work of a policy analyst, for instance. My musings are indeed partially informed by discussions with Philip Enros and other historians who have made important contributions to science policy, who have different visions of exactly how their training has helped them. These connections should be reconciled with science policy as a process or as a set of tools, more than as the generation of new knowledge. It is difficult to generalize here and I don’t know if science policy is a viable career path for historians (in a self-serving way, I happen to think it is!), but I certainly believe that there is also much to be gained from historians of science taking a closer look at how science policy operates on the “ground level”. Whether or not it might, at some level, be desirable to have “institutional” roles, or even simply more formalized links, for the history of science within a science policy context remains to be seen…

  • Curtis Forbes
    Curtis Forbes Reply

    The “ground level” or “shop floor” work is definitely an interesting project for the science studies scholar. While our own Jon Turner does some great history of science combined with some history of science policy in Canada, as do people like Stephen Bocking, I’m unaware of any microsociological accounts of the policy-making process itself, especially not ones focussed on Canada (though I would love to look at any references people could produce). While there are some very intereesting philosophical accounts of the policy-making process, such as Heather Douglas’s latest book, they tend to focus (like most philosophical work) at a very high level of abstraction, and don’t really reveal the concrete aspects of the policy-making process. So, I’d be interested to hear your microsociological musing upon your return to Environment Canada, Matthew. Is this the sort of thing you’re hoping to do you dissertation on?

  • David Bruggeman Reply

    One part of this examination about the links between history of science and science policy should be (at least I think so) how information flows between policymakers and relevant researchers. I don’t have in mind anything as formal as an institutional role. How well do researchers communicate their work to policymakers that might have need of it, and how well do policymakers communicate to researchers (not just historians of science) about what they need? This goes beyond the problems of translating research results into material digestible by policymakers and translating policy questions and needs into material digestible by researchers.

    Speaking strictly as someone working in the field in the States, I don’t see much of an information flow between policymakers and researchers in science and technology policy, history of science, or any of the science studies fields. I don’t know how Canada compares in this regard, except that having someone at or near the head of a science agency with a background in history of science or a related field is next to unheard of in the U.S.

    I see a couple of challenges concerning how science and technology policy relates to researchers in the field.

    First is the definitional problem Matt addresses. Harvey Brooks formulated a rough taxonomy when he described ‘science for policy’ – something similar to the science-based policy Matt mentions, and ‘policy for science’ – how is science supported, managed, funded, governed, etc. Those two categories are different enough, while affecting many of the same institutions, that it seems pretty tough to do both well.

    The other relates to finding and communicating policy-useful information from the extant research. It’s pervasive, running across fields, journals and institutions, in part because not only are those who research science and technology policy are generating it, but those who research science and technology are generating it too. Policy research really suffers from silos, more than other disciplines.

    I’m slowly coming round to the notion that some capacity to push information and translate it between war room, shop floor, and lab bench is needed. I don’t yet know what shape that might take. But it seems that the kind of knowledge transfer between researchers and practitioners in most fields does not exist (at least at the same scale and background) where science and technology policy is concerned.

    • Matthew Wallace
      Matthew Wallace Reply

      I agree that, given how policy (in general) works, much of the focus should be on how information moves around and how research affects policy and vice versa. I think that there are many facets to this communication issue, most of which should be treated separately. But in general, there is a need to identify and articlate links to areas such as history (among many others) where some of the useful knowledge for policy is generated. This could help get the somewhat elusive research or perspectives to those who work in policy.

      I think the two categories (policy for science and science for policy) are indeed distinct, but they do intersect. For instance, “managing” science can also means helping the science have an impact on policy (if that is one of its purposes). I also wonder if the pervasiveness of silos in the policy sphere is sometimes related to the difficulties in identifying common knowledge, roles, processes, etc. (or, in the case of S&T policy, even in defining it)…

  • W. Dean Reply

    Curtis and Matthew,

    There are really only two ways that expertise informs policy: [1] the expert is there, sitting in the room presenting a case and taking questions when the decision is made or [2] familiarity with an area of expertise is requisite for being in the room in the first place. I think [2] is the obvious role for the history of science. It would be good if those making science policy knew something about the history of science. Better still if policy-makers knew a lot about past science policy, about what succeeded and what failed and why. You’re only example (Philip Enros), by the way, belongs under [2], not under [1]. As a bureaucrat, his background in the history of science has helped him make policy decisions.

    It sounds intuitive to say that if a background in history is good, a place at the table would even be better, that is, why not have a group of historians involved the decision-making process? Making this leap confuses professions with disciplines, or subjects of study with areas of expertise. There is no state of the art historical account of anything in the way that there is the latest scientific research and the latest legal precedents. Even with regard to policy, what worked or didn’t work yesterday, might not be applicable in the present case. At best, history shows only that someone else already had your great idea and it probably wasn’t that great the first time.

    Let me suggest an illustration of how it plays out when historians are brought into the fold. Suppose the aim is to come up with funding priorities for scientific research. The committee is mulling over a policy. Historian ‘A’ is brought in. He tells the tale of a similar policy, Gamma, which didn’t issue in any concrete results and everyone involved ended up taking early retirement when it became an election issue. Historian ‘B’ is then brought in. He says Gamma didn’t produce a concrete result, on the face of it, but that a longer view of things suggests that Gamma laid the foundation for a number of later scientific discoveries. At this point, that audience member raises his hand and asks who’s responsible for bringing in the useless historians.

    I’m not suggesting this is always the case. As I said initially, there are probably certain contexts and certain historians who would be useful. (But I can’t think of, and so I’d like to see, a concrete example.) The problem is when you suppose that a historian has the kind of knowledge that can, as a rule, issue in a prediction about the future.

  • Curtis Forbes
    Curtis Forbes Reply

    I don’t think either Matthew or I were saying that, as a rule (i.e. always and forever, in every domain of science, and on every sort of issue), “a historian has the kind of knowledge that can … issue in a prediction about the future.” Sometimes history (and non-bureaucrat historians) can be useless to bureaucrats crafting science policy; futhermore, qua history, it is generally not very predictive about the future on its own, though it will usually factor in to our best educated guesses about the future effects of our current or proposed science policies.

    I think that history is often quite useful, both in Dean’s first and second senses. I understand Matthew’s project to basically be aimed at figuring out when, where, and why historical context about science and science policy will be interesting and useful for the science policy-maker, whether that is useful in terms of type-1 input (non-bureaucratic historian being given a seat at the table), or type-2 input (historians acting as policy-making bureaucrats). I take it that such a project is quite laudable and useful, rather than objectionable as “useless” historical work.

    As another example of good, type-1 historical input, Stephen Bocking’s historical context on Arctic science policy in Canada’s North was a welcome addition to the Canadian Science Policy Conference, according to his co-panellists and many people in the audience, despite a few audience members with narrow focusses asking the “who let the historian in?” question. He explained to scientists and policy-makers how and why Canada doesn’t have an integrated science policy in the North, and how the heterogenous policies that do exist arose. In the effort to produce an integrated science policy framework for Canada’s North, which was the topic of the panel according to the moderator, having a historian at the table no doubt proved useful, as it made clear why the current policies are the way they are, what has gone wrong with them, and how they might be repurposed or reformulated to meet current needs and agendas. He did that in about 15 minutes.

    As another example of history of science (rather than historians cum bureaucrats) being useful in crafting science policy, I would add that Enros is currently on leave from Environment Canada to do a history of Environment Canada’s science policy (he may have recently returned, as I’m not sure what his current status is). While he usually deploys history as a bureaucrat (Dean’s second sense of “applying” history to science policy-making), in his current role he is acting as a historian, bringing historical context to Environment Canada’s current policy-making framework (Dean’s first sense of applying history to science policy-making).

    So, I reiterate that having a historian come in and explain to policy-makers how and why science policy X is the way it is today should, generally, prove quite useful for those policy-makers looking to assess the impact, motivation, and current viability of X. I’m wary of calling that a “rule,” though, as there will surely be counter examples. For the moment we should probably assess the usefulness of history of science for science policy-makers on a case-by-case basis, but figuring out precisely when history (type-1 input), rather than merely historians cum bureaucrats (type-2 input), will be useful for policy-makers is a worthwhile activity, and I’m glad that someone like Matthew is taking it on.

    • Matthew Wallace
      Matthew Wallace Reply

      Curtis, some good examples indeed (I was also present at this panel of the CSPC). I agree that any attempt to find a linear “rule” about how one or another person should dictate or inform policy will fail. The same goes for any idealized view of the policy process or simplified view of the knowledge that history of science produces (e.g., “X happened” or “Y worked out well/poorly”). Though entirely case-specific, the natural sciences do not have the monopoly on being able to synthesize information or making it policy-relevant. Evidence-based policy implies gathering information, bringing together stakeholders, etc. from different sources and perspectives. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a discussion about what is more or less useful in the process, but that each element or contribution to the policy process should be viewed as part of a whole.

      Dean correctly points out that, strictly speaking, the last paragraph of my post should not read “the two professions”, but rather “the profession and the discipline” or perhaps something more label-free like “the two groups”. In the case of historians intimately involved in day-to-day policy work, the lens of professions vs. disciplines could indeed be relevant, and has been studied and applied extensively (particularly in the history and sociology of science). For instance, if the authority of a profession relies on some type of expertise, where does this expertise come from? How does a profession set its boundaries with respect to others? What should the training for a certain profession look like?

      Sadly, my dissertation does is not a history of science policy in the making per se (a few glimpses of it perhaps), but I concur that some type of microsociology of science policy would be a great topic! One could take a closer look at many government institutions (like the OSTP in the U.S.), large R&D-intensive companies, think tanks, international organizations, universities where science policy “happens” on a day-today basis. This would be especially interesting given that its status as a profession is relatively recent or not yet well defined.

    • W. Dean Reply


      There’s no dispute from me about historians on an ad hoc basis for the simple reason that it’s too obvious a thesis to contradict. The only real question is whether a case can be made for an institutional role on the basis of what history does as a discipline (that’s what I meant by “as a rule”).

      I don’t see an institutional role for history because there is no official or state of the art history. Sure, one historian can come in (i.e., as in the Arctic conference example) and summarize what everyone already knows in part, in whole or implicitly. No doubt the participants’ familiarly with the account presented by this historian had a lot to do with the plaudits. But, as I pointed out before, the party’s over when the second historian comes in and offers another take on events.

      As for the Enros case, it’s not really a historian informing bureaucrats, it’s a bureaucrat who happens to be a historian writing down what he learned as a bureaucrat. It’s really a record of his institutional knowledge, and he and others will add his findings to their background knowledge. Maybe a case can be made for historians collecting and synthesizing the institutional knowledge of an organization, but such a historian would be acting as an archival specialist and an agent of the institution, not in his capacity as a historian.

      The same conclusion applies to finding a role for historians on a case by case basis. The usefulness of historians or history will be open to interpretation, so it’s hard to see how an institutional role could, in principle, materialize out of such an analysis when any subsequent meta-analysis will likely show that the conclusions were contingent on certain assumptions. In other words, the result would look like every other history of x, which really only makes it interesting for historians as historians.

      At any rate, here’s my positive suggestion, which I note is not worth much because historians do it already: if a historian has an important contribution to make to a particular science policy, he (and if possible his peers) should write a book about it.

  • David Bruggeman Reply

    This is the first I’ve heard of this journal – The Journal of Policy History – so I have no sense of its quality or how well it maps to what Matt describes. I came across it because it’s publishing an article on how the Guatemalan syphilis experiments came to light.

    They’ve been at this a bit, since they’ve held biennial policy history conferences since 2000.

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