Sunday, 11 September 2011

Histories of Science

[From a section of my draft Introduction]

It was scientific knowledge, in particular, that they sought – but this preoccupation was still quite new. In 1952, at the Centenary of the University of Sydney, leading Australian scientist Ian Clunies Ross recalled the words of William Charles Wentworth when the Bill for that university was introduced in parliament. Wentworth had listed the great thinkers he imagined would emerge from Australia’s first university. Not one of them was a scientist. The great change of that first century of scholarship in Australia, argued Clunies Ross, was the ascendancy of science.  As the twentieth century progressed, all other disciplines were made subservient to science: the social sciences building themselves into a kind of “poor relation”, as Stuart Macintyre described them.

Science ascended gradually. The slow progression from imperial exploration to national science in the nineteenth and early twentieth century has commonly been seen as evidence of Australia’s growth and maturity – though as both Peter Hobbins and Tamson Pietsch demonstrate, scientific connections with Britain and the Empire were maintained long after scientific ‘independence’ was achieved.  The rise of institutions such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the development of disciplines, academies, societies and universities are depicted – for example in collections such as as those edited by R.W. Home and Roy Macleod – as providing the intellectual infrastructure for the nation.

While scientific knowledge thus shifted from an exploration of Australia to research for Australia, it was nevertheless not ‘owned’ by the nation. Biographies – Ian Clunies Ross among them – and popular histories emphasise the scholarly discoveries and leadership achievements of scientific heroes like Howard Florey and Marcus Oliphant.  Attribution of discovery, as historian of science Mario Biagioli, points out, is a marker of the ownership of knowledge. That is because scientific discovery mimics literary authorshop, he suggests. But Biagioli contends that all is not as it seems. By focusing on observations of a world that exists beyond the author, science challenged authorship’s ability to ‘own’ knowledge. Science, he argues, posited ideas and realities that could not be easily owned at all, contesting traditions of authorship and copyright.  And yet, in Australia, histories of science, making regular gestures to British imperialism, emphasise the power of science in owning and controlling the world. Histories of science highlight the colonial power asserted by science in Australia and the racial and imperial assumptions informing its applications, particularly population health management.  These, historians of science contest, in line with Foucault, can constitute ownership claims by humans over nature, a kind of imperialism of the knower over that which they know. 

The history of science repeatedly demonstrates that human power over nature was enabled by science’s claims to methods that objectively described reality.  This gave science an authority unavailable to other types of kowledge. The university, in appropriating science as the proper function of the university, also appropriated its authority. Other disciplines and activities – history, economics, sociology, even cooking (‘domestic science’) sought, particularly in the ‘social sciences’, some of the legitimacy scientific knowledge had acquired.  Scientific authority certainly augmented the university’s entitlement to the guardianship of knowledge – to possess truth and its purity, or ‘universal’ knowledge, as Foucault described it.  As the twentieth century unfolded, however, science became useful, rather than merely true. The methods of research and discovery led not just to new knowledge but also to new technologies, inventions, medical advances and industrial processes. With so many benefiting personally and financially from its technologies, who would own knowledge now?

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