A Sentence, An Axiom, and the Misuse of History

This blog post refers to Sir Paul Nurses’ anniversary speech on Trust in Science, made on 1st December 2014. Also referred to is Francis Bacon’s ‘Advancement of Learning’ (1605) using the 1954 edition (J.M.Dent &Sons Ltd: London).

Public figures often extract from history particular sayings and axioms and by doing so, often misinterpret, miscontextualise, and misuse these same sayings and axioms. Is such misuse an innocuous blunder to be passed over in silence? Who does it really concern and affect anyway that a lack of depth or delicacy in such extractions from the past occur? Perhaps no one. Yet when we inquire more broadly into how extensively history is used, we soon realise that any misuse of history is rather a serious thing. For if we are to continue using history like we do for the education, the delight and the justification of all kinds of things in the present, then we should concern ourselves with how history is being used, including any misuses we might happen to chance upon. One such (mis)use of history I recently came across was in Sir Paul Nurses’ anniversary speech to the Royal Society which centered around the theme of ‘Trust in Science‘. I wish to focus on the few words he said of Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

Firstly; Between the anniversary speech on Monday 1st December and a previous speech on 26th June 2014 Nurses’ definition of what Francis Bacon was, changes. In June he was a ‘Philosopher of Science’, in December he was a ‘courtier, statesman and philosopher’. It is perhaps wise that the June definition was amended, as this would mean that Nurse implicitly believes science to be primarily composed of ‘Astrology, Natural Magic, and Alchemy’ (Bacon, p.29), which I am sure Sir Paul Nurse would not subscribe to, nor wish to be labelled as believing.

Secondly, and much more concerning than the first point, is that Nurse believes Bacon to have ‘laid out his approach to science’ in one single sentence, which he takes from Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605, p.34):

“If a man will begin with certainties he shall end in doubts, but if he will be
content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties”

Nurse takes this one sentence and axiom as defining Bacon’s entire approach to science. To extract one sentence, stripped of the message it was delivered within and the structure of the message it contributed towards, is to maltreat the work of Bacon and to thoroughly mislead us as to what Bacon wanted to say about science. Lets delve deeper.

This particular sentence/axiom given above is one part of one of the twelve ‘diseases of learning’ which Bacon sub-attaches to three principal ‘diseases of learning’ which, Bacon tells us, the learned men of his age were susceptible to. Being one part of twelve sub points to the three main diseases of learning (or the errors and vanities of ‘Schoolmen’ in the language of Bacon), are we really to call this one sentence as representative of Bacon’s entire approach to science? I would think not. Not to mention this particular book is a prelude to later and more mature works such as Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) which could direct us better as to what Bacon’s approach to science was. We can say then with good assurance that this one sentence is not representative of Bacon’s approach to science, nor probably is any other sentence one would care to cherry-pick to represent the all-encompassing foundation of Bacon’s approach to science. Besides, should Nurse even equate ‘science’ with the ‘science’ Bacon perceives science to be? As hinted at earlier, when speaking about Baconian ‘science’, we are not speaking about the ‘science’ which Nurse is most probably thinking of. Indeed, there are some distinctive clashes between what science is for Bacon and Nurse if we compare their views. For instance, Bacon thinks methods suppress the increase of knowledge (p.32) whilst Nurse in his anniversary speech thinks that only through a method can knowledge be securely generated.

If we look at the context within the Advancement of Learning which this axiom and sentence above is delivered, further problems arise for how Nurse interprets it. Despite Nurse implicitly attributes the axiom to Bacon, Bacon himself tells us that this axiom is derived from a common saying of ‘the ancients’ concerning ‘action’, which Bacon then reproduces as a guide to ‘contemplation’ and adjusts its content thereto (see p.34). The axiom which apparently lays down a foundation for modern science has roots well before Bacon, and then not even in the sphere of learning, knowledge and science, but ‘action’ and a mode of being. Bacon is modest enough to acknowledge the source of his axiom, Nurse is not. Moreover, this approach which Bacon promotes is not directed towards ‘science’ (the science which Bacon speaks of that is), but towards Learning in general, and this encompasses pretty much everything that is studied by those Bacon derisively calls the ‘Schoolmen’, whether it be law, history, science, philosophy etc. So in summary, what is supposedly Bacon’s ‘approach to science’ is not about science but about Learning more generally, it is rendered from an ancient axiom about ‘action’, and it is but one small part of a sub-division of three main points about the errors (diseases) of the Learned.

Thirdly, and following on from the point above, Nurses’ conclusion from the extracted sentence above is that ‘in other words, that science was useful’. Notwithstanding the not so obvious leap here from acquisition of certain knowledge to usefulness, we should be very cautious about a conviction that ‘science was useful’? ‘Was’ denotes a certainty, an unbreakable and unquestionable link between ‘science’ and ‘use’. By putting it like this, that ‘science was useful’, Nurse seems to be insinuating that science has always been useful and still is useful. I would like to meet the person who could prove that everything science has ever done was useful! Who can know in the first instance everything science has done in order to answer this question, and even if we did know everything science has done, it is a matter of some controversy whether what is ‘useful’ can be agreed upon. When one thinks of it like this, Nurses’ claim seems somewhat fantastical and absurd. Furthermore, such a conviction could not be more anti-Baconian, if I be permitted such an expression. Bacon does say that science can be of use (p.35), but this is a conditional use, it can be useful ‘if’, it might be useful ‘if’. Importantly, the connection between ‘science’ and ‘use’ contains a message which Bacon strains to make in his work, namely, that science has not been anywhere near as useful as it should because of the ‘diseases of learning’ he lists (mentioned above in the second point). Nurses’ conclusion that ‘science was useful’ would have gone against everything Bacon was trying to shake up and revise, to illuminate as deficient during his time, an attitude he would have thought hindered science no matter what age it was uttered in. Bacon sought to humble those who thought we knew about as much as we can about the natural world, because he wanted to make Learning and the acquisition of Knowledge interesting and needed, he wanted to make God’s creation a work to be investigated and understood. This kind of conviction which Nurse displays is precisely the kind of stubbornness which Bacon was trying to melt and crack open, to humble and sometimes, humiliate.


There are many more points to be made which could show how Sir Paul Nurses’ use of Bacon is a misuse of Bacon’s thought and message. Indeed, if one cares to find them, there are even many stark differences that can be found between how Nurse and Bacon define and interpret what science is, how it works, and how to advance science. But I will stop here as I think this point has been made. I have isolated one use of history amongst other uses of history and philosophy in Sir Paul Nurses’ speech, and I do not intend to condemn the speech more generally. However, in analysing the misuse of Bacon, a larger question emerges, insinuated at the start of this short piece. Is a misuse and misinterpretation of Bacon’s thought and message harmless, does it do any harm that such a misuse is made? I would say it is harmful, despite there is a case for it being innocuous which I will not argue for now. To put it much too frankly, but to make the point, such misuse of history serves to abuse historical figures and their works for ideals of what science has done and ought to be. It perverts historical fact and the possible depths of analysis which history is very well suited for. Moreover, it is more than distasteful that historical personages are used for propounding ideals of what someone would like science to be or representing how ‘useful’ science always is. It is not worth the sacrifice of history to accomplish these aims, if these claims are real such as science is always useful, then let them stand alone on the pillars of contemporary judges and proofs and we shall soon see if they stand up to scrutiny. History can be put to many worthy uses, including expanding our understanding of what science is and how science-related activities have been practiced in the past (the list of what investigations we can devise goes on and on). Let us use history wisely as it is such a rich source of information for us. If one cannot succinctly include the history of science into speeches such as Nurses’ with a well thought out and rigorous opinion, which can be done, one should not include history at all.

Further reflections on the CSA’s first annual report (Part 2)

This blog post refers to the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s (CSA) first annual report entitled: INNOVATION: MANAGING RISK, NOT AVOIDING IT. This blog (part two of part one) is designed to engage the wider issue of ‘risk’ which the CSA puts forth, and to show how changing what innovations are focused on in the report, would also change how the analysis of risk and regulation would be viewed and engaged with. Before reading, it is recommended that something is read on the European regulation REACH.

Re-defining Risk

In his report, the CSA has daringly decided to appropriate the notion of risk so as to re-define it. Before saying what this re-definition is, it is important to note what strategy is employed to persuade us of his re-definition and to place us in the middle of the world he would like us to inhabit. As so often, history comes to aid this annexation of the term risk. The CSA does not directly go to history (despite the passing mention of the industrial revoution). We can only observe that he is speaking about history due to the tenses he uses. The phrases ‘we were‘ and ‘we achieved‘ signals to us not only a past, but a past we have gone beyond. The report inventively separates out two time periods through differentiating between two types of infrastructure and our relations to them; infrastructure created by humans and nature’s infrastructure. In the past we modified our environment to defend ourselves from the natural environment (almost it seems, as if we were deluded about our own powers to modify nature). In the present time, we stand in the middle of destructive and unpredictable Nature – an infrastructure we cannot run away from anymore, a Nature we cannot simply modify as we once did. Then and now has been carved, a future has been written. The CSA’s report has turned Nature itself into an unstoppable and overarching risk, a risk we cannot control, but only mitigate due to Nature’s disgruntlement over our treatment of Her. Has not the CSA created a version of risk through his conception of what Nature is and his disbelief that humans can anymore modify their environment? Perhaps this version of risk, dependant as it is on a particular conception of Nature, de-materialises risk itself. Risk is in Nature, not in man-made things. Indeed, by framing the risk as belonging to the threats posed by Nature, other risks seem paltry and not as worthy of our fear. Hence the message of the report – let us not over-regulate innovation. This is not to say that the issue of climate change for example should not be considered and analysed by the CSA, for it is a worthy object of evidence-based policy making. However, the CSA is producing a very specific version of risk, and this needs to be recognised. Why? Because his own conception of risk indicates what his priorities in government are, and where government money could be directed and what it may be used for in future.

What Could Have Been (If the Chemical Industry or REACH had been Included)

If the CSA included the chemical industry in the report on Managing Risk, see part one of this blog, he would have spoken of regulation, risk and innovation differently. How can we know this? The CSA prefers to focus on ‘new’ and ’emerging’ innovations in his report, and how these should be regulated. He thereby takes these ‘new’ (often marginal) innovations as the measurement for how national and European policy makers and regulators should regulate risk. If other (existing/widely used) innovations and technologies had been taken as the centrepiece, different analyses of associating regulations and risks would have been provided. When thinking about this, there is an important point to make about the popular term ‘evidence-based policy making’. By focusing on ‘new’ technologies, the CSA restricts what innovations and their related regulations need and deserve the approach of ‘evidence-based policy making’. When thinking about ‘evidence based policy making’ we should first look at what is offered up for inspection and is put under the ‘evidence-based’ microscope. What is chosen is itself not necessarily self-evident.

What is chosen as needing an evidence-based approach in turn affects what solutions the CSA thinks are required to help regulators and policymakers understand, for instance, ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’ better. Knowing that many different kinds of companies* and many people who work in these industries have a good knowledge of and implement these notions of ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’, would he have been so keen on increasing the amount of research money (intended for universities) dedicated to understanding and assessing risk (see page 7 of the CSA’s main report)? Does the CSA’s belief that our assessment of ‘risk’ is lacking and there is a need to increase university-based research into risk, indicate a mistaken belief that we need somehow to start from scratch in how we go about assessing risk? Shouldn’t his efforts first be, as the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, to put his weight (credibility/influence/resources/unique perspective) behind the existing REACH regulation and help this most challenging but potentially most rewarding pieces of legislation, to succeed? If REACH gets anywhere near its objectives by 2018, and it already is well on the way, the CSA will find that many of his and the government’s objectives such as helping to protect human health and the environment would be significantly advanced. Not to mention the possibility of how to use and what to do with all that ‘big data’ on chemicals manufactured, imported, and used in Europe. I hope that this is a tempting prospect for the CSA.

*REACH places obligations on many different industries besides the chemical industry, such as the electronics, toy and tyre industries for example.




Reflections on the UK CSA’s first annual report (Part 1)

This blog post refers to the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s (CSA) first annual report entitled: INNOVATION: MANAGING RISK, NOT AVOIDING IT and the companion volume of EVIDENCE AND CASE STUDIES.

In the companion volume to the Chief Scientific Adviser’s first annual report on ‘Managing Risk’, it is stated that the chemical industry, alongside the pharmaceutical industry, is the largest export earner for the UK. One would expect therefore that in the CSA’s main report, which tries to show how needful it is to not let our ‘aversion’ to risk prevent and inhibit innovation for the good of the economy, our health, the environment and security, that the chemical industry would be a key component of this report. Indeed, the chemical industry is set up perfectly for analysis in the framework of this report, for it is not only a profitable export industry with a large impact on the UK’s economy, but has a long history of innovation which has both endangered and protected human health and the environment. In a discussion on risk and innovation, the chemical industry has to be included. Yet chemicals are barely mentioned at all, and the chemical industry is ignored altogether. Moreover, when chemicals are mentioned, they are merely used as an example of how important it is to distinguish between ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’. See the excerpt below.

Hazard is frequently equated or confused with risk, and this leads to poor debate, confused communication and flawed decision-making.

Annual Report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser 2014
Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It
The Government Office for Science, London, Page 6

With more than a touch of irony, it is precisely in the European Union’s core chemicals legislation REACH which regulates the European chemical industry that we can find written into the regulation the most far reaching and ambitious inclusion of these notions of ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’.  Far from being ‘confused’ or ‘equated’ with one another as the CSA concludes, in REACH these notions and how they relate to one another are a central part of the regulation. Indeed, the notions of ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’ form part of the basis for the various risk management measures which the European Chemicals Agency, EU Member States and the Commission together can deploy such as imposing authorisations or restrictions on certain hazardous chemicals. Significantly, the notions of ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’ have been embedded into the very working cultures within and between many companies with obligations under REACH. See for example the excerpt below from the European Chemical Agency’s multi-annual work programme 2014-2018.

Companies have to gather and generate information on the properties and uses of their chemicals, assess potential risks and demonstrate safe use in the registration dossiers they submit to ECHA. They also have to provide corresponding safety advice to their customers.

The European Chemical Agency
Multi-Annual Work Programme 2014-2018
Page 21

REACH has and does promote a culture within industry of generating and communicating the necessary risk management measures through the supply chain. For example, many companies are familiar with what is known as the ‘safety data sheet’ which is created by companies themselves so as to communicate through supply chains how to safely handle and use different types of hazardous chemicals in order to reduce the adverse risks they may pose. Such obligations, which directly impact on the everyday practice of thousands of companies across Europe, has helped to make real for many companies the differences between ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’. Taking this into consideration, it is disturbing and misleading that in the Evidence and Case Studies companion volume to the CSA’s main report it is unequivocally stated that European policymakers have not adopted the approach of risk management measures;

The difference between the UK approach to risk management and the European precautionary regulatory approach to hazards has long been evident.

Annual Report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser 2014.
Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It, Evidence and Case Studies

Not only in the area of regulation and risk should the REACH regulation be of interest to the CSA, especially in a report which focuses on how risk and innovation co-exist and can influence one another. The REACH regulation also seeks to promote innovation. For example, REACH encourages (and for some of the most hazardous, forces), companies to substitute their hazardous substances for less hazardous substances. As well as promoting firms to innovate and re-think what chemicals they manufacture, import and use, the regulation dually strives for safer chemicals to be manufactured and used in the European market. There are even topics outside of this report which the CSA has previously been known to select as requiring public attention which the REACH regulation has import for. For example, through the REACH and Classification, Labeling and Packaging regulations, the European Chemicals Agency has the “biggest database on the impact of chemicals in the world” which also doubles up as a public database of information on the chemicals which are manufactured in the European Union (see ECHA’s MAWP 2014-2018, p.29). The importance of this for policymakers, regulators, industry and the public is enormous, but does not get a mention in this report on the opportunities afforded by good regulation or when the CSA speaks for instance about the opportunities of ‘big data‘.

Barely scratching the surface of European chemicals regulation shows what is on offer here to the CSA when analysing regulation, risk and innovation, or other favourite topics such as ‘big data’. It is perhaps more than obvious that in my opinion, the CSA would do well to include European chemicals regulation when he addresses these topics. REACH is one of the most ambitious regulations in the world, and it already has changed everyday practices of the European chemical industry to a large degree. Considering the importance of this industry to the UK, whichever ‘lens’ one cares to use it surely makes sense to include European chemicals regulation in this report and merits more than the silence it has received from the CSA and his government office.

The next installment of this blog post analyses the CSA’s methodological approach to risk and innovation.

The Rise of European Science and Technology (A British Perspective)

In Bruno Latour’s book Aramis, or the love of technology, Latour writes about the advanced technological project designed to create a rapid transport system that was supposed to blend the benefits of both public and private urban transportation, but failed to ever get launched. It is not hard to find similar instances of advanced technological projects getting started and after many years, being scrapped. One example is the American attempt to develop, build and fund a supersonic airliner from the mid-1950s. The project was cancelled many years later in 1971 following a Congressional refusal to continue its share of funding for the project, with estimates of over £1.000 million in total having been spent at the time of cancellation. In contrast, the European effort to develop, build and fund a supersonic airliner during the 1960s and 1970s was successful. The name of this European airliner, Concorde, conjures up lots of opinions and it is strange that like with Aramis, which did fail, the Concorde has received its fair share of ‘failure’ talk too. This is despite the Concorde has been the only commercially and technologically viable supersonic civil airliner ever to have taken to the skies. One common ‘failure’ argument is that the Concorde was merely an expensive prestige project and a (financial) price paid for maintaining good diplomatic relations with France. However, what in fact should be remarked on when it comes to the politics of Concorde is not that Concorde was a diplomatic gesture, but that an intergovernmental agreement between two European countries involving the largest aerospace industries in Europe at the time turned out to be the most politically stable and technologically successful venture to build such an aircraft in comparison to rival supersonic airliner projects being developed in the US and USSR.

The President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council

With Concorde, had European nations accidentally found a secret to politically organising and completing expensive, advanced technological projects by using the very political sensitivity of such agreements to its own technological advantage? It is an intriguing question, especially when we acknowledge the success of many other European industrial and scientific collaborations going back to the 1950s and 1960s, such as Airbus Industrie or C.E.R.N. Yet today, when European science and technology are discussed, it is usually with reference to little else besides regulations and the distribution of research money. During the late 1960s and 1970s however, European science and technology gained much more depth and significance, with many Parliamentarians and Lords of all political colours taking a keen interest in turning domestic opportunities and concerns in science and technology into European opportunities and concerns, both in the civil and military spheres. Such was the popularity of suggesting ways forward in European scientific and technological cooperation that we see many of today’s initiatives putting into practice what had already been aired and promoted during this time. For instance, the recent establishment by Anne Glover, Chief Scientific adviser to the (soon to be former) President of the European Commission, of a pan-European network of chief science advisers was previously put forward by Lord Bessborough in 1978. Interestingly, whereas one of the reasons for this recent move has been to advance evidence-based policy making, Bessborough saw the establishment of a committee of chief scientific advisers as a way to strengthen the ‘political will’ of the European Community so research could be planned at the European level more effectively.

Thinking ‘what is best for Britain and Europe’ was never far from many minds where European science and technology was concerned during the 1960s and 1970s. For example, reflecting on his time as Chief Scientist to the government, Sir Solly Zuckerman’s first address to the House of Lords in October 1971 focused on European science and posed his speech as a challenge for future governments. He said that he had spent twenty-five years building Britain’s scientific and technological resources, and it is only by joining and coordinating technological forces with other European states that these efforts and resources will not get wasted. Zuckerman thought of cooperation in European science and technology as a means to protect his achievements and sustain what he believed were unprecedented levels of resources being available for scientific and technological developments. Not only resources, but industries too were often framed in a European context. For instance, in referring to the computer industry the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Christopher Chataway in 1973 told Parliament that a preferential European procurement policy “is an important instrument of support … for the European computer industry if it is to compete successfully in world markets.” It was precisely the issue of giving preference to European industry that was central to the Westland Affair in 1986 in which Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine favoured a European solution in the rescue of the struggling helicopter manufacturer, and who subsequently resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet because of the decision not to go European with the buyout of Westland. The Westland affair was a remnant of a very distinctive political will which had developed during the 1960s and 1970s, where European science and technology was a highly charged political topic in Britain, debated at all levels of the political system, and was seen as very much part of the process of European political integration.

It is perhaps hard for us to imagine nowadays that a British Cabinet minister would resign because of what they consider ‘not a European-enough’ industrial policy. But this stance was once not unusual, and the desire to see European integration in the form of scientific and technological collaboration and integration was a common political theme. The reasons for this pro-European approach has been fairly obvious to many in the world of British politics in the past; Europe needed to somehow unite its scientific and technological resources and industrial strength to ensure it competed on a global scale in all things scientific and industrial, which the individual nations of Europe could not do alone. Such challenges have not gone away and we are reminded most weeks about the need more than ever for Britain and Europe to be competitive in the global market-place. Perhaps a more European perspective on science and technology needs to be brought back to the front of many minds for this to be genuinely achieved. The European Union has recently launched and adopted a new industrial policy, but as historically proven, the success of a European industrial policy stems very much from individual European nations themselves wanting a European success.

European Science and Industrial Policy; New Questions and Possible Answers

Few have attempted to fully compile and analyse over 60 years of active European integration in science and industry initiated by European national governments, companies, scientific bodies and personnel and the European Institutions. Which is both surprising and sad, for then we could answer with more certainty the question often at the forefront of the debate surrounding the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union, which asks whether the UK is better off or not by being in the European Union? One way to answer this question is by asking; would there have been the volume and diversity of European cooperation in science and industry over the last 60 years had it not been thought beneficial to many people, companies and governments of the European countries involved?

Let’s take a more concrete answer. It was unthinkable in the 1960s, but today a European civil aircraft manufacturer Airbus Industrie can compete in sales and profitability with the US firm Boeing. How did the success of Airbus Industrie all start? — with an Anglo-French inter-governmental agreement to manufacture a short-haul civil airliner named Airbus in 1965. Today, Airbus Industrie is a mainstay of Europe’s civil aircraft industry and directly or indirectly employs in the UK alone, around 100,000 people. This is a superb example of a European joint venture in an advanced industry like aircraft manufacture, for it not only got the civil aircraft built, but it led to the formation of a successful commercial enterprise in a competitive commercial and technological sector. We should be taking these examples into consideration when debating about the EU because such examples give us clues about what the ‘European project’ is all about. And it is the European Project we are discussing when we want to discuss an important question such as whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union.

One common path taken towards finding out whether the EU is ‘good or bad’ for the UK is to follow where EU money goes. President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, for example has pointed to the UK’s consistent success in winning money from the EU’s research framework programmes as a primary reason in favour of continuing UK membership. Winning research money is certainly a direct and measurable benefit. However, when we contemplate the range of activities and types of organisations which have comprised the ‘European Project’ over the last 60 years, is the distribution of EU research money the first measure to use when deciding is the EU ‘good or bad’ for the UK? Probably not. There are so many different types of potential benefits deriving from for example, collaborations in molecular biology, meteorology, sub-nuclear physics, epidemiology, energy production, to the co-construction of advanced aircraft, missiles, engines, rockets and satellites etc. Indeed, it’s not too farfetched to say that one could name a scientific subject studied or something industrially made and you can probably find a history of European collaboration there.

We should move on from the question: is the EU ‘good or bad’ for the UK and open debates for the future good of Europe and which are also, quite frankly, more interesting than the ‘good or bad’ question. I would like to see questions such as; is competitive tender the right way to distribute money for scientific and industrial research? Should Europe’s industrial policy rely on innovation and ‘knowledge’ for national economic growth? How can we make regulatory science in the EU world-beating? Then we can do what Harold Wilson remarked in 1967 when commenting on the possibilities for the future of European science and technology if the UK would become a member of the European Community, then “we’ll really talk business”.

The White Heat of Science, Technology and European Politics in the 1960s

In July last year (2013), the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s well-known ‘White Heat’ speech was marked by a one-day conference exploring its background and legacy. The importance of the speech by the former Labour Prime Minister was strongly underlined in a series of short articles in The Guardian deriving from the papers presented at the conference. One article focused on ELDO (the European Space Vehicle Launcher Development Organisation) as symbolic of Wilson’s attitude and policy towards European science and technology. In choosing this example, the article is unremarkable. ELDO is a common project to focus on for historians interested in Britain’s relations with Europe in the mid- to late-1960s. The article argues that Wilson sought to replace ELDO with a viable European space organisation at the risk of damaging diplomatic relations with other European countries, especially France, at a time when Labour were in the midst of preparing Britain’s second bid to join the European Community. In conclusion, the article stresses that Wilson succeeded in “striking the right balance between satisfying scientific and diplomatic priorities”, implying that science and political diplomacy were two separate, somewhat conflicting and incompatible, areas of policy. Other historians have argued that Labour merely used science and technology as selling points and lures in a diplomatic game to woo de Gaulle into admitting Britain into the European Community. If we look at European collaboration in science and technology using examples other than ELDO, and look at what Wilson had in mind for the future of European science and technology as the 1960s unfolded, the idea that science and diplomacy existed as separate policy agendas, or that science was used solely to satisfy diplomatic aims, unravels. Rather, the benefits gained from integrating European industries and scientific expertise was one of the main reasons for the Labour government of 1966–1970 wanting to get into the European Community. In trying to describe the relations between science, technology and politics we should not disentangle them or set up simplistic relations. Only by describing the complexity of their interaction do we get a more accurate historical portrayal of what happened.

During Labour’s term in office between 1966 and 1970 the policy towards European science and technology led by Wilson and Tony Benn, the then Minister in the Ministry of Technology (MinTech), was to reduce the frequency of short-term ‘projects’ such as ELDO. Turning away from a series of one-off projects, Wilson and Benn envisaged the future of European science and technology through integrating European industry on a more secure long-term foundation, and led by European companies themselves. Labour’s ambitions stretched far. The Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (IRC), which was founded in 1966 for encouraging UK mergers and larger UK companies in order to increase the scale of production units, had aroused interest around Europe. Benn wrote to Wilson in November 1967 that a ‘Eurotech’ and ‘European Reorganisation Corporation’ are ‘not inconceivable’. A more solid example of Labour’s approach to Europe was the idea for a ‘European Technological Centre’ (ETC) which shows Labour’s attitude towards ELDO in its proper light. With Wilson’s assent, in May 1968 Benn suggested that the money saved from the government pulling out of ELDO would go to financing the ETC. The idea of a technology centre first featured as part of Wilson’s proposal for a ‘European Technological Community’ in November 1967. Following a trip by G. Bowen, the head of Mintech’s International Relations and General Secretariat, to sell the idea of a technology centre to members of the European Community in May 1968, and the discussions of a Cabinet Working Group on the ETC which was set up by Wilson himself earlier in the year, the centre went from an idea to a plan of action. By the summer of 1968, Bowen had gained interest and support from the European Commission and both the larger principles governing the centre and the details of how the centre would operate were worked out. Research teams of industrialists, experts from research institutes and government specially recruited by the centre, would assess the needs of European industries and suggest remedial action as well as researching the needs of the market to guide European industries towards making the best use of their industrial capability. In line with MinTech’s emphasis in their domestic industrial policy on production as a key determinant of industrial profitability, the centre would also study methods of production. This stemmed from MinTech’s belief that the US was better at technological innovation in the more advanced and science-based sectors not because of the lack of inventiveness in Europe, but because of the benefits stemming from the volume of sales in a large home market which offset high R&D costs and expenditure on equipment and marketing, and, importantly, allowed US companies to plan their operations with a long-term view in mind. According to Bowen, the European Technological Centre was intended to get European businesses into the ‘habit’ of thinking and organising on a continental scale and help governments and industry plan for technological change.

During their term in office, an enduring European industrial policy was being worked out by Labour. For several unforeseen and external reasons, not to mention that Labour were competing with other proposals for how to integrate Europe’s scientific expertise, Labour could not get enough backing from other European nations to turn the plan into reality. Wilson consequently asked for the Centre to be ‘kept on ice in readiness’ for more propitious political conditions. When we look closer at Labour’s science and technology policy in relation to their approach to Europe, focusing on ELDO falls well short of describing the strategy Labour were devising during their term in office. This point seems to add emphasis to David Edgerton’s comment that ‘the deep darkness’ of what Wilson’s Labour government learned in office is where we can find the reality of Labour’s science policy. Between 1966 and 1970, British and European interests became thought of by Labour’s leaders as inseparable, mutually beneficial, and very distinct from other international relations. What is more, Labour leaders were very conscious of their evolving approach towards Europe. Nothing revealed this so well as the letter written by Tony Benn to the Prime Minister Harold Wilson on 8th November 1967. Referring to Wilson’s upcoming Guildhall speech, which was to focus on the benefits for Britain and other European countries of a ‘European Technological Community’, Benn wrote: ‘Your speech could be as significant for European technology as your Scarborough speech of 1963 was for British technology’. By the late 1960s, the White Heat of Britain’s scientific revolution was thought to burn brighter and faster if the revolution occurred throughout Europe. 

Curiously, although Wilson and Benn were aiming for less ‘project-based’ collaboration in Europe and for alternative and more durable types of cooperation, in the area of military collaboration project-based collaborations were taking off. Furthermore, project-based military and civil collaborations were often learned from and set up differently with the agreement of each new project. There was no one way to do project-based collaborations. After all, European collaboration was a policy experiment and pragmatism was vital if best practices in how to collaborate were to be found. Adding a twist to this observation, it was a fact that two projects could have similar work-sharing agreements, as did the civil supersonic airliner Concorde and the Martel missile for instance, in which British and French firms manufactured parts separately ready for assembly at the end of the manufacturing process. But whereas the Martel Missile work-sharing agreement worked relatively smoothly, this approach proved very costly for manufacturing a supersonic plane. What is most fascinating about European inter-governmental projects to build aircraft and missiles in the 1960s was that these types of agreement proved to be very good at getting things built. For instance, the two Anglo-French projects, Concorde and the Martel missile, were continued by Labour when they entered government in 1966 in contrast to three major inherited unilateral RAF programmes which were cancelled. Indeed, whereas the US Congress ordered Boeing to abandon their unilateral attempt to build a supersonic civil airliner to rival Concorde after spending some $864 million between 1967 and 1971, the political sensitivity involved in breaking an inter-governmental Anglo-French agreement got the expensive Concorde built. Advanced technologies are often expensive to develop, manufacture and produce. Giving governments a reason to pursue the development of such technologies can help advanced technologies see life beyond the prototype stage.

We can see then that Wilson’s and Benn’s European industrial policy shared a common aim with Labour’s defence policy. Both took, more and more, a European perspective. In reflecting on the Anglo-French agreement to jointly develop the Jaguar and AFVG aircraft in 1965, the Labour Secretary of State for Defence, Dennis Healey, remarked in June 1966 that: ‘I feel very strongly that a great effort should be made to retain an independent European capability for military aircraft development and production’. Wilson and Benn were probably right to look for more permanent ways to integrate European industrial and scientific organisations. However, it would be a mistake to think that the project-based approach did not create long-term cooperation. For example, it was unthinkable in the 1960s, but today a European civil airliner organisation Airbus Industrie can compete in sales and profitability with the US firm Boeing. How did the success of Airbus Industrie begin? — with the Anglo-French inter-governmental project to produce a short-haul civil airliner named Airbus. Today, Airbus Industrie is a mainstay of Europe’s civil aircraft industry. This suggests that project-based collaborations do not have to be limited to when the project starts and finishes. Projects can get companies used to working together, can create bonds that last beyond the given project, can help share useful techniques and, as in the case of Airbus Industrie, can turn into full-scale commercial operations.

In the 1960s, many popular commentators on European science and technology, such as Christopher Layton, Michael Shanks and Jean-Jacques Servan Schrieber, thought that European collaboration was a necessity first, an ideal second. Why? — because both the US and the USSR posed technological threats to Europe’s prosperity. At the time, perhaps one could only think of European cooperation in these terms. But European cooperation can be seen another way too. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe’s ‘common university traditions and the geographical proximity of countries comparable in industrial and technical development’ has helped foster unparalleled cooperation and integration between sovereign nation-states in Europe and between the industries and scientific organisations existing therein. Europe’s political cooperation is an experiment on a vast scale, and so has been the cooperation in science and technology which has added new dimensions to the ties linking European nations. It would take some time to list the many joint European ventures in civil and military science and technology that have occurred since the end of the Second World War. It should be noted that Britain has had a large hand in the creation of some of the most famous such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) founded in 1953, or the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), founded in 1964. But to focus on a few of these organisations would be a mistake, despite the pride we take in them. Somehow, we have to find room in our evaluation of European science and technology for all of these organisations. What is more, there are many different types of cooperation which should be included, not least inter-governmental and industry-to-industry cooperation between European countries which is often overlooked by historians. 

Let us conclude. This blog post has highlighted a different history to what is normally told about science and technology, the White Heat, and the Labour party in the 1960s. The White Heat of Britain’s scientific revolution found its catalyst, in Labour’s eyes, in the larger furnace of Europe. Wilson and Benn thought their domestic industrial aims could be realised by involving other European nations within their plan to create European-sized enterprises to rival the US and USSR in production capability and the many benefits that capability brought with it. Wilson and Benn wanted membership of the European Community to further these designs. Science and technology were not used as pawns in a diplomatic game, as many historians suggest. Nor were they in conflict or incompatible with the diplomatic aims of Labour. Labour were evolving their approach to Europe during their term in office between 1966 and 1970, and their idea for a European Technological Community was taking shape and given substance, for instance, in the design and push for a European Technological Centre. Today it would be seen as radical for a European government to suggest the creation of a European equivalent to an IRC or a MinTech, yet Tony Benn had made such a suggestion in the 1960s before Britain was even a member of the European Community. The Labour government of 1966–1970 is known for its radical objectives in science and technology. Perhaps nothing was as radical as Labour’s approach towards Europe, driven by a desire to forge the future of domestic and European science and technology under one policy. 

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control: Science and Political Integration in Europe

John Krige (1997) has alerted us to the contribution of scientists and not governments in re-organising where and how science is done, particularly in the organisation of transnational scientific cooperation. When viewed from this perspective, new and unexplored histories of science and politics are written. Since the Second World War, the most active geo-political region of scientific cooperation has been Europe, and this cooperation forms a significant part of what we call European integration. Yet what we know about European integration is dominated by political histories which privilege conventional ‘political’ integration commonly thought of as Member States ceding sovereignty to the European Community. Such histories according to Neil Rollings (2007) focus on top political figures and civil servants as the decisive actors. What is surprising is that when we look at European scientific cooperation this often precedes and draws after it conventional ‘political’ integration. From this perspective, scientific cooperation can be seen as a politically creative and binding force. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is a good example of precisely this.

Based in Stockholm, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), an agency of the European Union officially began life in May 2005. The only serious history yet to be written about the ECDC, as far as I am aware, is by Scott Greer whose account of the ECDC’s origin follows the approach taken by many ‘politician-centric’ histories. Greer tells us that if we want to know why the ECDC came into being, we will have to know more about the activities of a top civil servant Fernand Sauer, and a former European Union Commissioner of public health David Byrne. This is misleading. The ECDC’s mission and organisational structure is based on the planning and lobbying of European epidemiologists and microbiologists during the 1990s who developed, often in competition with one another, what they thought would be more effective ways to control and prevent disease.

In 1992, two epidemiologists Chris Bartlett and Gijs Elzinga proposed to the European Commission that it would be beneficial to identify gaps and duplications in all of the international surveillance and training collaborations that were then currently taking place in the European Union. Following the conclusion that there were gaps (for example in food-borne diseases) and duplications, Bartlett and Elzinga asked for funding from the European Commission for twice-a-year meetings and for a small technical support unit so epidemiologists from participating Member States could strategically develop the surveillance and research of communicable diseases. The Commission agreed to fund this, and what was known as the ‘Charter Group’ emerged at the beginning of 1994 bringing together heads of communicable disease centres from around the EU on a voluntary basis.

Under the Charter Group, a network of disease-specific programmes were developed which used existing national centres like the Réseau National de Santé Publique in France to serve as focal points for the European surveillance of specific diseases such as AIDS and Salmonella infection. This approach to controlling disease became known as the Network Approach. The Charter Group established European data-sets, identified emerging diseases, and assisted in the response to national outbreaks. In 1995 the Charter Group initiated a new monthly and weekly bulletin calledEuroSurveillance (now under the auspices of the ECDC) as a way to bring the editors of national surveillance bulletins together from EU member states. Also established by the Charter Group in 1995 was a European training programme for epidemiologists, the European Programme in Intervention Epidemiology Training (EPIET) to produce individuals competent to undertake epidemiological investigations at an international level, which has also been absorbed since by the ECDC.

What was distinctive about this new approach to controlling disease was that it went beyond research collaboration and involved coordinating and harmonising the surveillance and research of communicable diseases between existing national centres of disease control. A new mechanism in choosing what research to undertake was created; prioritising research against the need for it on a European scale and gauging the urgency of research on the increasingly integrated surveillance network. The Charter Group’s network approach was politically sanctioned in September 1998 with A Network for the Epidemiological Surveillance and Control of Communicable Diseases in the Community established by an Act of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. This was complemented in 1999 by an EU-wide rapid alert system, intended to enable rapid transmission of confidential data between national health authorities in the event of an emergency.

The Charter Group was not the only organised lobby for the future of communicable disease control however. Since 1996, another and competing vision of what the future of communicable disease control would look like in Europe was emerging. It was led by microbiologists for instance from the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, but most prominently Michel Tibayrenc of the Centre d’Etudes sur le Polymorphisme des Micro-organismes in France who were in favour of a central European organisation. The institutions of the European Union paralleled this divide. The European Parliament was in favour of a centre for communicable disease as an institution of the European Union. The European Commission and the Council of Ministers however were in favour of the network approach. In October 1998, a month after the act declaring the network approach as the preferred technique of surveillance, two voluble epidemiologists Weinberg and Giesecke, attempting to staunch the flow of the idea of a central organisation, declared that the ‘idea of a central edifice seems to be politically dead’.

In the wake of the pronouncement that the idea of a central edifice had been defeated, in 1998 Michel Tibayrenc initiated discussions at the International Board of Scientific Advisors in September 1998 and created a European Centre for Infectious Disease (ECID). This was essentially a lobby group, mostly comprised of microbiologists, advocating a European centre. The ECID had a ‘scientific board’ of around 30 people and a steering committee who advocated a European equivalent of the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC f.1946). The US CDC, mirroring a long history of US promotion of European integration, took a personal interest in furthering the cause of the ECID with the head of the CDC’s parasitic diseases division Dan Colley, sitting on the scientific board of advisers to the ECID. Furthermore, public health representatives from developing countries and former Soviet states were also supportive of a European centre for controlling communicable diseases, because the ECID promised to provide expert assistance and exchange information with these nations.

Advocates of both the network approach and the ECID explicitly contested each other’s claims about what benefits each approach had. Leading epidemiologists argued that the proposed coordinating functions of a centre were already being performed by the network approach. The ECID specifically countered this, arguing the network approach alone was not good enough as national centres of communicable disease were ill-prepared to face a major challenge such as bioterrorism and were not fulfilling their aim of preventing gaps and duplications in research. The idea of an initiating but disunited science community mirrors John Krige’s history (1989) of the origins of CERN in the early 1950s. Krige shows how two competing visions existed within the physics community of how European states should cooperate in nuclear physics research. One side advocated a network of nuclear research using existing laboratories and another advocated a European research laboratory and to build there a nuclear accelerator to compete in power with the nuclear accelerators at Brookhaven and Berkeley in the United States. Krige points out the two sides were not in opposition, both saw the value in cooperating, but had different views on how to cooperate.

Tibyrenc’s vision of what a central organisation should do has been reflected in the creation of the ECDC to a remarkable extent. Tibayrenc thought a central organisation would strengthen the effectiveness of the ‘network approach’ but should also take an active researching and surveillance role, and this dual function has been incorporated by todays ECDC. A good example of how the ECDC mirrors the ideas of Tibayrenc is shown in the first actions by the ECDC upon its inception. The ECDC was established concomitantly with the 2005 outbreak of H5N1 Influenza (Bird Flu) and formed part of outbreak investigation teams. In Turkey and Romania, three ECDC staff were on the ground all the time and an ECDC scientist was leading the investigation in Iraq. Here, the ECDC emulated Tibayrenc’s vision of a future ECDC having a mobile scientific staff and his conviction that disease within Europe can only be controlled by a European centre working in non-EU states as well as in EU member states.

Distribution of the Aedes Albopictus mosquito, a native of southeast Asia, and a vector of many emerging diseases in Europe

This map, produced by the ECDC shows the distribution of the Aedes Albopictus mosquito in Europe and bordering nations. The mosquito, a native of southeast Asia is a vector of emerging diseases in Europe such as West Nile Fever.

We don’t know how far the ECID’s lobbying and Tibyrenc’s efforts directly influenced the political conviction to create the ECDC. But we do know the European Parliament was largely in favour of the centre from the start of Tibyrenc’s lobbying. We know that from 2002, the European Commissioner for public health David Byrne seems to have come on board with the idea, announcing in a speech to the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Berlin, that ‘plans are in preparation to set up a European centre for communicable diseases, to become operational in 2005’. There were other factors involved too that could have triggered or given substance to justifying the need for a centre of disease control such as the threat of bioterrorism after 9/11 or the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak. But perhaps we should not place too much emphasis on these causes. They obscure the fact that the ECID had already lobbied for a European centre from 1998 and anticipated how it would work, as well as the fact that there was already in place a formal European network approach to disease control which took shape from the early 1990s.

According to Colin Talbot (2004), agencies such as the ECDC have been created in the wake of a citizenry increasingly sceptical of experts and politicians. Talbot says that agencies gain public trust through being autonomous from a centralised government. However, this approach mistakenly views agencies only through the eyes of worried politicians seeking to gain trust for expertise. As we have seen however, the ECDC was not founded on a need to gain support from a sceptical citizenry, it was the culmination of many years of lobbying to improve the effectiveness of disease control. Moreover, agencies can be very different to one another. For instance, Waterton and Wynne (2004) argue that upon its inception in 1993, the European Environment Agency (EEA) was in competition with other institutions and organisations, the European Commission’s DG for the Environment in particular. Moreover, they argue that the EEA was not intended to influence policy networks (despite it might have the ambition to do this). Scott Greer’s account of the ECDC differs from this in arguing that the crowded but fragmented institutional landscape of communicable disease control, rather than being a source of competition, is theraison d’etre for the existence of the ECDC, and is the sinews of its future growth. Of course, what Greer misses is that this rationale was developed independently by the Charter Group and the ECID.

This brief account of the ECDC has been all about its origins and not about the ECDC itself. But there is a reason for this. How the origin of a European agency is perceived, or any other type of science-based organisation, changes what we think of that agency in its current form. If looked at from a conventional political perspective, the ECDC looks like a weak organisation amongst what Scott Greer calls ‘a crowded institutional landscape’. However, if we acknowledge that the ECDC assimilated novel and ambitious projects to coordinate the research and surveillance of, and the training for, communicable diseases in Europe, the ECDC represents a new way of controlling and preventing disease which did not exist prior to the 1990s. When the origins of the ECDC are taken into consideration, the ECDC does not look like a beginning in the European control and prevention of communicable disease, but the culmination of a new way to govern communicable disease in Europe.



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