Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bruce Hevly (1992): "Reflections on Big Science and Big History"

Bruce Hevly contributed “Reflections on Big Science and Big History” (1992) as an afterword for the edited volume Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research (P. Galison and Bruce Hevly, eds.). As an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Washington, Dr. Hevly specializes in the history of science and technology, with a particular focus on the field of physics. In this piece, he identifies the major themes of Big Science, a volume on the history of the phenomena with work contributed by both historians and scientists. He frames this conclusion as a discussion of collaboration and connections, not only between scientific institutions in academia, but through a consideration of the relationships between these institutions and their various members, funding organizations and agents, governmental and military bodies, technological requirements and contributions, and the very cultural contexts in which these scientists and institutions are operating. He suggests that “placing big science in a broader context” (Hevly 1992, 357) is a necessary exercise for historians, one that requires consideration of the various ways in which collaborations shape all involved parties. Beyond this, Hevly indicates that big history itself is moving away from traditional, individualistic practices, and that historians must consider the role that collaboration plays in the creation and study of history. Finally, Hevly concludes that the study of big science remains a relevant and “vital issue for historical scholarship” (363).

Although it’s difficult to get a detailed grasp of what big science is and how historians have confronted its study from just an afterword, Hevly succinctly reintroduces the subject. Additionally, it is clear that he does so through the perspective gained not only through the new scholarship contributed by each chapter author(s), but through his years of expertise and consideration. In fact, a reader confronting this chapter in isolation from the rest of the volume us exposed to what are likely the main themes and questions of volume, if not the data to support these interpretations, and certainly not the detailed history of big science. Several points are brought up by Hevly in his afterward that have implications outside of the history of big science, however, and should be considered by members of any discipline (as well as their historians).

It is clear from the piece that there is no single definition of big science employed by the authors in this volume. Big science is not strictly defined in the book, and Hevly maintains that it remains a “murky” phrase (355). This difficultly in defining a term, both by the members of big science institutions and experts on big science’s trajectory, brings up several questions for discussion.
Are disciplines easily identified and defined? Does the identification of a discipline require a historical consideration? Do we ‘know it when we see it’?

Hevly identifies several major collaborations and connections between big science and related fields and organizations. These collaborations appear to be discussed in detail in the volume, but Hevly urges historians to “adopt a skeptical attitude towards pat descriptions of the relationships between science, government, industry, and technology… and the characteristics of collaborative research” (357). Collaborations, and maybe especially the collaborations between scientists and their sponsors, have very real and practical outcomes, and can influence the very goals, methods, and results of scientific inquiry. Key collaborations that are highlighted include: science and technology, science and the military, science and engineering, science and funding agencies, and scientists and the historians of science. He suggests that histories that focus on the study of collaborations will greatly increase our understanding of big science over time and across different cultural, institutional, and national contexts of scientific research.
Is an explicit study of the relationships between academic disciplines and various collaborative groups a necessary part of ‘doing’ history? Should academics engage in these studies as part of their own epistemological considerations?

 Hevly concludes his afterward with several points about the current state of the history of science as a field. He suggests that collaborative history is perhaps the way of the future, and that collaboration by histroians (in the model of big science) should be undertaken as a specific strategy of scholarship. This type of research is necessary not only as a tool for improving the field of history, but because no one, including historians, is free of the broader context in which they conduct their work, be it institutional, cultural, financial, or our larger habitus.

 How do the types of collaborations discussed in Hevly influence your own discipline?
What important collaborative relationships are not discussed here?
Can scholars perform research outside of the context/influence of the motives, goals, and values of governments, funding agencies, and private institutions? Can we (or should we) insist on a ‘pure ideal’ (and does this exist)?

How does Hevly’s discussion relate to Wisconsin’s ‘Discovery to Product’ initiative?

Bruce Hevly, "Reflections on big science and big history," in Peter Galison and Bruce Hevly, eds., Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 355-363.

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