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The social function of history: policy, history and twentieth-century science



18:30 - 19:30


The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG



Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Prize Lecture

Professor David Edgerton, Imperial College London

Discussion of science has been characteristically futuristic, focussed on promises or threats of the shape of the things to come. Scientists had, according to C.P. Snow, the future in their bones'. Yet stories about science's past have also been very important too. In thinking about future British science policy, very particular accounts of history have been surprisingly important. It is claimed that policies of the past have failed, that lessons from history need to be learned. We need to ensure that better, richer, histories are available to those concerned with policy. For example, R.B. Haldane did not invent the 'Haldane Principle', which appeared as an idea only in the 1960s. The British wartime bomb project was not run by nuclear physicists, but by the unknown industrial chemist, Wallace Akers. The well-known scientific adviser, Sir Henry Tizard, far from believing in the 'Linear Model', thought Britain probably overinvested in research.

Historians bring to thinking about science policy a very particular understanding which should be central to policy: historians are trained to know in their bones that the future is unknown and to understand the power of the cheap futurism which characterises the present.

This lecture is free - no ticket or advanced booking required. Doors open at 5.45pm and seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

The social function of history: policy, history and twentieth-century science The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK