Can I start by thanking Peter Collins and the Royal Society again for organizing and sponsoring this meeting, which is the first conference to consider the history of the Royal Society in the twentieth century. Studies of the Royal Society in the twentieth century have been few and far between, and we've probably tripled their number during the course of this meeting. We've heard an enormous range and diversity of papers and approaches, but it's been a very long day so I'm going to keep my remarks quite brief. I have four broad areas in which I'd like to comment on general themes that have been raised. The first is about definitions, the second is about boundaries, the third is about impacts, and the fourth is about sources and archives.
On questions of definition, several of the papers have raised the following questions: When we think about the history of the Royal Society, what history are we thinking of? What is the Royal Society in a historical context in the twentieth century? What is it that one wants to write the history of? What provides continuity to this thing we call the Royal Society? Is it the buildings? Is it committees? Is it administration? Is it the Officers? Is it the Fellows? Is it policies? Or is it all of those things? The Society may be housed in imposing buildings, it may be defined by statutes, but it's animated by people—people with different agendas. Now in one sense the Royal constitutes a stage on which the Fellows act, as it were. But in another sense the Society transcends particular Fellows, although it co-opts them into its own institutional history in very significant ways that we see all around us and all around this building. These different senses and meanings of ‘the Royal Society’ are reflected in the different kinds of histories that we've heard over the past two days—historians' histories, scientists' histories and some in between.
There's a related point that I want to make about that, and I think it's been apparent over the past two days: an interesting tension between the Society's discourse of the scientific future and its very pronounced use of the past to ground its investment in that future. History, it seems to me, is absolutely central to the way in which the Society presents itself to the outside world, and it's quite a trick to integrate these discourses of the past and the future in a seamless way where science is concerned. But the Society is very good at it. I'll come back to that in a few minutes when I talk about status. So there's a series of issues here about the meaning and purpose of the Society and its history that I think are open for much more detailed historical investigation across a range of time periods, subject disciplinary areas and so on.
That issue of identity is related to the second general set of points I want to make, which are about boundaries. A number of the papers over the last two days have touched on the relations of the Royal Society with other institutions, real and imagined. Now those relations with other bodies have helped define something about the Royal Society itself. Let's just think about what some of those relations have been. They include relations with other learned societies, professional societies, the Royal Institution, the British Association and so on. Those have helped define the proper scope of action of the Royal Society on an institutional and national stage. But we've also heard about relations with disciplines that can sometimes be problematic in Royal Society terms: medicine, engineering, technology and industrial sciences. Here we saw cases of what you might call ‘turf wars’ over the creation of new institutions that themselves sought to confer visibility or status or prestige on particular fields, sometimes at the expense of the Royal Society itself. And those are particularly interesting episodes in the history of the Society because they tell us as much about the Society's vision of itself as about what it's reacting to. But the papers and discussions over the past couple of days have made me think, too, about boundaries and relations between the Royal Society and non-academic science in a more general sense. We've heard a great deal about academic university science, somewhat less about industrial science, government civil science, military science, areas of diplomacy, and even intelligence and national security aspects, which we touched on briefly this morning. As David Edgerton reminds us in his book Warfare State,1 industrial and military science have been immensely important in the history of British science; I think there's room for a lot more research in all of those areas and how the Society reacts and engages with them.
I'd like here to comment briefly on what I think has been another omission in the various papers that we've heard, which has been what one might call informal working relations between the Society's administrators and managers and people across the road in Whitehall. I didn't talk about it in my paper this morning but I've done some other work on the Society post-World War II and it's very clear from the papers of David Martin, the then Executive Secretary, that he had very close personal working relationships with officials in Whitehall, and particularly the Treasury. Much of the management of the business of the Society and of British science generally, even policy-making, was done informally by this close-knit group of people, often meeting at the Athenæum just around the corner. We haven't touched on those aspects but they've been very important to the way in which the Society has been run and the way in which it has operated in British science at large and in relation to government and the state.
The third broad group of issues I'd like to raise has to do with impacts, and I've been thinking about this in terms of a question that Jon Agar raised yesterday in discussion about what difference the Royal Society has made. How would twentieth-century science have been different had the Royal Society not been there? Historians can be disinclined to make judgements about their objects of study, but that is a really interesting way of thinking about the significance of the Society in this period, I think. We've heard several approaches to that issue, in fact. Organizationally and institutionally, we've seen many of the impacts that the Society has had, promoting science both internationally and nationally. Peter Collins told us yesterday, ‘if there's one thing the Royal Society does, it does status.’ I thought that was a great phrase! Status, we heard again today, gives ‘authority’ and it gives ‘leverage’—a phrase we heard in the international session this morning. Peter Warren even referred to the ‘dilemma of status’—what happens when you invest status in something and then have to withdraw it. That becomes a very problematic issue. ‘Influence’ is another word often used in terms of the impact of the Royal Society. But what are these vague things—status, influence, leverage and so on? These are very abstract. Materially, what do they mean? How is status constructed and projected? Exclusivity and selectivity certainly help to create status. But so does the way in which this organization projects itself. It's not just the visual attractiveness of its reports and its publications; it's also a broader sense of what we might call the Society's corporate deportment in the worlds in which it chooses to move—especially perhaps in relation to government. And again you just have to look around you at the extensive portraiture on display and the various exhibitions of documents, images and artefacts to see how one of the important ways in which the Society projects itself is through its past. History is absolutely central to the way in which the Society engages with the world.
But there's a second approach to this question of the impact of the Society that I found very, very interesting over the past two days, and it has to do with how the Society actually shaped science in the twentieth century. Ken Pounds, Martyn Poliakoff, George Hemmen and Peter Morris have all started to sketch particular ways in which the Royal Society created, sponsored or supported particular fields of research. We need many more such studies of all the different ways in which the Society has sponsored particular kinds of research. I tried to show this morning how through creating the Mond Laboratory in Cambridge the Royal Society became in effect one of this country's first sponsors of big science. That leads us to think about the Royal Society not as some sort of neutral intermediary or passive advisory body but as an active agent in creating British science. The Royal Society here becomes a patron of science, rather than a courtier.
I'd like to make another quick point about status, which bears on something we heard yesterday in the session on innovation and industry and the ‘Royal Society of technology’ as might have been. I had the sense from Peter Collins's paper that in the 1960s the Royal Society was lending prestige to technology. But from Chris Snowden's paper I had the strong impression that, today, technology and innovation are in a certain sense lending prestige to the Royal Society. Like universities, the Royal Society is now very anxious to associate itself with innovation parks and the language of entrepreneurial science and business. And I find that inversion rather interesting and I'd be interested in people's views.
Fourth and last: archives and sources. The first point I want to make is the obvious importance of documentary and digital records of twentieth-century science. The retention, conservation and cataloguing of scientific records to make them accessible to researchers is critical if we want to know what happened in the past, and if we want future generations to know what's happening now. Many of the papers in this conference have drawn on extensive archival sources. Without those sources many stories would have been lost and the possibility of historical understanding gone forever. We need to preserve archives, as Walter Bodmer rightly said yesterday. It is excellent news that the Royal Society has set up a Centre for History of Science, and I'm sure the science and history of science communities will take that as a sign of the Society's interest in and commitment to the history of science. The Society is blessed with archives, and we hope that the Centre will add to them. We also hope that it will work with other archives, libraries and learned societies to make absolutely sure that the records of twentieth-century and contemporary science are preserved for posterity and for future historians. This needs to be a sustained, planned, long-term commitment, not an aspiration to which lip service is occasionally paid.
One of the wonderful things about this meeting has, I think, been to see historians and scientists actively engaging with each other in debate about interpreting the events in which the scientists were actually engaged and how one understands them historically. Those engagements have, it seems to me, had very close affinities with the Wellcome Trust Witness Seminars that Tilly Tansey runs. Those are fruitful exercises in the academic exchange of views and approaches, but they're also incredibly valuable additions to the historical record in themselves. The transcripts of discussions like that are extremely useful. I do hope that the Society's Centre for History of Science will also promote that kind of research and bring historians and scientists together for more of this kind of discussion. Historians of science can learn from talking to scientists, but I'm sure, too, that scientists have insights to gain from historians of science. The history of science as a subject can only benefit from greater collaboration; the Royal Society is the ideal place for it to happen.
↵1 D. Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920–1970 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
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