The British Society for the History of Science held our first ever digital conference on Wednesday 12th February 2020, using the social media platform Twitter. The theme was ‘Global and International Histories of STEM’.

Thank you to everyone who joined the conversation!

All of the papers are collated here for easy access

 Click here to view a .pdf of the full Programme



This conference has been inspired by the Underpinnings Museum Twitter Conference #UPMTC, organised by Lorraine Smith. You can find out more about their conference: https://underpinningsmuseum.com/archive-twitter-conference-12-01-18/

How did it work?


Each ‘paper’ consisted of a thread of 6 – 12 tweets, written in advance.

Each ‘paper’ was tweeted out from a BSHS Twitter account at a scheduled time.

The ‘presenters’ were online on their personal account answering questions, promoting discussion, and sharing additional information and resources.

Transcriptions for Audiovisual Content

@emmelineledgerwood ‘Privatisation of government science: scientists and the effects of organisational change on their working lives’

Scientific research labs that belonged to 🇬🇧 govt departments post-WW2 underwent transformational changes towards the end of the 20C. I 🎙️ 20 former govt scientists for @BL_OralHistory about the impact of change on their working lives https://tinyurl.com/vlfevr3

My interviewees worked at the public sector research establishments #PSREs that became @BRE_Group, @QinetiQ and @dstlmod. They were part of the scientific civil service that many entrants saw as offering a secure and steady career. 🗨 https://tinyurl.com/ujggnhl

I liked … you see there was structure, everything had a sort of … from the promotion side, you knew there was ASO, SO, HSO., SSO and PSO and there were pay increments in between so you could work your way up, even up a pay band in the level you were in so you could project, you knew when you needed to start thinking about promotion, and what you needed to do to get to the next level if you wanted to get to the next level, if you got to the top of the level and there were no more pay increases, so there was what I called a career structure, you knew what you had to do to get to the next stage, you didn’t have to, but if you wanted to climb the ladder it was very clear what you needed to do. [59 secs] 

My focus today is on scientists who worked in @DefenceHQ #PSREs.🥼 🥽 🔬 🧪 🔥 💣 🌡 🔭 📡 📏 🛠📒 💡 💻 💿 📰 A 1983 Defence Science brochure gives an idea of the complexity of this network and the scope of research in progress at #PSREs such as RAE.

Some scientists advised policymakers in Whitehall or became technical experts in ‘intelligent’ equipment procurement. In the #PSREs work could mean pure science, applied research or tests and trials; many describe the job as fun. 🗨https://tinyurl.com/uvo6pfb

When I was in the weapons group there was work there to do with weapon aiming from Canberra aircraft with very early prototype helmet mounted display, little CRT mounted on the side of the pilot’s helmet and a little TV camera in the front of the aeroplane, and I’d go off to various disused airfields with my boss and we’d have to blow up tanks, not blow blow them up but inflatable tanks, so they were there, arrange them in certain orientations for aircraft to fly in and people would analyse the results afterwards, so exciting times. [49 secs]

From 1979 the Tories under Thatcher embarked on reforming the size, systems and structure of the civil service. Heseltine pioneered the use of commercial management practices as part of a drive to create a leaner, more efficient and more accountable machine.

The goal of public accountability saw project management become the preferred method by which #PSREs kept track of their scientific research programmes, but staff were not so sure about its value. 🗨https://tinyurl.com/um67c4t & 🗨https://tinyurl.com/s7drp9y

It then became much more important to do things on time and on budget, and whether you actually achieved anything became sort of less important; prior to that it was a matter of achieving things. Time and budget were in there, but they weren’t the drivers. ….  We went on a project manager’s course and there in the back were some old hands like me, this must have been ‘96 and it was how to do project management using Microsoft Project, and at the end of it were asked how we had done and all the rest of it, and the old hands at the back were saying, “Just one thing – you have never accepted an answer of ‘no’ to the question, ‘Have we achieved this?’ Science has an awful lot of nos. Is the project management that you have taught us therefore applicable to an activity like science where the answer comes out as no?” [1 min 14 secs] 

To accelerate management reform, the government’s next step was to create executive agencies that operated at arm’s length from the centre. #PSRE managers were given the freedom to recruit staff and manage their own budgets. 🗨https://tinyurl.com/r28r78v

There was a feeling that maybe we would have a few new degrees of freedom that we hadn’t enjoyed before because always before there would always be a duty to refer to central government or to have their attitudes and what have you governing what we did whereas now we’d be able to …set our sights on something a bit different. The practicality of it is that actually all these companies and universities were looking at us because we were government and a source of funds and a source of advice so once you take that away some of our attractiveness to other people diminished, I’m sure of that. [53 secs]

#PSRE staff were expected to adapt to structures and practices geared towards commercial operations that were very different to those they were used to in the civil service. 🗨https://tinyurl.com/rgfjxcl.

The problem for those of us that had been in the civil service was that we had to adapt to a new way of working so we’d been recruited to be civil servants, we’d been recruited to deliver and we developed a civil service mentality of public service, and then we’d learnt to have those freedoms, and we expected to have those freedoms, and when we moved into a more market driven approach then that wasn’t possible. we were conditioned to believe that it should be possible. If we’d all worked in industry in the first place we wouldn’t have had the same stresses and strains. It was hugely hugely stressful for most people. i’m not saying the management was bad at all, I’m not saying from the top down people were being uncaring, it was simply that the demands of the new role were not ones that people adjusted to. [1m 34 s]

The defence #PSREs operated as an agency 1991-2001 until their activities were split between the private @QinetiQ and public @dstlmod. 1990s = amalgamations, rationalisations and relocations, plus schemes to promote culture change. 🗨https://tinyurl.com/rcprgv4

The biggest change was when we moved away from the buildings, when we moved from the old site, in my case from R50 building, over to A7 in the Cody Technology Park. There weren’t rooms for having coffee breaks, it was an open plan office and you had a lab, so the chance to interact was a lot harder. Ok, teams were roughly co-located but you didn’t have this cohesive element of meeting at half-ten or eleven o’clock or whatever and have a chat together about various things. The chat was from the lowest to the divisional superintendent, so you had a good understanding of what was going on. At the time I don’t think I appreciated it but you learn a lot just from the chatting and talking and you realise how important it was in the understanding you had in your day to day job. [56 secs]

Familiar patterns of KE were upset. Establishments began competing against former industrial collaborators to win contracts. Scientists’ performance was assessed more on project utilisation rates rather than peer-reviewed outputs. 🗨https://tinyurl.com/rgfjxcl.

What did change though what we didn’t have time for the seminar type of thing, so we were a moderately academic bunch of people doing moderately academic work, so what we used to do, for as an example, if someone was going to give a talk at a conference, we’d get the whole group together and the person would give the talk and then we’d pull it apart for two hours. But of course you can’t have 10 people sitting there for two hours when they should be working on their projects which have a different cost code to the one of the speaker. So the transfer of information backwards and forwards between members of the group reduced quite significantly during that time. [51 secs]

#PSRE changes ️ generalists rather than specialists and weaker links between central government and scientists. A new @uksciencechief report https://tinyurl.com/v9jbhsr wants more science and scientists embedded across government. 🗨https://tinyurl.com/uw4y5qc 

There’s been a tension ever since the start of the agency shift between, there’s been a continual perception, mainly by those people who are deep experts, that deep expertise is not valued and that if you continue doing the same thing your career will stall at quite an early level and the people who get on or those who move around a lot and become far more generalist and know a little bit about a lot and have a lot of contacts, whether that’s beneficial across … there’s merit in both approaches it’s getting the balance between the two, if you have an organisation full of deep, deep specialists who never talk to anybody, that’s not very good, but if you have an organisation of lots of people with a little dangerous knowledge that’s not good either, it’s getting the balance right and I’m not sure what that is or whether anybody’s ever really succeeded in doing that. [57 seconds]

So ends my 📢 for #oralhistory in 20C #histstem! More scientist clips @SoundArchive https://shar.es/a3EIUy. Thanks to my interviewees for sharing in the production of this @HyPIRUoL @BL_OralHistory @ahrcpress @CDPConnect project. 🗨https://tinyurl.com/rgfjxcl. #BSHSGlobalHist

It’s been a pleasure, it’s quite exhausting and it’s quite hard remembering some of these things, your questions have been really good, they’ve drawn out memories from the past. I have to confess it’s rather nice to know there’ll be something in the British Library in hundreds of years’ time. It’s going to be a wonderful resource for historians as years go by. [45 secs]