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Egenis · Events

Reconfiguring ‘sciences’: historical perspectives and recent bio-medicine &
Making way for molecular biology: implementing, managing, and publicizing reform of biological science at the University of Manchester, 1980-93







Prof John Pickstone, Wellcome Research Professor &

Dr Duncan Wilson, Faculties of Manchester University

Organised by



GF7, Byrne House

Time: 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Event details

'Reconfiguring ‘sciences’: historical perspectives and recent bio-medicine'

Abstract: My Exeter paper is situated between Duncan’s study of Manchester, and the later parts of my Isis article on working knowledges ( Sept 2007, On LINE). The aim is to see how recent reconfigurations of bio-medicine can usefully be placed in historical perspective. To this end I will use ‘old’ Ways of Knowing – Nat Phil, Nat hist/craft, mixed maths; but also ideas on the formation of new analytical disciplines, on the push to manipulation and to synthesis (and to application), and on the ‘mergers’ of disciplines. For all these aspects, I shall briefly consider the relations between cognitive, practical, and social configurations.

'Making way for molecular biology: implementing, managing, and publicizing reform of biological science at the University of Manchester, 1980-93.”

Abstract: In 1986, eleven of Manchester University’s biological science departments – many with origins in the nineteenth century – were reconstituted into a four department interdisciplinary school, organized around research interests, with the methods and claims of molecular biology at its core. This reorganization was the largest in the University’s history and the resultant School structure was one that became increasingly common, both in other University disciplines and in biological science across the UK. I examine here how the reform of Manchester biology was contingent on two, interacting, factors – one national and one local. At a broad level, universities were compelled to reorganize disciplines due to stinging budget cuts imposed by the incumbent Conservative administration in 1981; at the core of these cuts was a desire to encourage growth in applied, economically remunerative, fields such as molecular biology. In Manchester, a group of young professors used these funding cuts to promote their own view of the biological sciences as one interdisciplinary field, unified by molecular biology. Their resultant, but contentious, School of Biological Sciences was the result of a conscious mediation between national policy and local agendas.

I also show how this School was contingent on, and furthered, many of the factors isolated by recent models in the sociology of knowledge – primarily the turn to applied research, closer engagement with industrial and political interest, and increasing public dissemination of research results and goals. I argue that historians should not shy away from applying their case-studies to broad methodologies; the interaction between the national and the local in the reconfiguration of biology should encourage mediation between institutional studies and the ‘big picture’.

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