Modernity and the mobility of knowledge: fundamental research in Britain's colonial laboratories after 1940

Speaker: Dr Sabine Clarke # University of York

16th Nov 2015

15:30 - 17:00

Staff Room, 6th floor, Crystal Macmillan Building, George Square, University of Edinburgh

Officials and scientists that considered colonial development after 1940 projected a hierarchy in networks of knowledge. In this hierarchy the knowledge produced by fundamental research was most mobile and travelled further than the knowledge produced by other scientific and medical activity. ‘Fundamental research’ in the discourse of science and development that emerged was used to denote ‘general research’ - work that explored widely-occurring problems that transcended individual locales, in contrast to the study of problems of only limited significance related to one problem or site and designated as ‘local’. Fundamental research was not necessarily positioned as the essential precursor for applied work, or used as a term equivalent to the older expression ‘pure science’. Instead it was presented as an activity distinguished from other types of investigation and technical activity on the basis that its remit was greater and its findings were more mobile. The creation of new tropical laboratories after 1940 to pursue fundamental research were said to allow the colonies to make a contribution to the international advance of science. This ability to participate in the march of international scientific progress was one way in which it was said that Britain’s colonies would become part of the modern world. Importantly, only generalizable fundamental research could bestow this status; research into more discrete or ‘local’ issues could not promote an institution to the level of a centre for world science.

The importance of a distinction between different species of knowledge produced by so-called Western science, rather than merely distinguishing between Western science and indigenous knowledge, has been overlooked by scholars. In addition studies have often been mainly concerned with the social and material factors that were important for the movement of knowledge. This paper is concerned with the meanings of circulation for actors in the past and will consider how those meanings were produced. Focussing on the rhetorical and symbolic functions of the idea of the circulation of knowledge means considering how the an expansion of ‘fundamental research’ as ‘general research’ was related to issues such as the professional status of scientists, ideas of colonial development and incipient modernity and Britain’s reputation as a colonial power.

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