From 30 November 2017 to 1 December 2017

Mini-conference: Funding Bodies in Late Modern Science

© Khakimullin
© Khakimullin

In the mini-conference Funding Bodies in Late Modern Science, organised by the Descartes Centre, we want to explore the tension between distrust and trust, between the procedural and personal, in funding modes. Our central questions are how funding bodies of academic research have developed over time; how they have reconfigured “who truth-speakers are in late modernity” (Shapin p.6) and how this has changed (techno)scientific practices over the course of the twentieth century.

The Scientific Life. A Late Modern Vocation

In his The Scientific Life. A Late Modern Vocation Steven Shapin addresses the status of the late modern scientist. On the one hand, we have an image of modernized and rationalized science: there is an impersonal, universal scientific method that has made science an object of planning as much as any other domain of modern society: “The full expression of the rule of rule over spontaneity is found in the confidence that the production of truth can be not just rationally organized but effectively planned.” (p.10) In this image of science it is of no importance who the scientist is: s/he is just an executor who is ‘morally equivalent’.

Personal virtue, familiarity and charisma

At the same time, however, Shapin shows us that in late modern technoscience supposedly “premodern resources” like personal virtue, familiarity, and charisma have become all the more important in the production and spread of scientific knowledge and technologies. “Late modernity proliferates uncertainties”, Shapin argues, “and it is in the quotidian management of those uncertainties that the personal, the familiar, and the charismatic flourish.” (p.5).

The funding body

Whereas Shapin focuses on industrial research – en passant questioning many of the supposed differences between science in industry and academia – we want to turn to a defining institution of academic research that displays similar tensions: the funding body. In recent years, these agencies have received much criticism, as they would have installed an audit culture in science: a culture of accountability with anonymised protocols, standardized application procedures and cycles of quality control, that are part of the present-day system of competitive research funding.

Trust and distrust

Funding bodies, in short, seem illustrative of the organized distrust that would be typical of late modern institutions. Yet, it can easily be argued that trust remains very much central to the workings of funding bodies. The judgement of applications, for one, is often a process of personal interaction. In fact, following Shapin, we might postulate that in the organization of competitive research funding in late modernity a supposedly premodern resource like trust has become all the more important in the distribution of funds and management of careers.


Thursday 30 November

Speakers: Melinda Baldwin, Ludovic Tournes, Kirsti Niskanen

Paper sessions

  • Ab Flipse (Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit) – The universities between the state and the market: changes in governance, funding and quality control since the 1980s in the Netherlands. The case of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and its distinctive identity
  • Timo Bolt (Rotterdam) – The remarkable rise of clinical epidemiology in the Netherlands: The crucial role of the charity funds and the Health insurance fund council
  • Jorrit Smit (Leiden) – Who cuts the cake? The emerging practice of priority-setting for research funding in Western Europe 1963-1979
  • Michael Barany (Dartmouth College) – Rockefeller bureaucracy and the mid-twentieth century globalization of elite mathematics

Friday 1 December

Speakers: Mark Solovey, Laura Stark, Steve Fuller

Paper sessions

  • Emily Gibson (National Science Foundation) – “Keeping the United States at the leading edge of discovery:” Setting research priorities and allocating funds at the National Science Foundation, 1950-2010
  • Krist Vaesen (Eindhoven/Leiden) and Joel Katzav (Queensland) – The National Science Foundation and philosophy of science’s withdrawal from social concerns
  • Thomas Lean (British Library) and Sally Horrocks (Leicester) – “An important part of the science infrastructure”: The changing role of a learned society in late modern science
  • Mona Nasser (Plymouth) and Wendy Reijmerink (ZonMW) – How research funders respond to the call for reducing research waste and ensuring responsible research conduct
Start date and time
30 November 2017
End date and time
1 December 2017