Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities
Research project

What can history teach us about the prospects of a European Research Area? (HISTERA)

This study resulted in a report describing some main traits in the development of the European knowledge society up to the present, significantly the tight interactions (co-productions) of science and politics.

From Bio to Geos? The Histera report suggests that we are living a paradigm shift in which the geosciences overtake the life sciences (Bios) as narrators of the fate and place of human societies in Nature.

Main content


The study will review existing state of the art research within history, philosophy and sociology of science, science and technology studies (STS), science policy studies, and, to the extent that it is required, neighbouring fields within the humanities and social sciences (notably general European history and the philosophy of knowledge). New empirical research on primary historical sources is not foreseen. The novelty and originality of the study will reside in its empirical synthesis and theoretical analysis, and this is what will ensure the quality needed for the study as well as its international publication. The research team has an ample track record in this regard.

As for the particular methodological issues foreseen, we would like to highlight one issue that is important also for the intellectual content: that of the definition of science. When asking what history can teach about science and research, one must recall that the object of study has changed over the centuries. First, the terms “science” and “research” themselves come with their (rather short) history; indeed, several of the men who later have been acclaimed as European scientific heroes, thought of themselves as natural philosophers or experimental philosophers. Secondly, what we may call scientific practice is really a set of highly diverse practices, both diachronically and synchronically. This complexity calls for methodological and theoretical care; this is indeed a main point from the entire STS research tradition but before also from philosophers such as Stephen Toulmin, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. Any useful analysis needs to go behind the “grand narrative” of the Unity of Science. Still, this does not in any way imply that there are no insights and lessons to be learnt from history; it is just that they require a critical and reflexive perspective.

Research questions

In this study, we will manage the described complexity by distinguishing on three different roles and functions of what we may call science across the centuries:

  • We will ask the question of universalism of science with respect to internal scientific discourses and the perspective of scientific practice. What does history tell us about the exchange of scientific ideas, results, texts and practices during the centuries before, during and after the so-called Scientific Revolution? To what extent did national cultures (say, French, German, British and later Anglo-American, Russian) exist and play a significant role in the development of science? What role did the gradual transition play from Latin as the major written academic language, to a diversity of European languages, then later to the current hegemony of English? There ample historical sources that can be utilised to answer this question.
  • We will ask the question of universalism of science with respect to the role of scientific research and science-related technological development and innovation (often summarised by the term technoscience) in the economic development of nations. Again, being careful not to fall into blatant anachronism, it is important to note that this history does not begin after WWII and the Vannevar Bush-inspired discourse on science as the engine in the growth economy (“the endless frontier”) and the linear model. We will have to go back to, e.g., the role of chemistry in the development of textile industry in the 19th century (notably the development of industrial dyes to colour textiles), and perhaps even the role of classical physics (magnetism, mechanics and astronomy) in national competition for economic and military superiority in the 17th and 18th century (above all on the seas, such as for navigation).
  • Finally, there is the very important issue of the role of science in the legitimation and constitution of the modern nation state, not so much in terms of actual scientific practice, but as a source of epistemic authority. The question of universalism of science has been very important in this regard; indeed, the epistemic authority of science has often been thought to lie in its universal method; its set of universal norms (including universalism); its borderless, global and open institutions; etc. This leitmotif was indeed very important in early 20th century philosophy of science and sociology of science (for instance represented by Robert Merton and his famous formulation of the ethos of science as the set of norms commun(al)ism, universalism, disinterestedness and organized scepticism (later supplemented by humility and originality). In the STS research field a lot of work has been done to give historical and critical perspective to the kind of discourse that Merton and Karl Popper may be seen as representatives of.

Science policy discourse, including parts of the academic science policy studies literature, has occasionally conflated these three aspects of science. We hypothesize that part of the astonishment exemplified by the statement by European Commissioner Michel Barnier in the call (“Why haven’t we managed to do for research what we did for agriculture?”) could be relieved by an analysis that does take into account the diversity of roles and functions for science. We note that European Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is designated Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, which indicates the acknowledgment of the differences and diversity among practices and functions in what sometimes was called “science” only (or sometimes “research” only). Our study will provide intellectual under-pinning and depth to such distinctions.

To some extent our study will also be able to take into account synchronic diversity and compare the issues and questions under study with respect to different scientific fields. For instance, whereas the PI (Rommetveit) and Coordinator (Strand) have specific expertise on the history and philosophy of the biosciences (including medicine and biotechnology), project team members Fjelland and Kaiser have specific expertise on the history and philosophy of physics and the geosciences, respectively. This has general importance, because the various disciplines have been serving different functions to a different extent. There is, however, also the specific issues of which scientific fields produce technical objects and procedures (phenomenotechnique in Gaston Bachelard’s terms; technical objects in Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s terms) that later may lead to innovation and commercialization; and which scientific fields are prone to produce trustworthy numbers that give epistemic authority to public and private decision-making processes (cf the scholarship of Theodore Porter, Sheila Jasanoff, Silvio Funtowicz, Jerome Ravetz and others). Hence, the dimension of scientific fields enters as a relevant one in the distinction between the three roles and functions above described.

Final report

On October 4th 2013, Roger Strand and Kjetil Rommetveit launched the report "What can history teach us about the development of a European research Area?" at a seminar in the European Commission in Brussels. The report was authored by SVT researchers Kjetil Rommetveit, Roger Strand, Ragnar Fjelland and Silvio Funtowicz.

There are important lessons to be learned for research policy from the history, philosophy and sociology of science. Current European research policies make a number of assumptions about the role of scientific research and innovation in our economies and societies. They also make assumptions about the governability of scientific research by public management and quantitative tools such as research indicators. These assumptions have their history and they (often implicitly) rely on particular philosophical and political commitments. At the time of writing (2013) Europe is faced with serious economic and political challenges. Accordingly, it is a good time to rethink fundamental assumptions. With this purpose, this report displays and discusses some central features and principles of European history and philosophy of science.

The report describes some main traits in the development of the European knowledge society up to the present, significantly the tight interactions (co-productions) of science and politics. It highlights the important role played by the humanities and the humanist tradition in European history, and the potential of these for addressing some of Europe’s most pressing challenges in the present. Main recommendations from the report include:

European Values: Return to Reason

The central piece of heritage from the European Renaissance is the humanist ideal of reasoned dialogue between reasonable persons who are aware of their own limitations and are curious to learn from others.

European Values: Diversity and Tolerance

In the same heritage from the Renaissance, diversity of opinions and perspectives is considered a resource for understanding and living with complex issues and not as noise to be filtered away from singular truth.

European Values: Universalism, Democracy and Public Knowledge

A return to reason would imply that elites admit the limitations of their knowledge and therefore the need for the citizenry to accept responsibility and commit to actively contributing to the future of society. A celebration of diversity would imply a strengthening of other voices than those of industry. Democracy means that everybody is entitled to have their voice heard and universalism means that it is reasonable to listen to them.

Grand Challenges and Deep Innovation

Assessments of the success of policies on grand challenges through deep innovation should include assessments of ultimate outcomes and not just proxies such as the development of consumer products and services that somehow may claim to be related to the challenges. Grounded in the original concept of innovation, we propose an emphasis on new interlinkages between the grand challenges. Closely related to the three action points above, deep innovation would signify the profound involvement of members of society in the development of new ideas and new solutions; not just as passively receiving consumers but as citizens who participate and through their involvement build new forms of agency.

  • Read the full final report below.