‘The Odd Ones’: Early Career Workshop in Science and the Humanities

Last week, I attended a one-day workshop at the University of Reading for early career scholars in Science and the Humanities.  Funded by the British Academy, the workshop aimed to bring together a group of scholars working primarily in history or English with an interest in science to discuss making connections – be they intellectual or methodological, or practical – including approaches used by and issues facing interdisciplinary scholars working in the cross sections.

Following David Stack’s introduction (to which the title of this blog post is indebted) we launched into the day with Charlotte Sleigh’s keynote address: ‘Scientifiction: Methodological Problems’. Charlotte moved through a discussion of methodological approaches to the study of literature and history and on to the idea of ‘scientifiction’ – a term coined by Hugo Gernsback in 1926 for stories that offered the pleasing combination of scientific facts and stories.  Sleigh led us through the 1930s science fiction landscape, highlighting difficulties of exploring this period – the objects themselves are not necessarily directly available – and also interesting period-specific aspects – the interconnections of writers who formed networks such as the British Interplanetary Society, and the nature of the technology available to them in publishing for a select audience.

One of the most effective aspects of the day (aside from the tea and coffee breaks, which provided delicious snacks and the opportunity to meet and talk with the other delegates) was the breakout sessions, which enabled the discussion of key ideas in the study of science and the humanities in smaller groups.  In the first of these sessions, ‘Comparing Methodologies and Assumptions’ our group began with a discussion on the materiality of objects and the way this can affect the way in which we approach and explore our texts – for example, the placement of advertisements in 19th century periodicals – and moving on to the approaches we could take to images or objects within our research, alongside levels of intentionality in promoting science.

Following lunch, Neil Messer spoke on ‘The Research Funding Context’, offering us an overview of humanities and science funding sources such as the AHRC, British Academy and the Wellcome Trust, giving an outline of the AHRC’s Science in Culture theme (more information here) and general pointers for research funding applications.  Neil was followed by John Holmes on ‘Impact and Interdisciplinarity: Finding Pathways’ who examined alternative pathways to research funding in science and the humanities, expanding on his own experience, indicating a range of funding options, the potential of funding from scientific bodies and the importance of impact for these applications.  The second breakout session consequently focused on ‘Designing an Interdisciplinary Research Bid’, and our group entered into a discussion on the definition of the finer points of writing and presenting research bids, including the approach of museums and learned institutions for collaborative work.

The day finished with a roundtable plenary on ‘Science and the Humanities’ chaired by Michael Fulford with contributions from Peter Bowler and Martin Willis as well as the day’s other speakers.  Michael noted that small grants could be used as pilots for larger bids to come later, Martin argued the case for being an expert in both fields for interdisciplinary scholars, and Peter warned against hero-mongering in the history of science. That literature and science and the history of science pull in slightly different directions in the questions they ask should not be a disadvantage; instead, the panel indicated, we can use this to ask questions from both approaches.  Also, as Neil pointed out, bringing scientific understanding into the debate too provides another perspective altogether, with a view of science from the inside.

All in all, a day which made me proud (and excited) to call myself interdisciplinary.  With thanks due to the speakers, the British Academy for funding the conference, the Reading conferencing staff, and David and John for putting the day together.

Katherine Ford

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.