AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVII, No. 2, Fall 1995

 

Director of the NSF Program in History of Science Comments on Its Development


Ronald Overmann will retire after more than two decades as the director of the National Science Foundation's program for "Studies in Science, Technology and Society" (formerly "History and Philosophy of Science"). He completed his Ph.D. at the Indiana University, working on 17th-century science, and immediately moved to the NSF--the central US agency for funding in the history of physics and allied fields. The following is an "e-mail interview," which we propose as a new form of interviewing: AIP sent Overmann questions, which he answered in an iterative process.

Q: How has the program changed since you came to NSF?

Overmann: I came to NSF in 1973. At that time the program considered only proposals in history and philosophy of science. The program did not consider history of technology, we received no proposals on history of social sciences (I don't know whether they were discouraged or that there were simply no applicants), and certainly no social scientific studies of science and technology. Needless to say, the program has changed to accommodate the development of a richer area of STS [Science and Technology Studies]. We now have historians of science, historians of technology, philosophers of science (unfortunately, philosophy of technology has not developed in any meaningful way from what I can see) and sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists of science and technology serving on the panel.

The program has contracted in a few areas: we no longer consider logic (not tied to a specific study of a scientific theory), epistemology, or philosophy of language and mind.

NSF has not "caused" these changes in the STS area in any sense, but I think we certainly facilitated them in the US.

Q: How has history of physics fared in all these changes?

A: By opening the program to a broader spectrum of studies, the dominance in the program that history of physics once held clearly had to decrease. Impressionistically, though, it seems to me that history of physics has fallen disproportionately in comparison to biology (this also applies to the philosophy and social scientific studies of biology vis-à-vis physics).

The "character" of history of physics projects has also changed. The demands on historians tend to be greater now. We expect much more of a history proposal in any field nowadays. One can no longer ignore the social context in which science develops. I do not mean that one has to be a social contructivist to be supported, but one does have to understand and interweave a much more complex portrait of the interactions of science, theory, and experiment as they develop in society. A number of historians of pre-20th century physics seem to be providing very rich studies of how physics has developed within a full historical context. There are several outstanding examples of such studies in the history of contemporary physics, but the complexity of contemporary physics seems to have resulted in a severe limitation on the numbers of people willing and able to tackle the subject. Philosophers of physics and physicists themselves have stepped in to fill some of the gap, but their numbers seem inadequate compared to the efforts to study contemporary biology.

Q: How have funding opportunities changed?

A: The biggest change came with the Reagan revolution: the program was cut by 50% because it happened to be located in the Social Sciences division at the time. Since then, we have had to limit the amount principal investigators (PI) can receive (currently $55,000 for an academic year, $15,000 for a summer). It does not appear that the new attacks in this Congress will result in any major changes in this approach. This program could have gone back to the standard NSF guidelines, which place practically no limit on the budgets of investigators. Neither the advisory panel, nor the "Committee of Visitors" we assemble every third year, has wanted to make such a change. These guidelines provide good funding for junior scholars. Our theory is that senior scholars have access to other sources of support to fill out their salaries.

A combination of factors led to other changes in the funding opportunities. I already mentioned the demands upon historians of physics to provide a richer portrait of how their field has developed, and how difficult this is given the complexity of the subject of contemporary physics. Our advisers (panels, Visitors Committee, etc.) have concluded from this situation that new researchers in STS need enhanced training -- no program can provide them with all the subject matter and training in methods they will need to look at such complex subjects as quantum chromodynamics. So we've instituted three new programs: postdoctoral fellowships for those less than 5 years from the Ph.D., professional development fellowships for anyone who needs to learn new subject areas or methods, and "Small Grants for Training and Research" (SGTR).

I am particularly enthusiastic about SGTR's. The best way to train people on how to do research is to work with a master. The SGTR's, which support a postdoc and up to three graduate students over three years to work with proven researchers, seem to offer a real opportunity to enhance skills for the next generation of STS scholars.

Q: What are you most proud of in your 22 years at NSF? What are your regrets?

A: My regrets are easy: in a system where one declines more than 75% of all proposals, you are guaranteed to have missed some really great opportunities for the field. As Chubin and Hackett argued in their book on peer review, the system was not created to handle such fine distinctions. We should easily be funding 40% or more of all applications. We're considerably below that. Very good projects have been declined every round. That is not good for the field.

Given this low support rate, it is important to have others with different views making decisions. I worry that I stayed entirely too long in this gate-keeper role. Having said that, I am proud that I did try to facilitate rather than block the changes that were occurring in our discipline. I'm also proud of the efforts for adapting the program to severe budgetary constraints--while acknowledging the argument some people made that a better person might have prevented or lessened these constraints--for developing what I think are very innovative new efforts at enhancing training in the discipline, and for promoting the use of new electronic technologies in STS.

Q: Over the years, you've often had to justify spending taxpayers' money on this scholarly field. How have you done that? Has that changed over time?

A: When I came for my interview in 1973, I met with the deputy director of research for NSF, Ed Todd. Ed was a physicist as were most of the top leadership of NSF then. He said that "We support history of science because we are gentlemen." At that time, I probably agreed with that impression. I was a member of the "60's" generation and entered the field of HPS because I liked it, not because I saw any "practical" value in the discipline. Very quickly at NSF, I learned that there is a lot that science bureaucrats could learn from HPS studies. At a minimum, they needed to learn that not all science operates the same way as physics does -- and even that not all physics operates the way that the more "glamorous" fields of physics do. Given recent decisions at NSF on how some grants are handled, I despair that they will ever learn this lesson! Regardless, my efforts at justifying HPS funding were initially not much changed by this realization.

What did cause a change in my efforts to secure support for the program was the political attacks on the program from Senator Proxmire and Representatives Ashbrook and Bauman. Rep. Bauman, for example, attacked Sam Westfall's study of Isaac Newton: "How many times does the apple have to fall?" he asked, noting that the Library of Congress already had 123 (or thereabouts) biographies of Newton. At the time, I argued that Westfall's study was based on new scholarship that would transform our understanding of Newton; but it was too late -- you can't adequately defend to the general public a grant once someone as skilled as Bauman or Proxmire gets his political claws into one.

The lesson I learned from that experience was to rewrite all the abstracts in order to justify them in general terms that anyone could understand. Why fund a biography of Newton? I'd start an abstract by arguing how important it is to understand the processes of scientific revolution and how geniuses play a role in the transformation of science. Only at the end of the abstract might I mention Isaac Newton. One of my prouder unsung achievements was the abstract I wrote for a philosophy project which wanted to examine how social and political views enter into theories presented by scientists. Reading the abstract, one would never know that the particular area the PI was examining was the various theories for explaining the evolution of female orgasms.

I think there is a general message here. I believe that anything can be made important or made trivial. What matters is what questions you ask of a subject and how you use the topic to illuminate issues of broader concern. If you make those connections, you can make the work of some obscure medieval philosopher important; if you don't make those connections, you can trivialize a study of the rise and fall of the Superconducting Super Collider. That's one of the most important things I've learned in the 22 years I've been here.


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