AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXIX, No. 1, Spring 1997

 

Historians of Physical Sciences Weather Budget Storms

The last few years have tested historians with troubled situations in government funding and employment (see this Newsletter, fall 1995 and spring 1996), but professional work in history of science appears to have ridden through the storms. Funding for research projects is within reach, output of publications continues to climb, and educators are increasingly optimistic.

On the input side, the U.S. National Science Foundation continues to provide substantial grants for history of science. The grants may indeed be easier to obtain than many historians, wary of Federal budget cuts, now recognize. Ed Hackett, the new director of the NSF program, informs us that the number of proposals received per semi-annual cycle peaked at 114 around 1991 and has declined steadily ever since; in fall 1996 fewer than 50 proposals were received. In consequence, "Last year we funded about 40% of the proposals, and a higher fraction of dissertations," Hackett writes. "But, as with a mutual fund, past performance is no guarantee of future results."

For output a key measure is the publication of scholarly works. One can get statistics for books and articles on the history of 20th-century physical sciences by counting those listed in that category of the Isis Current Bibliography (issued annually by the History of Science Society). The CB recorded a total of 162 modern physical science publications in its 1985 edition, 177 in 1990, ad 212 in 1995. Publications on 19th-century physical sciences also showed a rise: 112, 115, 133. While the CBs coverage of the literature has somewhat expanded over the years, it is likely that these figures represent real increases in the volume of publication.

No systematic statistics are available for education in the history of science, but conversations with professors at a number of leading institutions give an overall impression of confidence. Undergraduates continue to flock into good history of physics courses wherever they are offered. Applications for graduate study remain strong, even though most applicants have a realistic understanding that academic employment is no longer the most likely sequel to a PhD. While the exponential growth enjoyed by historians of science over the past half-century has ended, it appears that at least a stable state has been attained.


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