Research History

David Edge

David Edge (1932-2003)

In 2016, ISSTI took part in a wide-ranging celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Science Studies Unit (SSU50). At the occasion, Prof Robin Williams wrote a detailed overview paper of the Edinburgh centres' history: Still growing strong 50 years of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh (EASST Review, 35(3)). A short summary of this rich story is below...

The University of Edinburgh is one of the leading UK centres for research into the social character as well as the social and economic implications of science and technology. Much of this research is united by a shared concern with 'social shaping'. This perspective rejects determinist notions that see science and technology or their impact on society as 'given', in favour of the view that complex political, economic and other social forces together shape science and technology, and so govern our choices over them.

The oldest research centre within the ISSTI network - the Science Studies Unit - was founded in 1964 by the late David Edge (1932-2003) as part of an initiative, inspired by the debate arising from C. P. Snow's Two Cultures (Cambridge, 1959), to introduce wider and more interdisciplinary teaching into the curriculum of science and engineering students. The team brought together by David Edge, the sociologist Barry Barnes, and the philosopher David Bloor, joined shortly after by the historian Steven Shapin, developed the symmetry principle which gave rise to the so-called "strong programme" in the sociology of scientific knowledge. This highly distinctive approach proved so radical and influential that it changed the field, and its practitioners became known throughout the world as the "Edinburgh School".


Members of the Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s. Back row, left to right: Mike Barfoot, Steven Shapin, Carole Tansley, Moyra Forrest, Andy Pickering, Dave Smith. Front row: David Bloor, David Edge, Barry Barnes, David Miller.

The strong programme was one of the roots of the emerging social shaping of technology perspective developed at Edinburgh by MacKenzie and Wajcman. This took a leap forward in 1986 with Edinburgh’s successful bid for a centre under the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) (1987-1995). This interdisciplinary grouping was convened by Robin Williams, through the Research Centre for Social Sciences (RCSS), established to support high quality research across the Social Sciences (including training and enngagement with external agencies) and to promote and host inter-disciplinary research on technology and on Scotland. This programme of collaborative interdisciplinary research on technology continued after PICT ended and has grown substantially. Its focus has broadened to include life science technologies with the successful bid for an ERSC Centre for Socioeconomic Research on Innovation in genomics (Innogen) (2002-7 and 2007-12).

Barnes and Williams

Barry Barnes (center) and Robin Williams (right)

ISSTI was established in 2001, coordinated by the RCSS, to connect up cognate specialist research groups and centres at the University of Edinburgh including the Science Studies Unit, the ESRC Innogen Centre, the Japanese European Technology Studies (JETS) in Economics and the Entrepreneurship and Innovation group in the Business School and Economics. Further contributions are made by colleagues across the School of Social and Political Studies and with other schools in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences including the School of Law with its specialist research centre in Intellectual Property and Technology Law. ISSTI also benefits from close links with the College of Science and Engineering (especially its Schools of  Engineering, Geosciences and Informatics). Through Innogen these contacts have been extended to the life sciences and to the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

A measure of ISSTI's success was the merger, in 2008, of the Science Studies Unit and the RCSS to create a new subject group of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS).  STIS also houses Innogen, and continues to coordinate ISSTI, as well as delivering the University of Edinburgh's undergraduate teaching and postgraduate training programmes in science, technology and society.