Decision making about science and technology policy

Week 9

Learning objectives:

  • Describe three basic mechanisms that governments have historically used to make decisions about science
  • Evaluate the policy-making environment in Canada against these three models
  • Describe advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives

Committees, courts, and bureaucracies in making S&T policy

“Whoever he is, whether he is the wisest scientist in the world, we must never tolerate a scientific overlord again.”C.P. Snow


Here we address a central question for science, technology, and public policy – how do governments decide about scientific issues?  Decisions about science may be different from other decisions, because elected politicians and appointed bureaucrats may lack the specialized knowledge of the scientists who generate the knowledge about which decisions are being made.


In the Smardon text, Asleep at the Switch, you have a detailed explanation of a complex set of specifically Canadian scientific policy issues over a period of decades, described in several hundred pages. We have read Smardon in three parts: first, an overview; secondly, the industrial R&D experience; and finally, the policy background to that experience.  As we come to Smardon’s conclusions, you get a sense of policy choices by successive governments,  and their impact over time on Canada’s research and development capacity and industrial base. You should also have a sense of Smardon’s explanation of these choices, and in particular of the social (and personal) pressures that have led a particular class of entrepreneurs and decision-makers  to behave in the way that they have.


Think of Smardon as a thoroughly detailed view of a single national case of science and technology policy examined over time. Now we will consider a brilliant synopsis of a big picture, universal generalization about scientific decision-making, which is nevertheless deeply rooted in an understanding of human nature and organizational dynamics, described by a participant in historical events.


Charles Percy Snow was a British physicist and public servant before the Second World War. As a young man, he was one of the secretaries to the Tizard-Lindemann committee, which was charged with a critical decision – could the new science of radar be trusted as a bulwark of British defence?  Snow is a gifted observer of human dynamics (he’s also a celebrated novelist), and brilliantly describes the different characteristics of three different ways of making decisions. More than that, he tells the story as a drama of personal interaction, involving characters that have become household names (certainly Churchill and Lord Cherwell, and Tizard and Lindemann for the cognoscenti).


The text is 57 pages, and the self assessment questions below should keep you on track for the things to look for in each section.

Required Reading

C.P. Snow (1960) Science and Government. The Godkin Lectures.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Optional Reading

Mukerjee,  Madhusree (2015) “Lord Cherwell: Churchill’s Confidence Man,” History Net


Edgerton, D. (2005). CP Snow as Anti-historian of British Science: Revisiting the Technocractic Moment, 1959-1964. History of science43, 187-208.


Complete required reading and prepare for seminar.


If you choose this subject as your second assignment, the brief should address the question: What are the key roles of a national science advisor, and how might they be executed? You may vary from this if you discuss your proposal with the professor.

Self-Assessment Questions

  • The two protagonists of Snow’s morality tale are Tizard and Lindemann. How does Lord May, author of the Foreword, characterize Lindemann, and why do you think this is significant to Snow’s theme?
  • (Part I) what is the caution that Snow offers about diagrams of parliamentary responsibility and theories of administration and organization?
  • (Part II – describing Tizard) Is Snow equally enamored of both the protagonists, Tizard and Lindemann? Is this important for the conclusions?
  • (Part III – describing Lindemann) What are the personal characteristics that foreshadow the moral of the story?
  • (Part IV – the Tizard-Lindemann friendship) Neither man stayed in pure science – why? Why was this important?
  • (Part V –  science and high society) What were the two different paths pursued by Tizard and Lindemann between the wars? Why is this part of the storyline?
  • (Part VI – the air defence committee) How did Tizard come to dominate the air defence committee?
  • what was important about the composition of the committee?
  • What were the committee dynamics that led to Tizard’s ascendancy?
  • What are the different outcomes pointed to by ‘open’ and ‘closed’ politics?
  • (Part VII – Churchill brings in Lindemann) What stopped Tizard, and from what was he stopped?
  • When he was sidelined, what task was Tizard given, and why was this significant?
  • (Part VIII – row over strategic bombing) What does the outcome of this row suggest, as described by Snow?
  • (Part IX – the moral of the story) What are the conclusions Snow draws about the environment for scientific decision making? [this is the key part]
  • what are open and closed politics, as Snow describes them?
  • what are the three characteristic forms of closed politics?
  • What are the euphorias that one should beware of?


Participation evaluation for week 9 Concepts will consist of:

  • 60s: What are the three forms of decision-making Snow describes, and why are they likely to prevail in scientific decision-making?
  • 60c: Why should we be cautious about the lessons Snow draws from these tales?
  • 5R: Snow is a practitioner of scientific policy and draws important lessons about how science policy should be done.  What are the key recommendations?  Discuss for 5 minutes. Present the results in 60s. There is an opportunity for a minority report as a 60c.


Questions and discussion