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Letter from the Director

Situating Science and Beyond

Twelve years ago the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of 
Science (CSHPS/SCHPS), spearheaded an open letter to the governing 
council of SSHRC.  CSHPS was worried that our vital interdisciplinary 
field was falling between funding cracks, having no focused site for 
peer reviewing and financial support for STS/HPS in Canada. SSHRC itself 
was in the midst of one of its endless restructuring exercises, 
exploring different models of support for collective and individual 
research. Raising the ire of many Canadian scholars in humanities and 
social sciences, SSHRC increasingly felt the pull towards “innovation”, 
“impact”, and immediate social relevance; SSHRC’s favoured model was 
explicitly “science”.

Not so fast, the open letter warned.  If there was to be any discussion 
of “scientific models” and the relevance of specific research to social 
and civil society, SSHRC had better listen closely to those best 
positioned to examine and unpack received models borrowed from the 
sciences: namely those very underfunded scholars working in the field of 
history, philosophy and social studies of science. CSHPS’s open letter 
to SSHRC found some traction amongst our colleagues in other disciplines 
across Canada.  Shortly after, SSHRC issued a call for proposals for the 
construction of large scale exploratory “strategic networks”, intending 
to imagine new ways of bringing humanities and social science scholars 
together, disseminating knowledge, and creating new partnerships with 
non-academic institutions and “stakeholders” (Van Helsing jokes aside).  
CSHPS’s open letter rapidly metamorphosed into plans for constructing a 
national strategic knowledge cluster in the humanities and social 
studies of science and technology, drawing on Canada’s acknowledged 
capacity in that area.

Admittedly, it was a utopian dream, funded by 

successive SSHRC’s “Cluster Development” grants. National brainstorming 
sessions in 2004-2006 hammered out the structure and themes for such an 
ideal network, drawing on recognised strengths in Canada. An 
international lecture series on “Trust in Science” (Halifax) was 
followed by an international symposium/conference on the same theme in 
Toronto (CBC Headquarters). Institutions signed on to the project, and 
the negotiations began. Enthusiasm for such a scheme was matched by 
trepidation and skepticism about the ability for such diverse fields as 
sociology, history and philosophy of science to peacefully co-exist. We 
were gingerly treading on the remaining minefields of the so-called 
“Science Wars” of the 1990s, where battles between STS and HPS (and even 
between H and P) were fierce and territorial.  Yet, in good Canadian 
fashion, the good will, and sheer skill, in creating open borders were 
almost fathomless. “Situating Science” as a ideal was born.

When in 2007, to the surprise of us all, SSRHC announced that one of the 
original 7 (out of more than 100!) proposals for Strategic Knowledge 
Clusters was to be awarded to the proposal for “Situating Science”, we 
hardly imagined what was in store for the future. “Careful what you wish 
for.” And so the Cluster began. With eight years of intensive 
networking, organizing, facilitating, promoting, partnering, leveraging, 
administering,… (Gerund-heit!) – the Cluster and its team has promoted 
and expanded STS/HPS work in Canada, and Canadian STS/HPS work 
internationally.  By all accounts it has been an enormous success – well 
beyond our original conception (so much so that the Cluster was one of 
three finalists for last year’s SSHRC prestigious “Impact Award”). From 
a small group of 7 institutions, 6 nodes, and a team of diverse 
scholars, the Cluster has expanded into a very large and effective web 
of scholars and organisations across Canada and internationally.  It has 
grouped over 200 institutions and collaborators, promoted several annual 
conferences, a series of strategic workshops (approx. 3 per year), 
several national lecture series, a rainbow of international cooperations 
and partnerships, many self-explorations, large-scale national symposia, 
videos, podcasts, debates, summer schools, student support, post-docs, 
etc. All along, the Cluster’s activities have been predominately 
catalytic, helping facilitate new collaborations, programmes and 
national institutions in the study of science.

From the very beginning, 
the Cluster did not consider itself a HPS/STS sub-funding organization, but rather a “strategic” network, facilitating new contacts and 
partnerships, raising the profile of STS/HPS work in Canada and Canadian 
work internationally, and leveraging support for those activities.  The 
Cluster’s leveraging has almost tripled our original funding budget of 
$2.1mil. None of this could have been done without the hard work, good 
will, and consummate skill of the institutions and scholars in our field 
in Canada, the dexterous guidance of the management team, all of our 
collaborators, and the astonishingly hard work of our three national 
coordinators, Greta Regan, Andrew Fenton and Emily Tector. I daren’t 
name anyone here, for the fear of excluding anyone, but one look at the 
Cluster website reveals the bubbling success and extent of its work and 
the debt we owe to all of our members, collaborators and supporters – 
the people who did the real work. The management team itself has been 
one of the best committees I have ever worked with. We also have to 
thank the University of King’s College, one of the smallest liberal arts 
universities in country, for housing such a large project, indeed one of 
the largest in the SSHRC pantheon. (The symbiosis between King’s and 
Cluster alone shows that the humanities and social studies of science 
are central components of any liberal arts education, and essential for 
building a critical engagement with the genesis and meaning of our 
contemporary world.)

The Cluster has not been without its critics and its problems. Was it 
too ecumenical? Did it give preference for one sub-field over another? 
Did it ignore key elements of our understanding of science’s place? What 
did it do to help isolated scholars in smaller institutions? Did it suck 
away resources from single-scholar research projects? Was it too 
oriented towards dissemination? These and many more. Hopefully we took 
these criticisms seriously, and were open to learning about innovative 
ways of creating spaces for new types of collaborative scholarship and 
dialogue. We have learned much.  And, we have learned that there are 
new, and methodologically fruitful, ways that historians, philosophers 
and sociologists of science can collaborate in reimagining science and 
technology, its meaning, history and place. Hopefully the field is 
healthier because of it.

The Cluster is now winding down, having finished an extended year of 
operations (7 plus one). “Situating Science” itself will live on in with 
a continued presence on the web, in the vestiges of the national and 
international networks and connections it has facilitated, in the 
nascent “Canadian Consortium for Situating Science and Technology” 
(CCSST) now being organized by the institutions associated with the 
Cluster, in the new three-year SSHRC-funded “Cosmopolitanism and the 
Local in Science and Nature, East and West” STS/HPS partnership 
development project between Canada, India and South East Asia, in the 
reverberations and hopes amongst young scholars with their robust 
enthusiasm and interdisciplinary interest in the study of science and 
technology from a humanities and social sciences perspective, and in 
those crucial debates about the role of science and technology in the 
making (and unmaking) of our modern world. One hopes that a legacy 
remains. STS/HPS is fairly strong in Canada (we continue to punch well 
above our weight, internationally!) even in these grey times of imposed 
austerity and declining support for the humanities and arts. We will 
continue to lobby for funding and recognition, for collaboration between 
the tri-Councils to support cross-disciplinary and cross-Council support 
for STS/HPS. Our interacting disciplines are well positioned on the 
academic and social landscape, and hopefully that landscape is much more 
favourable to STS/HPS after the Cluster than ever before.

It has been a truly amazing eight years.  A huge thanks to everyone 


Gordon McOuat

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