Materials Research Activities

Materials research in peripheral Europe - main page

Materials research in peripheral Europe

This paper delves into materials research in four peripheral European countries (Denmark, Greece, Portugal, and Spain) with two objectives in mind:

  1. To illuminate some of the center-periphery dynamics that is of concern within STEP (Science and Technology in the European Periphery).
  2. To counterbalance our own emphasis on US history and perhaps to be stimulated to undo a bias.

In the following, I will posit the US as the center and the above five European countries as the periphery. I am aware of the crudity of this approach and the reader is asked to regard it as no more than an expedient tool to achieve some clarity. The rationale for regarding the US as the center is that

  • the first institutions carrying the name "materials" in them came into being some 40 years ago in the US, viz. the Inter-Disciplinary Laboratories (IDLs).
  • university curricula have been developed that integrate the topics of different classes of materials (metals, ceramics, semiconductors, and polymers) including textbooks.
  • the US must also be regarded as the global scientific center by virtue of its numbers of scientists and the amount of funding, even though many other places (especially the larger Western European countries and Japan) have centers of excellence focusing on particalar areas of research and rivalling the US in those particular areas.

Materials research in the US may for our purposes be characterized as:

  • materials generic
  • non-linear
  • large-scale and diverse.

That is to say, in addition to the fields that deal with specific materials, such as metals (metallurgy), polymers (organic chemistry), semiconductors (solid-state physics), or ceramics (the field is also called ceramics), there is also a general field that looks for structure-property relationships that are valid for all types of materials (the materials generic perspective). Materials research is self-consciously neither pure nor applied, but is seen as both at the same time (as opposed to the model of a linear progression of knowledge from pure to applied). And finally, materials research takes place within a large-scale and amorphous realm, sometimes termed the military-industrial-academic complex. This complex constitutes a large and diversified job market for scientists and engineers, much more so than the national markets of peripheral European countries.

It has been noted that science and technology everywhere has changed its general character in the last few decades, and one might say that materials research is a particularly modern activity. Michael Gibbons et al (The new production of knowledge - the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies, London: Sage, 1994, esp. the introduction, pp. 1-16) have contrasted the old and new way of doing science in a rhetorically most useful juxtaposition:

Primacy of university-based curiosity-led research Discovery in application - blurring of boundaries between pure and applied
Knowledge generated within disciplinary context Transdisciplinarity
Hierarchical and conservative Organisational diversity - multi-site; networking; re-combinant
Strict rules of quality control Sensitivity to broader implications of what doing - socially reflexive

Materials research, as it is practised in the US, has all the attributes of the new. The materials generic approach is distinctly transdisciplinary, it blurs the boundary between pure and applied, and it is indeed organisationally diverse. For example, attendants at the Materials Research Society's annual meetings come from institutions of military research, private companies, and academia in very roughly equal numbers. In my opinion, one of the interesting aspects about the history of materials research is that it has been in the vanguard of the development of the new, for instance in the undermining of the conceptual categories of pure and applied - two categories that were pretty much taken for granted in 1960 and have no credence today. But for our purposes here, the point is that there has been, and still is, a gradual development that Gibbons et al's juxtaposition elides. When one looks at materials research in peripheral Europe, one finds neither old nor new in a pure strain, but rather a mix. We shall isolate the attributes prevailing in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Denmark and compare with the US.

It should be firmly emphasized that backwardness is a concept of doubtful value: we must not consider new science to merely diffuse from the center to the periphery. This linear model is just as inadequate as the one considered above (the pure-applied model). In order to understand properly what goes on at the periphery we have to appreciate that individuals travel to the center and appropriate aspects of science found in the center in a very targeted way with an eye to uts utility at home. Maybe rather a Darwinian metaphor is appropriate: many individuals from the periphery take home aspects of the culture found in the center but in the environment of the periphery only those will survive that are fittest in that environment - and they may not be the ones that are fittest in the center. One of many researchers making this point is Kostas Gavroglu [e.g.: The Sciences in the European Periphery During the Enlightenment, Dordrecht: Kluwer1999; vol. 2 of Archimedes - New Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology]. Gavroglu has suggested that peripheral scientists "appropriate" science from the center. The advantage of this term lies in its emphasis on the active part taken by individuals from peripheral countries, as opposed to the very passive role they play in a linear perspective of knowledge diffusion outwards from the active and creative center to the passive and consuming periphery.

It is certainly useful to consider what the notion of backwardness implied, but it is important to examine the extent to which the peripherals are the important actors. When examining Hellenic science in the 18th century, it makes sense to focus on the individual Greek travellers to the European center, because the luminaries of the center never travelled to the Ottoman Empire and had no influence upon developments except through the Greek travellers. But the case of late 20th-century and early 21st-century materials science in peripheral Europe is different, if only because the EU's policy on research, technology, and development, and its general support for structural development has a huge impact.

With this in mind, let us look at materials research in a number of peripheral European countries: Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Denmark.

One may summarize from this examination that every area differs (no great surprise) and that Spain is closest to the US in terms of the materials generic: Spain's CSIC has identified materials as one of eight main areas of funding and has set up materials research institutes in the major cities. Spain also has the largest industrial population and industrial base of the four peripheral countries examined. Denmark is closest to the US in terms of non-linearity: the integration of government intramural, industrial, and academic research is obvious in comparison especially in comparison with Portugal, being criticised on exactly this point, but also in comparison with Spain where the CSIC centers are government-funded and operate in comparative isolation from private enterprise. Of the four peripheral countries Denmark also has the most established infrastructure for science and technology - of course it never suffered a period of military dictatorship. As a part of the EU all four countries aim for a knowledge society in which a much value is added by a highly educated workforce, but this does not entail copying every aspect of science and technology in the center - in this case the US. The juxtaposition of Spain and Denmark is the most telling: only the country with a large industrial base, Spain, has accepted the materials generic perspective. Only the most "advanced", Denmark, has a highly non-linear research infrastructure, but Denmark hasn't bothered with the materials generic approach.

It is certainly true that peripheral scientists have agency in that they can appropriate a materials generic approach or not. But they have comparatively little agency in the development towards a knowledge society with a new form of technoscientific organization: transdisciplinary, neither pure nor applied, and embedded in a complex local, regional, national, and international network integrating public and private realms.

The comparison between a number of countries highlights the fact that the US way of doing materials research is not unique. A small country such as Denmark, for example, exhibits no great desire to adopt a materials generic perspective. And the explanation probably lies in the structure of Danish industry: small-scale and focused on specialized niches. The materials generic perspective is useful in the US with its large and diverse complex, including large projects pooling knowledge of many types of materials, thus spawning a demand for an overview knowledge of all types. The materials generic perspective is neither natural nor does it represent a more progressive stage, but is simply a useful perspective for the US context. As the European Research Area becomes more of a reality, it will increasingly resemble that of the US, and presumably the materials generic perspective will become increasingly attractive in Europe too.

  1. Materials research in peripheral Europe - main page
  2. Some characteristics of US materials research
  3. EU policy on research, technology and development (with a view to materials research in peripheral Europe)
  4. Materials research in Spain
  5. Materials research in Portugal
  6. Materials research in Greece
  7. Materials research in Denmark
This page was written and last updated on 20 August 2002 by Arne Hessenbruch.