The State of Science: Governing Knowledge of Nature in Victorian Britain


Dr Edward Gillin
Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow
Centre for History and Philosophy of Science
School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science

My project investigates the scientific culture of the Victorian Houses of Parliament, including both the Commons and Lords. How politicians use specialist knowledge, often claimed to be ‘scientific’, in the business of governance is a very relevant question in the twenty-first century; but this relationship was first addressed in nineteenth-century Britain. MPs and Lords were keen to conscript the natural sciences and mobilize scientific resources for the governance of the nation. This project’s first question asks: how and why were some specific natural sciences mobilized for government during this period? Or in other words, what sort of science was considered suitable for different technical, social, or economic problems? This raises the project’s second key research question: who within Parliament was interested in employing scientific knowledge?  What was the influence of social networks between MPs, lords, and scientists in introducing scientific knowledge into acts of legislation?  It seems likely that these personal networks were crucial to the ways in which Parliament employed scientific knowledge; testing this hypothesis will be central to my project. For instance, it was backbench MPs and Lords who initiated the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science between 1870 and 1875. The result of this investigation (known as the Devonshire report) directly led to the establishment of state-sponsored scientific institutions across the British Empire.

A major part of the project involves exploring private member’s bills. Recent research by the History of Parliament project at the IHR has found that Parliament operated through legislation fashioned by backbench MPs to a much greater extent than historians have traditionally thought. While it is clear that increasing numbers of MPs had studied the natural sciences at university, the impact of the increasingly scientific education of politicians is, at present, poorly understood. It seems significant that three of the most dominant Victorian politicians were all Oxford-trained mathematicians: Robert Peel, William Gladstone, and the Marquess of Salisbury. Equally, scientists had increased representation in the House of Commons, such as Lyon Playfair, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. Importantly, it is often mistakenly assumed that those of a scientific background were more likely to be Liberals, but training in the natural sciences was not limited to any single party. Mathematician George Stokes represented the University of Cambridge as a Tory MP between 1887 and 1892.

Specialist knowledge was also not confined to the Commons, with the House of Lords home to several individuals with scientific credentials, notably William Cavendish and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). More than ever before, backbenchers, lords, and ministers not only had scientific connections, but some were themselves authorities on the natural sciences.  
This leads directly into the project’s third question: to what extent did this scientific representation present a problem to the traditional operation of Parliament, if any? Even today this dilemma of the place of technical knowledge within a parliamentary democracy is an urgent one. How far should scientific lobbying shape government policy? The contemporary challenge of climate change is certainly an example of this challenge.  But this is not something new to the twentieth, or even twenty-first, century. As much as today, Victorian politicians faced the difficulty of employing the natural sciences in governance without yielding too much influence to the nation’s industrial influences or surrendering legislative power to scientific interests. In recent years, traditional forms of authority, which have relied on truth-generating empirical knowledge processes, have come under intense scrutiny both inside and outside parliamentary settings. 

Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for 2016 was ‘post-truth’, while Michael Gove boasted that ‘people have had enough of ‘experts’; perhaps never before has the question of what expert knowledge society trusts been of such relevance. This is why this investigation puts trust and credibility right at the centre of Parliament’s relation with science. It is this credibility of science and its practitioners which mattered to political interpretations of expert knowledge as a major contributor to credible governance. This project’s radical new history of the science-politics relationship in Victorian Britain will bring fresh insights to today’s arguments.

As of 2021, the focus of the project has been on the relations between MPs and natural philosophers in securing funding and instruments for the global surveying of the Earth's magnetic field, known to historians as the "Magnetic Crusade".  The launching of the Antarctic Expedition of 1839 was very much the result of collaboration between Britain's political and scientific communities. In 2020, I took a genuine 1840s dipping needle, along the route of HMS Terror and Erebus, down the Atlantic to Cape Town, examining the accuracy of this instrument which became iconic of expeditionary science and the role the state could play in scientific investigation.

You can follow the progress of the project on Twitter at