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The honeymoon of science is over”: George Porter and the Establishment response to the “crisis” in science, c.1968-c.1973

‘We have to face the fact that there is a crisis in science today,’ Maurice Wilkins told some three hundred scientists at the inaugural meeting of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science in April 1969. The ‘sixties’ is often characterised as a period of dramatic cultural and social change. Jon Agar has asked what happened to science in the ‘long 1960s’ during this period of transitions, social movements and controversy. Building on Agar’s work, this paper explores a critical phase at the end of the decade and the beginning of the next when the scientific Establishment perceived a critical turn in attitudes towards science, one which in their terms constituted a ‘crisis’. I will trace how this ‘crisis’ unfolded through the response of George Porter, Director of the Royal Institution (1966-1985), Nobel laureate in chemistry (1967) and a prominent public figure in the period – in a 1973 New Scientist poll Porter was judged to be among the most famous scientists of all time, alongside Newton, Darwin and Faraday. I will put forward three key discourses for understanding this ‘crisis’ periodisation: anti-science and the counter culture; the neutrality of science; and doomsday. I’ll argue establishment scientists such as Porter, in their response to the ‘crisis’, adopted a rhetorical stance that was a significant departure from ‘two cultures’ and ‘white heat’ thinking of the early 1960s.




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