Business and Science in the 19th and 20th centuries

Peter Kramper (München)/Michael C. Schneider (Duesseldorf) in Cooperation with the Arbeitskreis Kritische Unternehmens- und Industriegeschichte e.V. (Association for Critical Business History):

Business and Science in the 19th and 20th centuries

The debate about the extra-scientific uses of science is as old as modern science itself. The economic usefulness of science in particular has been at the centre of political, economic and scientific attention ever since the beginnings of industrialisation. The same goes for the relationship between business and science in general.

There is little doubt that since the end of the 19th century, scientific knowledge has been of paramount importance for the success of business enterprises in the so-called knowledge-based industries such as chemicals and electrical engineering, but also in a number of other sectors. It may come as a surprise, then, that the multi-faceted relationship between business enterprises and the various forms of the scientific production of knowledge has hardly ever been the object of overarching syntheses from business historians.

This diagnosis is the point of departure of the planned conference. Our aim is to investigate the contact zones of business enterprises on the one hand and the world of science on the other. We want to investigate mutual influences, but also conflicts that may result in or have resulted from the interaction of the two spheres. The current state of research suggests that their diverging logic produces tensions and conflicts that may turn out to be either productive or destructive.

While business historians have traditionally focussed on the immediate contributions of scientific research to production, researchers with a background in science studies are often critical of the involvement of business enterprises in matters of science. The conference aims to look past these narrow perspectives and to investigate the different uses of scientific research in the context of business as well as its consequences both for the sciences and for business enterprises.

A great number of contact zones can be investigated from this angle. They include everything from industrial laboratories to university spin-offs and scientific establishments that are run like business enterprises. Furthermore, such institutional connections are not the only forms of cooperation between businesses and the sciences. For example, businesses also use the realm of science as a resource when they employ science-based instruments of leadership or market research. The same applies when they develop products that can only be tested with the help of scientific institutions, e.g. medical equipment or pharmaceutics. Finally, businesses can influence the scientific agenda by financing university departments or research establishments.

We strongly suggest that all contributions to the conference place their findings in a broader context.  They might, for example, take up the debate about the “porous borders” of business enterprises and connect them to the varying uses of scientific knowledge in the context of entrepreneurship. They could refer to debates in the sciences studies that analyse the “links and knots” (Latour) connecting the sciences to the world of business. Organisational theory might be applied to the issue of integrating and controlling scientific laboratories in a business environment. Finally, systems theory and current debates in the history of technology, innovation and science also offer opportunities for further discussion.

The main focus of the conference – both empirically and theoretically – will be on the 19th and the 20th centuries. We strongly assume that a number of factors such as the alternation of economic prosperity and crises, world wars and arms races had a strong impact on the relationship between science and enterprise during this period.

The questions that the conference wants to ask in this respect are not restricted to Germany. They also include issues such as whether an authoritarian context had a different impact on the relationship between business and science than a democratic one, or whether changes in the contact zones between the two spheres during the prosperity of the 1960s or the stagnation of the 1970s were of a similar shape across international borders. The question whether the expansion of multinationals was connected to similar processes of internationalisation in the realm of science is also pertinent.

Possible topics for papers and discussions include, but are not restricted to, the following areas:

Scientific management and marketing
The production of knowledge and scientific research within the boundaries of business enterprises
Entrepreneurial influences on the organisation of science (e. g. the financing of university departments or the founding of research institutes)
Science as enterprise (e.g. university spin-offs)

The conference will take place from 13 to 14 November 2015 in Duesseldorf, Germany. Abstracts of about 300-500 words (in English or German) for a paper of 20 minutes as well as a short CV can be submitted to Peter Kramper ( or Michael C. Schneider (michael.schneider@uni-dü, cc Stefanie van de Kerkhof (

The deadline for submissions is 15 March 2015. The main language of the conference will be German. English-language contributions are, however, highly welcome.