Laboratories and Managerial Science

Peter Sachs Collopy, 2010

In 2010, I took a course on “The Modern Origins of Science”—placing those origins more in the 19th century development of the industrial chemistry laboratory than in the early modern Scientific Revolution—with Rob Kohler. Although Rob had officially retired, he was still teaching about one graduate seminar a year; I think this was his last. In perhaps my most institutionalist moment (and also one following in my father’s footsteps as a management scholar), I got interested in an argument Rob himself had made about the relationship between the laboratory and managerial capitalism, and also in how neglected this relationship had been by other scholars, particularly recently. “Management,” I wrote to Rob in proposing my final paper for the course, “is a critical part of laboratory practice, and this preexisting structure allowed laboratories to fit into the structure of managerial corporations (including eventually universities) without modification. The lab could in effect be black-boxed and referred to by the rest of the corporation through a director or PI. The most radical argument to draw from this might be that this facilitated the black-boxing of science as the process and product in which the laboratory was engaged, allowing managers outside the lab to see R&D as a corporate division like any other rather than dealing with research on its own terms as a technical enterprise. I’m not sure if I’ll take it as far as this last bit, though.” I indeed didn’t really get as far as this last bit, but here is what I did write.

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In an essay on the state of laboratory history, Robert Kohler suggests a reason “why labs and lab science came to have such a prominent place in modern industrial corporations: the analytic categories and practices of lab science were congruent with the new managerial hierarchies and procedures of large-scale industrial capitalism, whereas those of the older shop culture were not.” Taking this assertion as a starting point, I want to argue more specifically that management itself has long been a critical component of laboratory practice, and that this preexisting social structure within laboratories facilitated their integration into managerial corporations and universities. I also want to point out that senior scientists are the default managers in laboratories, but that many managerial tasks are assigned to dedicated staff in particularly large and socially complex labs.

Management itself is a heterogenous activity which involves both planning the finances and operations of an organization and managing people, i.e. hiring and training employees and assigning them to tasks. Management thus involves a number of activities each of which are themselves complicated, but which break down into a couple of dichotomies. Managers both make decisions between known options and design previously unimagined products and corporate structures. More critically to an examination of laboratory science, they both set and communicate an agenda for an organization and administer its staff and operations.

Alfred Chandler defines managerial capitalism as a system in which critical business decisions are made by salaried managers rather than by the owners or directors of corporations. Managerial firms developed in the nineteenth century as firms managed by a family or by financiers grew. “No family or financial institution was large enough to staff the managerial hierarchies required to administer modern multiunit enterprises,” Chandler writes, but they could hire more salaried managers. As these managers developed expertise in the operations of the firm, the role of owners became limited to occasional decisions through a board of directors based on information provided primarily by managers. This analysis focuses on the agenda-setting aspect of management, although a more thorough analysis would probably reveal that managers also derive their power from their ability to build an organization around their own agenda.

Scholars of laboratories have also provided some useful background to an analysis of management in the lab. In Laboratory Life, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar depict the modern laboratory, exemplified by Roger Guillemin’s at the Salk Institute, as a manufactory for scientific papers with a marked division of labor. The laboratory does not appear to be either a factory or an administrative agency, they write, because it has substantial amounts of space dedicated to both offices, where “individuals referred to as doctors read and write,” and apparatus, where “other staff, known as technicians, spend most of their time handling equipment.” The labor of technicians leads not to tangible products but to inscriptions, especially figures and diagrams, which are passed on to “doctors”—scientists with Ph.D.s—in the office, who employ the information in writing journal articles, the final product of the laboratory. Energy, chemicals, animals, and the labor of technicians and doctors all represent inputs into a manufacturing process that culminates in these articles, texts that carry authority from their origin in the laboratory and their entanglement in a system of chemicals, organisms, and other natural objects. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion, then, that the laboratory is a factory, but one for the production of knowledge rather than tangible goods (and indeed, the authors attribute this thesis to scientists without themselves quite endorsing it).

Latour and Woolgar don’t analyze the relationship between the bench and the office in terms of power relations, or even describe whether and how doctors request information—and thus labor—from technicians. It’s not clear from their analysis who sets the research agenda or who hires whom. Outside of their discussion of the geography and labor of the laboratory, they describe lab directors as investors of social capital, relating laboratory science to business in a way that comes close to an analysis of management.

He has sufficient capital of credibility to make unnecessary its direct investment in bench work. He is a capitalist par excellence, since he can see his capital increase substantially without having directly to engage in the work himself. His work is that of a full-time investor. Instead of producing data and making points, he tries to ensure that research is pursued in potentially rewarding areas, that credible data are produced, that the laboratory receives the largest possible share of credit, money and collaboration.

The characterization of lab director as investor is limited and imprecise, however. Investors have the option of being entirely absent from the operations of the corporation they hold shares in. Indeed, as Chandler points out, even the investors’ representatives on a board of directors have very limited power in practical terms. While a lab director can avoid “direct investment in bench work,” they cannot distance themselves from the lab entirely, as the authority of research produced in their lab derives partly from their reputation, which is transferred to it through their involvement in setting a research agenda. The director’s efforts to steer the lab in productive directions and bring in resources are a form of labor, focused on maximizing scientific productivity and reputational profit by directing workers. More than investors, lab directors are managers.

This does not mean that a single lab director must take on all the responsibilities of management, however. In a 1970 paper, Gerald Swatez describes the Alvarez group, the largest research group at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, which had 23 Ph.D. physicists, 20 graduate students, and 161 technicians. In this massive high-energy physics laboratory there was a division of managerial labor: senior physicists provided leadership, but “administrative supervision of the entire group is done by one man, not a physicist, relieving the group leader of the task.” Furthermore, the lab employed a coordinator for each experiment, an administrator for the scanning and measuring group, “and under him there are about four supervisors, whose jobs resemble that of a foreman in industry, scheduling the use of machines, shifting users from one machine to another, seeing that the rooms are kept neat.” In the Alvarez lab, Luis Alvarez delegated administrative responsibility to full-time managers. According to Swatez, Alvarez also shared his leadership responsibility, fostering an environment in which any physicist, credentialed with a Ph.D. or a graduate student, could propose an experiment. “If a group leader definitely disapproves of the proposal,” Swatez wrote, “he has the power to say so, but in this group he does not do so if someone wants the experiment badly enough to stand up to him.” Alvarez seems to have been an unusually egalitarian and humble scientist, even apprenticing himself to two graduate students when he felt alienated from basic physics at the age of 40. The distribution of management in his lab makes visible the labor that must be done in administration and agenda-setting, whether by one scientist or by the staff of the lab collectively. Swatez’s article reveals little, however, about the management of people in the Alvarez lab.

In her more recent analysis of the social order of high energy physics in the late-twentieth-century, Sharon Traweek describes some other ways in which senior scientists serve as managers within their laboratories. “It is considered inappropriate,” she writes, “for someone over fifty to be making discoveries.” Instead, the most professionally advanced physicists administer research groups and larger laboratories.

In Japan the leader of each research group administers finances, a “highly prestigious burden of science administration [which] occupies most of the koza leader’s time.” In addition, the group leader finds international placements for younger physicists in his lab, rotates them among different tasks so they develop a range of scientific skills, and brings them with him to university, government, and industry meetings to familiarize them with the politics of the research community. Traweek concludes that “the leader has a generative, nurturing role,” but it would be just as apt to say that much of his work consists of fostering professional development.

In the United States, physicists manage labs more informally and leave financial management to an administrative assistant, “a managerial position almost always held by women who are not scientists and who are well versed in institutional regulations and the informal pathways through bureaucratic labyrinths.” Nonetheless, the role of a senior physicist is to “gather about him a team of gifted people whose work he directs and coordinates by means of his example, will, and—some would say—whim.” Although Traweek does not describe either Japanese or American group leaders as commanding the labor of others, it is apparent that they are engaged in management through developing the skills and organizing the labor of other scientists.

These ethnographic works suggest that administration and staff development are important aspects of laboratory practice, but they don’t say much about power relations or argue that management is a defining characteristic of a particular kind of science. In their more historical work, though, Steve Sturdy and Roger Cooter argue that laboratories played a key role in “the rise of medical corporatism,” the process by which medicine in Britain came to be “organized as a vertically integrated hierarchy of relatively specialized practitioners and animated more by a managerial concern with collective efficiency than by the pursuit of patronage or individual competitive advantage.” This new system replaced two earlier economic models for medicine: competition of individual physicians for patients, and patronage of physicians by wealthy patients. The new corporate system, which developed between 1870 and 1950, involved a greater degree of cooperation between physicians in treating patients, but also a greater degree of hierarchy within the profession. According to Sturdy and Cooter, laboratories played a critical role in the introduction of this social structure to medicine.

Laboratories entered public health, an “administrative discipline” concerned with the “surveillance and classification” of disease in populations, in the mid nineteenth century. Laboratory science offered public health administrators knowledge based “on systematic and rational investigation of the underlying causes and processes of health and disease” rather than “the narrow empiricism of clinical experience.” Unlike clinical knowledge, laboratory knowledge could be incorporated into an administrative system of expertise which public health officials had based primarily on the discipline of statistics. By abstracting away the specific characteristics of patients’ bodies and isolating specific chemical and biological processes, laboratories manufactured medical knowledge which was legible to administrators focused on the management of disease. More concretely, research on poisons and germs “soon yielded new techniques for identifying disease and its causes in the population and the environment.” Sturdy and Cooter conclude that “laboratory science actually developed as an instrument of scientific management,” in this case the management of disease in populations.

Additionally, though, laboratory science developed as a mode of scientific management. Within the walls of a laboratory, scientists themselves practiced management, which played a crucial role in the production of scientific knowledge and went on to influence the social structure of medicine.

The laboratory sciences also provided a model of how the work of the hospitals might itself be reorganized in the interests of greater efficiency. It was common for laboratory scientists from different disciplines to collaborate in research and teaching, bringing together complementary skills and expertise to address different aspects of a particular problem. Reformers hoped that the academicization of clinical teaching and research would help to encourage similar forms of teamwork within hospital medicine.

Teamwork between scientists trained in different disciplines is an important social form for production of knowledge in laboratories, but laboratory science often involves hierarchical relationships between researchers as well. Although Sturdy and Cooter do not say so, physicians could leave their experience in laboratory research with a set of management techniques as well as a taste for collaboration, contributing to the hierarchical and managerial development of medicine.

The final argument I want to make is that when laboratories have become incorporated into other managerial organizations the accommodation between the two has been relatively straightforward since both have already had similar social structures. Laboratories have entered corporate environments at a number of times and places. In Germany laboratories were associated with industry before they became formally integrated into the operations of universities; R. Steven Turner writes that in the 1840s “Prussian respondents nearly always equated large laboratories and extensive practical training to technological chemistry and industrial education.” The industry in which they were integrated, though, predated managerial capitalism. Chandler doesn’t cover the German context, but these industrial firms were presumably less structurally complex than later managerial firms and had fewer divisions, suggesting that their laboratories may have been focused less on research than on chemical synthesis. This relationship between industry and universities in Prussia also suggests that the laboratory as an institution developed in German universities from industrial models, travelled to the United States with the research university, and then reentered industry in a new managerial context.

One crucial point at which research laboratories entered industry was the establishment of AT&T’s Research Branch in 1911. This division was based within the existing Western Electric Research Department, and thus within an existing corporate structure, but was devoted to research in physics leading to new repeater technologies rather than to engineering intended to optimize existing technologies. The principal actors in establishing the Research Branch were John J. Carty, a telephone engineer entirely trained on the job, and Frank Jewett, a Ph.D. physicist. Both took on managerial roles, with Jewett hiring additional scientists while Carty developed corporate research policies and “personified Bell research and engineering” to the board of directors.

Early on Jewett recruited Harold D. Arnold to serve as the physicist responsible for laboratory work on the new telephone amplifier. Within three years he had hired 25 researchers and assistants who reported to Arnold. “Jewett made occasional forays into the laboratory and sometimes even offered advice to researchers,” writes Leonard Reich, “but he acted mainly as a recruiter of personnel, a synthesizer of information, a coordinator with other branches of the Engineering Department, and a conduit to Carty and the AT&T staff.” Like the senior scientists Traweek describes, Jewitt facilitated research more than he participated in it, devoting most of his time to managing people and information. As the person at the top of the Research Branch hierarchy, he also became the representative of his division to the rest of the company. The laboratory borrowed conventions from universities, going so far as to sponsor conferences, but the existing laboratory model of the senior scientist as manager facilitated the integration of the laboratory into the hierarchically organized corporation. When the Bell Telephone Laboratories became a separate corporation in 1925, Jewett became president, responsible for managing the labor of 3600 employees.

One important reason why a physicist like Jewett was able to take on the presidency of such a large organization was that he had been a manager throughout his career. The practice of laboratory research in which Jewett had been trained involved the labor of graduate students and technicians, and it was the responsibility of the credentialed scientist to guide this labor toward productive ends. Managing Bell Labs as president was different from running a lab at the University of Chicago or MIT, but it was different primarily in scale. A senior scientist, regardless of his institutional location, was responsible for such tasks as staff development, communicating with funders, and setting a research agenda, and this was no different within a firm such as AT&T. Furthermore, at AT&T research managers such as Carty and Jewett were able to represent their laboratories to the corporation in the same way that a lab director in a university or institute represents their laboratory to their colleagues and the public, and thus to take their place within an existing corporate hierarchy.

Works Cited

Subjects: capitalism, chemistry, engineering, laboratories, management, medicine, science, technology
Category: writing