Fred Jevons 1929 – 2012

Fred Jevons 1929 – 2012

At the Copenhagen conference, Trevor Pinch celebrated the presence of Manchester STS alumni in the leadership of EASST and 4S.  The University of Manchester, through the Institute of Innovation Research and its precursors – PREST, CRIC, the Department of Science & Technology Policy, MBS R&D Research Unit, and CROMTEC – has been one of the top 20 global centres of science, technology & innovation studies for over 40 years. The origins of this distinction lie in the Department of Liberal Studies in Science which was founded in 1966 by Fred Jevons, who has recently died at the age of 83.

Jevons expressed a central European liberal intellectual tradition which was a source of enlightenment in 1960s English universities. In 1939 as a boy of 9 he had fled Vienna for the UK through the kindertransport.  As a successful biochemist in 1960s Manchester he persuaded a major redbrick university to create a completely new department addressing the barely known field of science, technology & society. The ‘liberal studies’ label sounds quaint to today’s ears but the agenda of integrating knowledge about science and technology from the perspectives of sociology, philosophy, history, economics and management was a radical one. Yet his motivation was one of intellectual breadth rather than political purpose, though a fortunate side effect was a haven for young marxist/environmentalist staff and students such as Harry Rothman, Vivien Walsh, Ken Green and myself.

Freddie (as he was known in my Manchester days) had a big influence on me. I had arrived in the Manchester biochemistry department in 1966, just as he departed from it but was lucky, as a dissatisfied science graduate in 1969,  to be encouraged by Harry, Vivien & Ken to join the LSS department in the new Masters programme on the ‘Structure and Organisation of Science and Technology’. His course on the Copernican revolution required me to read the English translations of the original writings of Galileo on science and religion.  These were such accessible and interesting arguments with extraordinary contemporary resonance that the experience completely changed my views of ‘science’ and ‘history’.  Even more importantly he introduced me to Thomas Kuhn’s ‘revolutionary’ ideas on paradigm change which were so much more exciting than the indoctrination into ‘normal science’ that an undergraduate science degree had attempted. Also rescued, through his most detailed and thoughtful comments on essays, was the faculty to write, which had atrophied through undergraduate years in the biochemistry department.

He was closely involved in the pioneering empirical study on innovation, Wealth from Knowledge, published in 1972 which contributed to the displacement of the linear model of innovation by interactive approaches.

The academic world was a very different place in those days. Despite the stuffiness and conservatism there was also a place for intellectual experiment from below.  Before the era of top-down management, mega-departments and performance metrics there was space for an unlikely academic entrepreneur such as Jevons.  Yet the UK prospects for extending this into university leadership more generally were limited and in 1976 Jevons left Manchester to be founder Vice Chancellor of the new Deakin University in Australia.  His own personal career shifted to a broader role in antipodean higher education, while his UK legacy was an institutional innovation that played a foundational role in the creation of the field of science, technology and innovation studies.