Defining the Nuclear Engineer in the UK, USA and Canada, 1940-65

Johnston, S. F. (2010) Defining the Nuclear Engineer in the UK, USA and Canada, 1940-65. 7th Meeting of Science and Technology in the European Periphery, Galway, Ireland, 17-20 Jun 2010. (Unpublished)

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The nuclear engineer emerged in distinct forms in the first three countries in which atomic energy was actively promoted. This paper discusses a comparative case study to reveal the factors influencing the occupation, discipline and profession and to probe the differences in their respective occupational and intellectual contexts. The approach is applicable to other new or rapidly evolving subjects and their specialists. This contextual history adopts a cross-national perspective to compare and contrast the coalescence of nuclear engineers in the UK, USA and Canada from the beginning of the Second World War, when practical applications were first identified, to the mid 1960s, by which time sustainable occupational identities had been established. Unlike intra-national perspectives, this method foregrounds the role of differing political environments and pre-existing engineering cultures in shaping the new specialism. Particularly relevant for this research are the perspectives and methodologies offered by historical sociology – notably the concepts introduced by Andrew Abbott – and the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). This paper will highlight connections between the construction of intellectual concepts alongside occupational niches and borders. The focus of this study is pertinent to studies of peripheral communities, which, in this case, amounted to technical/intellectual communities newly founded by national policy. The shaping of technical identity – in terms of, for example, academic labels, occupational categories and professional hierarchies – will be discussed in relation to the distinct traditions of industrial relations, interdisciplinary technologies and national goals. The distinct trajectory of the subject in Canada, as a relatively weak player among the three nations, will expose the significance of international hierarchies and economic power. Despite the attention to relatively powerful countries, this case has additional value in the study of peripherality in science and technology. For nearly two decades, atomic energy research was characterised by intense secrecy, leading to the segregation of research groups at isolated sites in each of the countries. Played out on a regional scale, these sites fostered the construction of distinct flavours of expertise and occupational definitions at each isolated site. At the same time, there was competing pressure for central control via national policy and administrative organisations. Historiographical limitations to be discussed will include the problems of inter-comparing historical sources acquired within distinct administrative organisations and political environments; the challenges of unearthing contemporary attitudes in environments in which personal record keeping was impossible; and, the necessarily interdisciplinary nature of this context-dependent research.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item
Keywords:Nuclear engineering, history, professional identity, USA, Canada, UK.
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Johnston, Professor Sean
Authors: Johnston, S. F.
Subjects:C Auxiliary Sciences of History > C Auxiliary sciences of history (General)
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
E History America > E11 America (General)
F History United States, Canada, Latin America > F1001 Canada (General)
T Technology > TK Electrical engineering. Electronics Nuclear engineering
College/School:College of Social Sciences > School of Education > Interdisciplinary Science Education Technologies and Learning
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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
445351The nuclear engineer - shaping a professionSean JohnstonEconomic & Social Research Council (ESRC)ES/E018483/1IS - INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES