Videnskabshistorisk Selskab

Patrick Petitjean,
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) & Université Paris 7:

Needham and Unesco, 1946-1948: an attempt to refound the international scientific cooperation

In the short period between the end of the anti-Nazi war and the cold war, some space existed within the UNESCO Natural Sciences section to attempt a re-foundation of international scientific co-operation with a progressive orientation rooted in the social relations of science movement of the 1930-40s.

This re-foundation included a "periphery principle" (science is not the same when seen from the "North" or from the "South"), which turned UNESCO towards developing countries, and a dedication to the social aspects of science and history of science inside the natural sciences section.

But the social and political context was not as fine as expected. Most scientists rejected these priorities ("parochialism", Needham called that), the USA were hostile, colonial powers were attempting to mobilize UNESCO for their own goals, and the USSR, which was in a period of deep nationalist isolationism against western culture, fought against UNESCO, preferring a domesticated intellectual international movement (the Wroclaw conference, 1948).

Probably as important as the context, was the consequences of the ideological background of this group of scientists. It was a coexistence of: a rough materialism for which most explanations laid in the economical infrastructures and (but it depended also from the changing diplomatic agendas) in the "class origins" of scientists; an idealism, shared by most scientists, according to which science is "neutral", only the good or bad applications of science were to be considered. Most scientists of this group, even the most politically radical, were not far from the 19th Century positivism, with an "universal community of scientists" and the idealization of the scientific work ("in its endeavour, science is communism"). As Capitalism is prohibiting a true development of science, the struggle for science IS the struggle for socialism. The World Federation of Scientific Workers had no features of a new scientific internationalism.

When the political context changed, the "periphery principle" was easily absorbed within UNESCO by a new paradigm of international scientific co-operation in the 1950s, the Technical Assistance programs proposed by Truman with his Point IV (Discourse of January 1949): a de-politicized science, subordinated to the economical development, to diffuse the American model of a "free" society.

Source : The Joint Establishment of the World Federation of Scientific Workers and of UNESCO After World War II - published in Minerva (summer 2008)

Tirsdag, den 2. december, kl. 17.00

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