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Global Science

The sciences are often viewed as apolitical endeavors that form a natural basis for seeding international cooperation. Particularly in the years surrounding the First and Second World Wars, numerous projects were launched to foster scientific collaboration across national borders. At first glance, iconic enterprises such as the Carte du Ciel, the International Institute of Bibliography, UNESCO, or the International Geophysical Year may appear to derive from a common vision of science’s universality. In fact, new scholarship on these and other organizations has revealed significant divergences in their aims and rationales. Indeed, this research points out the highly particular character of these universalisms. Each had its own ethical justification(s), its own vision(s) of world order, its own conception(s) of the epistemic basis of universal knowledge, and its own blind spots when it came to the practical and ideological obstacles to collaboration. The end of the Cold War may be said to have launched a new age of scientific internationalism, in which federal budget cuts have forced even U.S. scientists to join forces with international research teams. Only in unusually expensive or controversial cases—such as the Human Genome Project or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—do scientists typically pause to consider the tacit assumptions on which their collaborations rest or the pros and cons of alternative models of cooperation. What are the lessons of the history of scientific internationalism for the global science of today?

This research project, led by Professor Deborah Coen, began with a half-day, closed-door workshop on February 12, 2016 at Columbia University and was meant to be a first step towards developing an analytical framework for assessing forms of international organization in the sciences. It brought together historians studying the history of scientific internationalism with scientists who have taken a leading role in international collaborations and negotiations. It looked at both the theory and practice of scientific internationalism—that is, both at the ideals espoused by founders of the new associations, and at the realities of interactions among their members. Case studies were drawn from the natural and social sciences in the twentieth century.

The immediate goal of the workshop was to put the global science of today in historical perspective. In this respect, participants sought to extend existing narratives of the history of international collaboration in the sciences to include recent history. What continuities and discontinuities could be traced between earlier forms of scientific internationalism and the ideologies and practices behind global science today?


Professor of History, Barnard College
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