Civilization and its Discontents: Universalism and Colonialism in UNESCO’s International Science Program (1946-1954)

This project focuses on one of the earliest attempts at globally inclusive scientific cooperation: UNESCO’s International Science Program of 1945-1954. Conceived by the head of UNESCO’s Natural Science Division, the British biochemist Joseph Needham, this program intended to create a better world by exploiting science to its full, ‘natural’ potential. The program was rooted in 1930s left-wing views of the social and international function of science.
Despite its intentions, the two branches of the program triggered ambivalent reactions. The Arid zone project (IIAZ) was generally welcomed for the opportunities it offered to peripheral scientists. But at the Hylean Amazon project (IIHA) in Brazil, resistance grew against the influx of Western scientists and what was seen as ‘old-boy imperialism’. Controversy rose, and in 1954 the major powers intervened, and terminated the Science Program along with UNESCO’s general scientistic orientation toward world politics.

This project will explore the paradoxes inherent in Needham’s vision by examining how it was conceived and received, and how center and periphery were construed in competing notions of science and international relations. It will pay special attention to non-Western actors and their ambivalent responses. Studies of UNESCO so far tend to be celebratory and ascribe its failures to the Cold War or nationalism. This project seeks to identify the inherent tensions in its (scientific) universalism. In doing so it will draw upon recent work on the history of the UN, which has revealed the imperialist underpinnings of its initial conception.
This project combines insights from Science and Technology for Development studies with approaches from the history of science and recent work in international history and colonial studies.

PhD researcher: Thomas Mougey.
The project is supervised by Wiebe Bijker (promotor) and Dr. Geert Somsen (1st supervisor).