Academic journal article European Studies

Universalism in Action: Ideals and Practices of International Scientific Cooperation

Academic journal article European Studies

Universalism in Action: Ideals and Practices of International Scientific Cooperation

Article excerpt

Ideals of scientific peace

In July 1934, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) held its triennial General Assembly in Brussels. Delegates from all over the world and representatives of the entire spectrum of scientific disciplines gathered for five days in order to discuss scientific business: from the nomenclature of chemical compounds tostandardised methods of viscosity measurement and astronomical expeditions. But the assembly also adopted a political statement. It observed that everywhere nationalism was on the rise. Peoples and governments seemed to be more and more led by their own countries' concerns, and increasingly prioritised national interests over the common good. The world of science had to speak out against this development. The ICSU resolution stated that scientists 'will never lose sight of the international character' inherent in their own work, and that their enterprise could thus be a model for international relations to the rest of the world:

the 'brotherhood of scientists' can be an important factor towards the establishment of a desire for mutual understanding and helpfulness in order to overcome the dangers involved in a too exclusive nationalism (W.I.S.Commissie 1934).

Three years later, the ICSU met again, and this time the stakes were even higher. The Assembly discussed worries about the increasing influence of deceitful political propaganda, the rise of militarism in certain countries, the spread of 'unsound creeds and prejudices', and the 'tendency towards war which seems to haunt us (...) as a most dangerous and contagious mental disease'. Again, it was felt that international science had to sound a protest. As guardians of truth, scientists could help 'to analyze and to define what is misleading and false in certain forms of propaganda'. The 'brotherhood of scientists' (a term which, as previously, they invoked in quotation marks) could counter belligerence and promote international understanding. In these and other roles, science could advance a 'moral force' against 'the dangers which at present menace the future of our civilization' (Burgers and Kruyt 1937).

These were no small words, especially considering that they came from people whose daily occupations were far removed from the world of politics. The two authors of the text were a theoretical physicist, working on fluid dynamics and air turbulence, and a professor of colloid chemistry, investigating the conditions of protein coagulation. As a matter of fact, many of the attendants at the 1937 General Assembly deemed the proposal too political to suit their occupations, and only accepted it in a toned-down version. At the same time, it was precisely the apolitical aura of science, closely guarded in public relations, that gave these statements their authority and weight. As one of the authors mentioned, 'it is of great importance that a high international body like the International Council can publicly state: this and that has been brought forward in scientific circles' (W.I.S.-Commissie 1934, author's translation). Paradoxically, the political import of these interventions rested on the perception of them not being political at all, but the product of something unaf- fected by human relations (nature, logic, reality) and represented by spokespeople of science.

This paradox had a long tradition, especially in statements concerning international relations. Since the early-modern period, the community of the learned had thought of itself as a Republic of Letters, whose members were dedicated to truth alone and transcended national and political difference. Precisely because this society was elevated above the world of dirty foreign politics, it could be an ideal model for it. During the nineteenth century, the notion of the Republic of Letters changed into 'the international scientific community', which was more professional, more conceived as a gathering of nations (rather than of cosmopolitan individuals), but no less exemplary in the peacefulness of its members' cooperation. …

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