UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Jacob Darwin Hamblin is a historian of science, who received his Ph.D. from the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Currently he is a lecturer in the Department of History at California State University, Long Beach.
He is the author of “ Oceanographers and the Cold War: Disciples of Marine Science” (Washington, 2005) and “Science in the Early Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia” (ABC-CLIO, 2005).
His articles have appeared (or will appear) in “Isis, International History Review, Minerva, Journal of the History of Biology, Physics in Perspective, La Recherche”, and other publications.
He conducted research on scientific cooperation in UNESCO’s archives in 2001-2002, when he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre Alexandre Koyré in Paris, and again in 2005, thanks to a grant from the American Philosophical Society.
The subjects of his published articles include marine science, environmental diplomacy, naval operations, biological effects of atomic radiation, and international cooperation. His research bridges the history of science, international relations, and environmental history.
Currently he is writing a history of the global controversies about dumping radioactive waste at sea, to be published with Rutgers University Press.
“The Politics of International Cooperation in Science”

The proliferation of international scientific bodies in the postwar era seemed to testify to an increased acceptance of cooperation as a useful way to promote knowledge. Particularly in the earth sciences, working with other nations appeared as an ideal way to develop global portraits of the natural world. Behind these new organizations lay a host of political pressures, as the world entered a contentious new era of cold war and decolonization. In oceanography, geopolitical concerns were intense because of the economic and strategic significance of the regions of study. But this was also the case for other subjects that promised to have global ramifications, such as the controversies over the biological effects of atomic radiation in the air and sea. Often the best efforts of scientists, to stand above politics and to speak the common language of nature, were subject to the vagaries of political struggle. This paper discusses a few themes in the politics of international scientific cooperation, using subjects that became matters of global concern after the war, such as nuclear energy and the sciences of the sea. The themes include the use of international bodies to legitimate and export national policies, the importance of international scientific leadership in the cold war struggle, and the shift of intellectual priorities when scientific bodies tried to include countries of the developing world.

A number of scholars have studied how the “S” was put into UNESCO; this paper will discuss ways in which the “S” was taken out, through political pressure. Despite its devotion to science, UNESCO occasionally failed to provide an independent scientific voice in controversial issues. One example was the 1953 “Atoms for Peace” initiative, launched by US President Dwight Eisenhower. The plan immediately provoked tough questions about whether or not to put nuclear waste into the sea. Yet UNESCO experts embraced the plan in precisely the way American policy makers hoped—as a way to turn the atom toward peaceful purposes. Although UNESCO planned to support an independent evaluation of the scientific merits and dangers of peaceful atomic energy, it was outmaneuvered by the US government, which helped to create a new UN body to focus on the biological effects of atomic radiation. UNESCO officials made a decision to accept peaceful atomic energy as a legitimate policy aim and to abandon not only the scientific study of it but also any discussion of military applications of atomic energy, including disarmament.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to use UNESCO to assert leadership within the scientific community. Although it is easy to remember the technological competition that marked the cold war, both countries also hoped to spearhead cooperative projects. An example was the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, founded in 1960 to manage huge multi-year projects in the marine sciences. Because of its intergovernmental status, its decisions were made by national delegations, not by individual scientists. It quickly became a forum for the superpowers to assert the appearance of leadership in a discipline that was both strategically important and crucial for understanding the source of much of the world’s food supply. Scientists increasingly disagreed on scientific organization, techniques, and even scientific concepts. Projects resulted from heated debate, serving only to antagonize political enemies rather than bring them together.

When international bodies attempted to coordinate research, they did so with the tacit acceptance that major studies—of space, of Antarctica, and the oceans, for example—could only be done by the scientists in countries who supported such work. But UNESCO’s goal of promoting science in developing countries added a new dimension to this “rich country’s club,” resulting in a range of opinion across the international spectrum about what constituted good science or science in the service of development. This provoked US-Soviet antagonism, to be sure; but some of the most intransigent difficulties arose during the process of decolonization. Dozens of smaller countries joined scientific bodies, with very fluid notions of “participation” in international programs. Small powers felt they were being abused by the powerful, while large powers felt overrun by more numerous poor countries trying to dictate scientific programs.
As historians, how should we judge people and projects that clearly spoke for the interests of nations? Was it socially irresponsible to use UNESCO for political purposes? As part of the roundtable on science and social responsibility, these themes suggest a trend from a) international cooperation among scientists to b) scientific cooperation between governments. One might be tempted to argue that cooperation would have been less politicized if left to individual scientists. It is probably more likely that governments only slowly came to realize the power of scientific cooperation in achieving national aims.

Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific