UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Jahnavi Phalkey

Jahnavi Phalkey is a Doctoral Candidate in history of science at the School of History, Technology and Society, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta and at present, Visiting Researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway. She is completing her doctoral dissertation on the establishment of nuclear physics education and research facilities in India (1938-1966).
Her research interest is mainly the history of science in the mid-twentieth century - especially history of physics and in topics of scientific internationalism; modernisation theory and techno-scientific assistance to the developing world and science education and research in India.
“UNESCO, Decolonization and Science in India”

René Maheu, the Director General on UNESCO’s 25 th anniversary, observed that “…whatever the theory and intentions, UNESCO was nevertheless for ten years, an essentially Western organisation”.(1)
Scholars such as Aant Elzinga have worked with this argument to show that the West started loosing interest in international scientific collaboration once the newly decolonised nations became an essential target for inclusion in such programs by the early 1960’s.(2)
In my research I would like to examine this argument specifically in the light of the changing fortunes of scientific research, science education and scientists in India with UNESCO patronage, first as a colony and after decolonisation in 1947 - as an independent nation-state.

In November 1946, a year before India became independent from British colonial rule, at the first General Conference of UNESCO in Paris, a ‘Sub-commission on Natural Sciences’ was established. The chairperson appointed for this sub-commission was Homi Jehangir Bhabha, a physicist from India. A decade later, in 1955, UNESCO contributed to the organisation of the Atoms for Peace meeting in Geneva where Homi J. Bhabha was the chairperson of the meeting, and yet another decade later – in 1960 he was elected chairperson of the International Union for Physics and Applied Physics (IUPAP) – the first from what by then was indisputably established as the “third world”. However, the story cannot be reduced merely to the trajectory of a scientist’s career.

If we look at the above paragraph it can be inferred that the position of scientists from India was initially determined by the logic of scientific internationalism of the interwar period. There was place for these individuals, not necessarily as colonial scientists but as shaped by their scientific network arising from locations of their training, scientific practice and sometimes teaching –which were often in Europe- given that there were lesser opportunities to pursue these objectives in the colonial home territory. This was not necessarily the case after decolonisation.

If we mark the decade between Homi Bhabha’s chairing the sub-commission on natural sciences (1946) to his chairing the Atoms for Peace meeting (1955) – one can probably begin to describe a pattern in continuation with Mahue and Elzinga’s argument in the specific case of India. The controversial appointment of Bhabha (3) to the chair position of the Atoms for Peace Conference further contributes to the argument in confirming the inherently political nature of scientific internationalism and UNESCO policies of the Cold War era. While this is an obvious observation for those working with UNESCO history, the point I wish to make here is to foreground the choice of Bhabha as representative of both non-aligned politics and the symbolic moment reflecting the shifting target of UN and UNESCO policy towards patronizing science in the third world. This moment is indicative of Bhabha’s changing role within the international scientific community. From the beginnings of his affiliation with the UNESCO family largely as a member of the physicist community owing to his training in Europe, - he had been recast as a scientific statesman from a decolonised new country – which had to be integrated on new terms, into a redefined international world order of science among nations. Bhabha provided a useful continuity to anchor the objectives of scientists and more so of Cold War science politics –largely led by Britain, USA and France. Bhabha’s “national” affiliation proved more important in this case than his earlier mode of belonging with this community.

However, if one begins to examine the second part of Elzinga’s argument where he claims the West began to lose interest in international collaborations in scientific work once third world became the target of patronage, I would argue that the desire for cooperation, and manner of cooperation was not uniform or homogenous –nor was the West the only main actor. Following the Atoms for Peace meeting in Geneva, there opened up possibilities for non-military collaborations in international science after 1955 following the American initiative which was until then largely constrained by secrecy and strict controls on sharing scientific research –something that could contribute to an explanation for the largely “western” cast of UNESCO in the first decades. The battle that began for the “hearts and minds of men” from newly decolonising nation-states began to be fought using the UNESCO platform as well. Scientific and technical assistance programs for development, science education and science research stations were established in these territories including India. While UNESCO supported projects like the International Indian Ocean Exploration touched only the surface of the science community in India because these projects were not planned keeping in mind the infrastructural drawbacks of doing science in India (4), select programs of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) led largely by the USA and supported by the UNESCO, managed to legitimate continuing research in cosmic ray physics and space sciences in India through the international credibility and visibility brought by the IGY.

I am now more specifically beginning to study the participation of UNESCO in the establishment of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in the late 1950’s. “IIT Bombay was established with the participation of UNESCO, utilising the contribution of the Government of USSR. The Institute received several experts (59) and technicians (14) from several reputed institutions in the USSR” (5) , and also provided for fellowships for Indian faculty for training in the USSR. By 1965, a bilateral agreement between India and the USSR brought more money to the Institute. This case study aims at bringing in centre-stage the other half of the bipolar tug of war in order to better understand positions of the USA and Europe and the USSR on the one hand, India on the other in relation to the instrumentality of UNESCO for the promotion of techno-science in the international order of science during the Cold War.

(1) UNESCO (1972) In the Minds of Men: UNESCO 1946-71 Paris: UNESCO

(2) Elzinga, Aant (1996) Unesco and the Politics of Scientific Internationalism in A. Elzinga and C. Landström (1996) Internationalism and Science London: Taylor and Graham

(3) See Hewlett, Richard G. and Jack M. Holl, (1989) Atoms for Peace and War 1953-1961: Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission, University of California Press, Berkeley; Anderson, R. S. (1999). Patrick Blackett: Military Consultant and Scientific Intervener in India, 1947-1972 Notes & Records of the Royal Society, 53 (2), 253-273 and (3), 345-359 and Nye, Mary Jo (2004) Blackett: Physics War and Politics in the Twentieth Century Cambridge: Harvard University Press

(4) See Hamblin, Jacob Darwin (2005) Oceanographers and the Cold War: Disciples of Marine Science Seattle: University of Washington Press, Chapter 7.

(5) Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, home page: http://www.iitb.ac.in/about/how.html

Mail Address jahnavi.phalkey@hf.ntnu.no
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