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Road Blocks in Science

February 28, 2017

Dr. Robert Fox is here with us to expand on his book, Science without Frontiers. Taking inspiration from earlier lectures, Fox dives into the history of scientific innovation and the ideologies behind these advancements. Whatever the aspirations of individual scientists or the status of projects underway, science is always subject to surveillance and the interference of shifting political agendas. Today, Fox gives a few real-life examples of the ways that politics have affected scientific inquiry throughout history.


Science without Frontiers had its origins in the three lectures that I gave at Oregon State University, Corvallis, as Horning Visiting Fellow in the Humanities in May 2013. When I gave the lectures, I had no idea that, barely three years on, the ideals of the free exchange of knowledge and the free movement of people would assume the immediacy that they have today. In the lectures, I addressed the challenges and aspirations that came, from the mid-nineteenth century, with the accelerating proliferation of scientific books, specialized journals, and press and conference reports. In the face of the growing volume and diversity of knowledge, the procedures of information retrieval assumed unprecedented importance. In the sciences, responses to what was widely seen as a crisis of overload included abstracting journals (Pharmaceutisches Centralblatt was the first of them in 1830) and a new generation of bibliographies and other finding aids.

It is tempting to interpret such innovations as a simple response to a practical problem. But in Science without Frontiers I argue that the push to facilitate the access to scientific knowledge and promote its circulation was also driven by a broader, universalist ideology with a strong pacifist streak. When two Belgian lawyers, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, launched their International Institute of Bibliography in Brussels in 1895, they did so in the belief that in cataloguing the sources of human knowledge in all its forms, they were taking a first step on a road to a world at peace. Their guiding principle was straightforward: so long as knowledge was open to all and nations and their peoples communicated freely with one another, war between them would be inconceivable.

A similar motivation fired the Norwegian-American sculptor, Hendrik Christian Andersen, who published his plan for a utopian city that he conceived as a World Centre of Communication in 1913, when the tide of universalist sentiment was at its height. Within months, however, the Great War dealt a fatal blow to Andersen's hopes and seriously inhibited the work of the International Institute of Bibliography. Quite suddenly, sciene became the property of the belligerent nations, with consequences in the development of poison gases and other science-based weapons.

In important ways, the coming of peace in 1918 did little to allay wartime enmities. The exclusion of German scientists from conferences under the aegis of the newly established International Research Council (IRC) and the associated ban on the use of the German language at the IRC's conferences constituted assaults on the universalist ideals to which the scientific world had adhered, or at least paid lip service, since the beginnings of modern science in the seventeenth century. And worse was to come. The consolidation of totalitarian regimes in the 1920s and 1930s, in Soviet Russia, Italy, Germany and Spain, resulted in the subordination of the scientific communities of these countries to what their governments variously construed as their national interests. The hardships that Nazi authorities inflicted on Jewish scientists were all too symptomatic of a rejection of any notion of science as a part of a seamless web of learned culture.

A second world war only reinforced that rejection, as scientists were again called upon to serve their countries and turn away from their worldwide disciplinary communities. Even in the darkest days, however, the universalist dream did not completely die, and it re-emerged strongly iin the post-war creation of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO's declared aim of promoting "the free exchange of ideas and knowledge" was precisely that of Otlet, La Fontaine, and Andersen, and since 1946 its initiatives have done much to transcend the barriers of nationhood, race, and language, while respecting the distinctiveness of cultures.

Even in the institution of UNESCO's power and influence, however, the passage from precept to practice has never been easy. Certain British and American administrations have viewed UNESCO's actions as unsupportive, even subversive, of their particular national interests, and they have withdrawn or diminished their support. And now, in our day, we find universalist ideals on the back foot once again as impediments to the free movement of peoples and the ideas and talents they bring with them show signs of being strengthened, not diminished. In the name of a recovery of control over our borders, a post-Brexit Britain seems intent on breaking with the UK's hard-won integration in the networks of European science, despite the intellectual and financial benefits that integration has brought for so long.

If science is to be pursued "without frontiers," we need to be sensitive to what is afoot. As history shows and this short book reminds us, frontiers that we may feel to have been removed or made less formidable have a nasty habit of re-emerging in the press of political events. In the present circumstances, that should be a matter of profound concern for all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike.

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