1 (cnrs & Université Paris 7)

International Science and World War II

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International Science and World War II

The international function of science came definitely into focus during World War II, including the participation of progressive scientists to the war efforts of the Allied Governments.

As soon as September 1941, the BAAS Division organized a conference in London on "Science and World Order". 22 countries were represented. Needham, Huxley, Haldane, Hogben were present. Three more conferences took place in 1942 and 1943. The Association of Scientific Workers (AScW) organized its own international conferences: "the Planning of Science in War and Peace" (January 1943); "Science for Peace" (February 1945), which called the Allied Countries to organize the international scientific co-operation.

Between 1943 and 1945 various inter-governmental allied conferences discussed the place of science within the foreseen UN system. The Conference of the Allied Ministries of Education, prepared Unesco. After Hiroshima bombing in August 1945, science became a major issue for international relations.

It is not surprising then that organizing international science for a better world after the victory against Nazis attracted many progressive scientists. In continuity with their wartime commitments, it allowed them to give coherence between their social and political leanings and their conception of universal science. For a short period, everything looked possible.

Needham shared an idealistic conception of science with most of his colleagues, and even explained that scientists were spontaneously pre-disposed for international co-operation. For the immediate post-war years, the most complete exposition of Needham's ideas may be found in his Boyle lecture of 1948.4

Even if Needham's conceptions of scientific universalism were not free of Eurocentric bias, they differed from Bernal's idealistic or political views, particularly in two fields:

Universalism: his "ecumenical" science only existed with roots in the various civilizations and was constructed by exchanges and borrowings between these civilizations.5

The Periphery Principle: with the Sino-British Co-operation Committee, he took conscience of the necessity of a voluntarily international action for the advancement of science in developing countries, beyond what he called "the bright zone". He denounced the "laissez faire" and the "parochial minds" of the majority of his fellow scientists, who are able to exchange, and to travel easily in Europe and North America. "Science looks different, when seen from India or from Europe", he used to say.6 He named that the "periphery principle". International efforts should be, in priority, directed towards the countries, and the scientists, who need to be supported. To apply this "periphery principle," the commitment of the main Governments was absolutely necessary, as shown by the war efforts. ICSU (International Council of Scientific Unions) has proved to be ineffective for that, and the foreseen WFScW did not look more promising.

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