"Decolonize the IGY! Tales about Past Episodes of Scientific Collaboration and the Importance of Challenging them in the Future"

Simone Turchetti

American Institute of Physics

Thursday, August 31, 2023 12:15 pm EDT

Past international scientific collaborations have been recently portrayed as examples of positive interchange between states and national scientific groups, and even as models of global governance. Some scholars contend, however, that we should pay greater attention to how colonial relations have shaped the sciences’ past, including collaborations too.
Nothing better than the International Geophysical Year (IGY, 1957-58) exemplifies the contrast between these readings. This archetypal collaborative exercise uniting sixty-seven national committees in the pursuit of making available new knowledge on the earth and its phenomena, is still seen today as overcoming global tensions at height of the Cold War, and even paving the way to the governance of the ‘global commons.’ This paper contends that we should look instead at its organization as exemplar of the colonial legacies that have shaped global science. It focuses especially on one of the IGY major achievements, namely the configuration of a discipline-based system of World Data Centers. By examining the negotiations behind this system, it unearths how the IGY was shaped by (and contributed to shape) post-colonial relations across the globe.
I conclude that tales about past episodes of international scientific collaboration with a distinctive colonial dimension can contribute to the ‘invisibilization’ of cohorts marginalized in global science today. Conversely, ‘decolonizing’ historical narratives increase our awareness about the unevenness that still exists in the collaborative edifice of the global scientific enterprise, hence alerting us about the need to find ways to tackle these disparities while fostering collaboration.

Speaker Bio:
Simone Turchetti is a senior lecturer at the Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) of the University of Manchester (UK, Britain). He researches and teaches on the history of 20th century science, with the focus on the impacts of scientific exchanges and collaborations on international relations. After receiving his PhD (always at the CHSTM), he has worked in various other universities (University of Bristol, University of Leeds) before returning at the CHSTM in 2009 to start the ERC Starting Grant project The Earth Under Surveillance. Since 2021, he is the Principal Investigator for the ERC Advanced Grant project Neworld@a, focussing on the diplomacy of scientific data (https://neworldata.org/). He is also the president of the DHST Historical Commission on Science, Technology and Diplomacy (STAND - https://sciencediplomacyhistory.org/), and the president elect of the European Society for the History of Science (2022-2024). He is the author of written monographs (The Pontecorvo Affair, Greening the Alliance), has edited collective volumes (The Surveillance Imperative, Science Studies during the Cold War) and contributed to completing special journal issues and articles.