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Workshop Science Popularization as Cultural Diplomacy: UNESCO (1946-1958)

14 nov. 2022
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Organised by the Institut d’Història de la Ciència (iHC), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and the Centre Alexandre Koyré (CAK), CNRS-EHESS-MNHN, Paris.

Venue: Institut d’Història de la Ciència (UAB), Seminar room, 24-25 November 2022.



From its creation after World War II, UNESCO became a political battleground in which different visions of science and the world order fought for hegemony. As it is well known, Julian Huxley (1887-1975) and Joseph Needham (1900-1995) were the first General Director and the first Director of the Natural Sciences Division. Their administration stressed the "social implications of science" -through the influence of Bernalist Marxism- and the "periphery principle" in international relations. They also included science popularization in its priorities, but UNESCO's popularization program would only start once the Cold War increased in intensity and Huxley and Needham's policies were substituted by the leadership of the physicist Pierre Auger (1899-1993) as new head of the Natural Sciences Division. We aim to explore the history of international science popularization policies and practices at UNESCO as tools for governance and cultural diplomacy from the Huxley-Needham administration to the end of Auger's leadership in 1958.

This international workshop, which will eventually lead to a collective publication in a volume or special issue of a journal, encourages its participants to place their case studies at the intersection of several historiographies. First, in the last decades, the history of science popularization has evolved from a rather mar ginal position to a central object of research. Concepts such as “expository science” (Shinn and Whitley, 1985), “dominant view of popularization” (1990), “knowledge in transit” (2004) have contributed to a deep revision of a too simpli stic top down, expert lay dichotomies, to provide a more dynamic approach to the nature of science (and knowledge, in a broad sense) as a cultural artefact, resulting from multiple negotiations among different historical actors. In addition, a political turn in the study of science popularization has refined these approaches and has provided a more robust, critical approach to the links between science and power Roqueplo, 1974, Cooter, 1984; Nieto Galan, 2016; Sastre Juan, 2018). Second, our case studies s hall place the UNESCO practices and projects of science popularization in the period under study (2020) in the context of the recent research that reassesses scientific internationalism as a historically and ideologically situated practice, again, as a powerful political tool. (2008; Fox, 2016; Zaidi, 2021). Third, our case studies can contribute to enrich recent literature on science and diplomacy. They will provide new, useful, sound data on UNESCO scientific expertise for science popular ization programmes and its role in terms of soft power, geopolitics, foreign policies and global issues (2019; Rentetzi and Ito, 2021; Adamson and Lalli, 2021). In addition, and beyond its too often acritical, institutional literature, all paper s of this workshop shall also contribute to enrich the historiography of UNESCO, from a more critical, refined perspective.

In Barcelona, on 24 25 November 2022, we aim therefore to discuss precirculated versions (deadline 4 November) of 8000 9000 words which, within the former historiographical framework, may address questions such as the following:

  1. Who were the main actors behind the science popularization program at UNESCO?
  2. What were their political agendas?
  3. What were their specific approaches to s cience, internationalism, diplomacy and popularization?
  4. How were UNESCO's popularization policies actually implemented around the world in
  5. different national and local contexts?


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