UNESCO & the Internalization of Science

A review of Patterns of Science: Developing Knowledge for a World Community at UNESCO, by Perrin Selcer.

Inventing an Esperanto of Science: On the Ideas and Impact of UNESCO

How can one possibly build a peaceful and prosperous world community on the remains of a world devastated by war? For the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the solution was — according to Perrin Selcer’s dissertation — first and foremost to work towards the internationalization of science. Basically, internationalization was about getting scientists to speak the same language — an “Esperanto of science” that could replace the great diversity of local scientific concepts and classifications — so that they had a common basis for understanding one another. Only with a set of international conceptual standards could they get together to provide basic knowledge about the world. And only when they had agreed on a common understanding of the world’s problems and potentials was it possible to decide what kind of direct action would best secure long-term, global peace and prosperity.

Perrin Selcer’s dissertation reveals how difficult this global homogenization of science really was. By focusing on UNESCO’s environmental and social sciences programs in the first quarter of a century of the organization’s history, Selcer demonstrates how the paths taken often proved to be different from the ones intended, because ideas formulated by a few people at headquarters in Paris had to be carried out in practice through the involvement of a multitude of actors with their own agendas.

In Chapter 1, Selcer shows how UNESCO’s social science department almost instantly became a battlefield between American researchers trying to convince the international community of social scientists to follow American standards, and a number of European scientists who dreamed of the social science department — and UNESCO in general — as a kind of commonwealth on European terms. Americanization of the social sciences was the end result. A more democratic view of internationalization was never really in question. Chapter 2 analyzes two specific social science projects of the late 1940s and the early 1950s regarding the education for international understanding and the tensions affecting it. The social scientists easily agreed on the premises, but direct action proved to be another matter. During the Cold War, UNESCO was frequently under suspicion of being a cover for espionage and of being infiltrated by people with leftist political views. Not least in the United States, where the initial enthusiastic participation in UNESCO was gradually replaced by skepticism and distancing. In Los Angeles UNESCO publications were even banished from the public school system in fear of the manipulative power of its content.

In Chapter 3, the dissertation examines a series of nature conservation conferences held in 1948 and 1949 to get an impression of how the new international network operated in practice. Resource shortages were seen as a major cause of disease and famine and as the root of many conflicts, and UNESCO’s ambition was thus to agree on a common approach to nature conservation as a pathway to peace. The dissertation shows that the conferences were initiated to generate precisely the data that best supported the organization’s objectives. In addition, they failed to involve people living in the affected areas. Chapter 4 follows UNESCO’s environmental sciences program into the field through a study of the so-called “Arid Zone Project” of 1949. It was launched because of a widespread concern about overpopulation combined with a fear that exploitative agricultural practices threatened to turn fertile fields into barren deserts. This doomsday myth easily convinced the member states of the usefulness of the project, the aim of which was to turn deserts into fertile land and thus eliminating the whole problem of overpopulation. But again reality proved to be something slightly different than theory. Various development plans, which focused in particular on water, were indeed initiated but soon suffered from the great discrepancy between UNESCO’s extremely ambitious objectives and its tiny budget as well as local populations — nomads — that did not at all get the point of deserts being a problem.

Chapter 5 is an attempt to get even closer to the events on the ground by looking at the establishment of a university chair of race relations in 1950s Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now known as Zimbabwe and Malawi respectively) — a region with strong racial tensions and rife political conflicts. This in fact successful project was one of several aftereffects of the UNESCO statements on the concept of race from 1950 to 1951, which was perhaps one of the most noteworthy achievements of the organization’s work on conceptual standard-setting, because they symbolically drew the line between the prewar and postwar view of man. The establishment of a chair was an opportunity to spread actively their idea of equal rights globally. Chapter 6 touches upon the creation of a map of the world’s soil resources to obtain an overview of the earth’s problems and potentials. In order to draw the map, environmental scientists had to agree on an “Esperanto of soil science” — a common classification of land, divided by relief and soil texture — that made it possible to compare and if necessary transfer technologies from one place to another. But again this piece of work was carried out almost entirely by Western experts in an attempt — albeit well-intentioned — to “colonize” minds by excluding alternative standards. To draw maps is after all not a value-free procedure but a way to appropriate the world.

Altogether, Perrin Selcer’s dissertation engages with a number of issues that almost inevitably arose in an international organization in the encounter between global ideas and local realities 50 years ago. It confirms some of the patterns that historians have already uncovered, and increase our knowledge of others. Especially the sections on the environmental sciences are full of brand new research, which is moreover treated with theoretical insights and analytical skills that makes it relevant not only for specialists but also of any historian of science who want to understand how science works both within and outside of the laboratory.

Poul Duedahl
Department of History
School of Culture and Global Studies
Aalborg University

Primary Sources

Carter Goodrich Collection, Columbia University Archives, New York, United States.
Correspondence Files, UNESCO Archives, Paris, France.
Historical Archives, International Labor Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
National Research Council Collections, National Academies Archives, Washington DC, United States.
Records and Archives Unit, Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.
UNESCO Files Series, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park MD, United States.
UNESCO Staff Association Magazines, UNESCO Archives, Paris, France.
Weekly Press Review, UNESCO Archives, Paris, France.

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2011. 449pp. Primary Advisor: M. Susan Lindee.


Image: UNESCO Stamp, Wikimedia Commons.