Breaking Scientific Networks

How do you end scientific cooperation? If you are an isolationist dictator, how can you compel your scientists to do serious work without letting them communicate across the boundaries of the state? And, conversely, if you are a well-networked scientist, how do you practice your profession when your collaborators disappear? This conference examines the disappearance, transformation, and resilience of transnational scientific networks in times of social and political conflict. It offers episodes of destruction, survival and rebuilding across a time span of several centuries, with case studies from the Fall of the Roman Empire to Latin America today. How did Napoleon’s troops redraw the boundaries of the international Republic of Letters in early nineteenth-century Europe? And, with the rise of the Iron Curtain, how did Eastern European engineers, well-entrenched in the pre-War networks of German Wissenschaft, manage to create new, transnational networks of socialist science? And how do 21st-century American scientists navigate the ever-changing map of global politics when it comes to closing research sites and abandoning field experiments?

Science Studies tends to focus on beginnings. From Edinburgh-style SSK through Bruno Latour to works on the circulation of knowledge, scholars have studied how scientific networks are created, and how consensus is established so that scientific facts are accepted (or blackboxed) by all across the face of earth. Yet endings are just as important as beginnings. This conference examines what socio-political forces are required to stop the circulation of information, and to fragment scientific consensus. It argues that much effort is needed to dismantle transnational networks. They do not disappear on their own. Once established, flows of knowledge tend to have a certain inertia, and explicit social pressure is needed to block them and redirect them into new directions.

International conflicts often mark a breaking point in history. We use the lens of social and military conflict to detect whether and how political realignments change international exchanges of scientific knowledge. What is the value of transnational knowledge when your state places a bonus on self-sufficiency, militarization and secrecy? How do you manage collaborations when the international politics and scientific alliances do not quite match up? Not that cooperation fully needs to end even in the time of war, or that scientific networks fold only because of external pressures. It is precisely the mismatch between the breakdowns of international science and politics that make the study of ending scientific networks worth while on its own.