Event Series

Science, Technology & Diplomacy During the Cold War & Beyond

Organizers: Alison Kraft, Roberto Lalli, Giulia Rispoli, Jaehwan Hyun

History of science during the Cold War is a well-established field which has been characterized by certain basic patterns and assumptions, most prominently a picture of a bipolar world dominated by the ideological, political, economic and military rivalry between the superpowers. This research agenda has yielded rich insights and a central thesis about the "militarization of science" and science in the service of the national security state. However, the literature tended to emphasize state actors, especially the superpowers and the countries within their respective alliance systems in Eastern and Western Europe, view the bloc divide as impermeable and for a long time largely overlooked the countries of the Global South.

This new seminar series, jointly coordinated by Department I and III, aims to provide a forum that takes account of exciting developments within recent scholarship on science during the Cold War—especially, but not limited to, the approaches of transnational and global history.

Recently, historians of science have started to move beyond this framework, taking their cue in part from developments within wider scholarship on the Cold War, notably the application of the analytical approaches of transnational and global history. This has engendered a shift to a multipolar model of the conflict now reconceived as a global transformation "fuelled and shaped, but not determined by the superpower rivalry," characterized by exchanges/flows of knowledge, ideas, techniques, objects and people across national borders and geopolitical divides, and in which importance is accorded to non-state actors. As Arne Westad has noted, “The Cold War is not what it once was.”

Likewise, the history of science in the Cold War is not what it once was. Here too, scholarship employing transnational and global perspectives is complicating and challenging earlier assumptions about and interpretations of science during the conflict. These analytical frameworks are casting fresh light on the depth, breadth, diversity and scope of the transformation of science during the global Cold War. This is opening new vistas onto the variation in the characteristics, patterns and dynamics of science within and between different countries, and across the east-west and north-south divides, during the conflict. If this is helping to better understand the shifting temporalities of the Cold War it also underlines the need to situate “Cold War science” in relation to the years preceding and following the conflict: both can help illuminate what, if anything, was exceptional about science in this era.

All of this raises novel questions and poses intriguing challenges for the field. It is in this context that we launch this seminar series. As a priority we hope to showcase groundbreaking work that takes up these challenges. In terms of focus, we would highlight the following three themes that offer promising prospects for innovative and fruitful scholarship:

Science diplomacy. By this we mean the synergistic and/or antagonistic relationships between scientists and diverse actors at the intersection between science, politics, policymaking, and diplomacy including, for example, non-state actors, NGOs, scientists’ organizations, fellow ‘dissident’ scientists, philanthropic initiatives, business corporations and state actors.

Scientific institutions. There remains much to uncover about the development, activities and roles of scientific institutions—locally, nationally, internationally—throughout the Cold War, including analyses that consider their internal politics, their relations with national governments and how self-fashioned agendas and identities were conceived and formulated.

The environment and earth system governance. In the 70s, different conceptions of the environment and "earth-as-system" took shape in East and West. The concept of the Anthropocene has its roots in an earlier global ecological turn and cannot be understood in isolation from its Cold War heritage. The Anthropocene offers a new framework for thinking about the environment and for assessing the global impacts of humanity on the planet.


Changing Channel: What is Science Diplomacy and How Could It Help Us to Better Understand Cold War Science? MPIWG Main Conference Room


Margaret Thatcher, the Cold War, and International Science in the 1980s MPIWG Main Conference Room



The Common Problems of Modern Societies: IIASA as a Case for Détente Science Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte


POSTPONED: Rethinking Collaboration: Medical Research and Working Relationships at the Iranian Pasteur Institute Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte


POSTPONED: From Soil Erosion to Global Warming: The Postwar Internationalist Origins of Global-scale Environmental Crisis Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte


POSTPONED: Socialism and Scientific Internationalism in Sino-British Scientific Networks from World War to Cold War Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte


CANCELED: Nuclear Diplomacy: How Knowledge Becomes Worthy of Global Circulation Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte