Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Periodic Report Summary 1 - SCIENCEWORLDORDER ('Science and World Order':Uses of science in plans for international government, 1899-1950.)

Description of the project objectives

In 1933, the famous science fiction author H.G. Wells predicted a turbulent future for the globe. There would be another arms race, followed by a second World War, and a long period of continued conflict and utter devastation. After this Dark Age, however, a new order would emerge: a World State, run by scientists and engineers. Those were the kind of people who, unlike anybody else, knew how to solve problems and cooperate internationally. Science would bring world peace.

Wells was an exceptionally vocal visionary of a scientific world order, but he was far from the only one. From the late nineteenth century to the dawn of the United Nations, many intellectuals and opinion makers proposed science as a model for peaceful international relations. Its impartiality, its rationality, and, above all, its universality, they claimed, could lead the path to a united world. The fact that such ideas were expressed during the most war-torn era in world history is no coincidence – science was seen as a way out of human folly and belligerence. Nor is it accidental that this period witnessed the foundation of the first international political institutions, such as the UN, the League of Nations, and the International Court of Arbitration. These were constructed against the same conflict-ridden background, and their designs often drew on ideals about science.

ScienceWorldOrder investigates what role ideas about science played in the making of international institutions, and in what ways science was promoted as a model for international cooperation. Its aim is to deepen our understanding of ‘international thought’ and the kinds of conceptions and discourses that have informed international cooperation – especially now that such cooperation is less self-evident than it used to be (see the recent Brexit) and can no longer be seen as the product of automatic progress. Why did people use to think that such progress would be automatic, and what role has science played in such thinking?

This question is the central objective of ScienceWorldOrder, and in pursuing it, the project follows three principles or sub-objectives:

1. It investigates promotions of science for international relations in their political contexts – not only as part of the history of science, but also as part of the history of international politics.
2. It explores the political variability of such plans across the political spectrum. Liberals looked to science as a model for international cooperation, but so did communists, conservatives, and even fascists. ScienceWorldOrder examines this variation through a wide-ranging case-study approach.
3. It probes the effects of the plans on the building of international institutions. This objective is pursued by varying the success-rate of the investigated projects, i.e. by looking at successful as well as unsuccessful initiatives. At the same time, success and failure are taken as outcomes of historical developments, not a pre-ordained given.

Description of the work performed since the beginning of the project

Since the start of the project, research has focused on roughly five areas/case studies:
1. The arbitration movement of the pre-WWI period with special attention to the role of one of its leaders, the Austrian writer on peace and science, baroness Bertha von Suttner.
2. The transition of pre-WWI scientific internationalism to the patriotism exhibited by scientists during the Great War, focussing on the work of the German chemist and internationalist Wilhelm Ostwald.
3. The guerre des savants during WWI and its relation to scientific internationalism in the interwar International Research Council and the League of Nations.
4. Science in fascist projections of world power, particularly the exhibit ‘Scienza Universale’ at Mussolini’s 1942 Universal Exposition.
5. British socialist scientific internationalism in the 1930s and 40s, and its impact on post-war UNESCO.

All of this work has been supported by expertise and perspectives in International History, newly acquired at Columbia University’s Center for International History and related Columbia institutions.

Description of the main results achieved so far

The main written results are an edited volume and two chapters on scientific internationalism in the Unity of Science movement:

• G.J. Somsen, Pursuing the Unity of Science: Ideology and Scientific Practice from the Great War to the Cold War (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate / New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), edited with H. Kamminga.
• G.J. Somsen, ‘Scientists of the World Unite: Socialist Internationalism and the Unity of Science’, in: Pursuing the Unity of Science (see above), 82-108.
• G.J. Somsen & R. de Wilde, ‘Government as Scientific Process in H.G. Wells’ World State’, in: Pursuing the Unity of Science (see above), 109-127.

Besides, three article manuscripts have been completed and submitted to leading journals.

In addition, Dr Somsen has given the keynote lecture at a conference of the Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University, as well as the inaugural presentation of the International and Global History Workshop, also at Columbia University.

Expected final results and their potential impact and use

The results to be expected by the end of the project (besides the publications above) are:

• The publication of the three manuscripts mentioned above, and one more.
• The completion of the manuscript of a monograph on ‘Science and World Order’.
• A series of international workshops on the same theme, at Columbia and Maastricht University.

These publications and their wider dissemination will deepen our understanding of the ideological uses of science and the types of thinking that underlie international institutions, and our hopes and fears about them.


Merle Achten, (Research funding advisor)
Tel.: +31 64670 5509
Fax: +31 433884917


Life Sciences
Record Number: 189032 / Last updated on: 2016-09-19