Over the past thirty years, my research has engaged the social and cultural history of science in Russia and the USSR and how science enters the public realm in authoritarian political cultures.1For example, see James T. Andrews, Science for the Masses: The Bolshevik State, Public Science, and the Popular Imagination in Soviet Russia, 1917-1934 (Texas A&M University Press, 2003). More recently, I have also been interested in the politicizing of large scale technologies.2Also see, Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture, eds. James T. Andrews and Asif A. Siddiqi (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012). In a variety of history of science classes that focus on twentieth-century comparative European history, I cover the constraints placed on scientific inquiry and disciplines by various interwar totalitarian regimes—fascist, communist, and others. Lately, I have wondered if students (as well as scholars) have grasped the potential gravity of deep political interference in research, worrying they—and the public at large—may see this phenomenon as part of an anomalous, bygone era.

With the constraints that the Trump administration is threatening to place on climate change scientists, or for that matter Putin’s assault on independent academic institutions and their social scientific methodologies (or his threats to reorganize the Academy of Sciences), I was sadly reminded how governments (both the West and East) have the power to not only censor, but dramatically alter the process of peer review in the social, physical, and natural sciences. In fact, recent developments in the United States at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are particularly disconcerting. In early May, the EPA dismissed members of a major scientific review board (the Board of Science Counselors) in a clear attempt at both shrinking the agency’s regulatory reach and replacing academics with representatives from the corporate world.

“What can we learn of political interference in the domain of intellectual freedom, and how have academics attempted to cope with such assaults from past authoritarian regimes?”

What can we learn of political interference in the domain of intellectual freedom, and how have academics attempted to cope with such assaults from past authoritarian regimes? What patterns and intricate trends can we highlight, so that if they return today, they can possibly be spotted, re-examined, and placed on our “warning” screens. Not that they will be replicated, and manifested, exactly as they had in the past, but related attempts might lead to similar problems for intellectuals and the public seeking to maintain civic debate, scientific inquiry, and public culture. These “warning signs” include more specifically: encroachment on the process of peer review, the repercussions of constructing national, restrictive norms of scientific organization, and the problems with autarkic scientific and economic development policies.

Peer review under authoritarian conditions

In Europe and Eurasia, revolution, war, and economic disasters often preceded times of authoritarian constraint on scientific inquiry. One of the immediate precursors to those changes, as well as a result of those upheavals, was a wave of scientific emigration—a “brain drain.” This was particularly evident during the time of the Russian Revolutions of 1917, when scholars fled to Western Europe. It was additionally prominent during the fascist era in the 1930s, when one witnessed a surge in academic emigration, from continental Europe—especially Germany and Italy—to the United States, in multiple disciplines (though especially in the physical sciences).

As the fascist governments were placing constraints on particular disciplines in Western Europe, to the East similar problems were developing. During the Stalin era, the Soviet government, and its scientific institutions, became the adjudicator of what was “good” science or social science, replacing any system of independent academic and/or professional peer review. In fact, when the USSR collapsed in 1991, even conservative leaders of the old Academy of Sciences, such as Iu. S. Osipov, realized Russia needed a new type of National Science Foundation that was based fundamentally on an accompanying system of peer review. In the Communist era, good science sometimes meant practical science that was important to the regime. This led at times to the support of pseudoscientists such as the agronomist Trofim Lysenko, and ultimately did enormous damage to disciplines such as genetics for decades. As the eminent historian of Russian science, Loren R. Graham, has pointed out: the granting of higher degrees, personnel promotions, or scientific publishing all were subject to the bureaucratic control of the ruling Communist Party. Ultimately, this led in turn to the repudiation of some established scientific disciplines. For example, by 1948, in the USSR, research and teaching of standard genetics was tragically eliminated, as leading genetics laboratories were closed down.3For a cogent overview of Soviet attitudes toward the social, political, and historical study of science, see Loren R. Graham, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993). (Obviously, some less inherently applied sciences, such as abstract mathematics or cybernetics, were less affected by political dogma.)

By the 1970s, when younger biologists started to resurrect their field, they struggled to find role models, ironically in a country where in the 1920s Russia had pioneering specialists. Thus, one sign to watch for is when governmental institutions start to go beyond their function of administering funds and constrain the process of judicious peer review because of a priori conceptions about the validity or importance of certain types of scientific theories (and methods) over others. Granted, in such contexts, scholars learn to employ and appropriate the regime’s rhetoric and rituals as a way to elude the Party’s (or a particular government’s) control of their work. Sometimes, deft scientific and social scientific thinkers can employ the very totalitarian machine, created to control intellectual life, to advance their own interests and the goals of their institution. However, that complex phenomenon is more the anomaly than the norm.4For an analysis of how the Stalinist science system was constructed and an inventive overview of the many strategies scientists employed to either elude their administrators’ control or advance their own agendas in a subterranean manner, see Nikolai Krementsov, Stalinist Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). More broadly, to see intellectuals subjected to playing such complex rituals, and engrossed in masking their intentions while engaged in a dynamic and arduous jousting match between state and scientist, is not an effective mode of advancing research.

“National” science and the quest for autarky

“In Nazi Germany, for example, German physicists fell prey to these extra-scientific forces that were particularly a result of the promulgation of Nazi race laws…”

Another problematic sign is when authoritarian-type regimes support national forms of science, especially when science depends on international contacts and porous borders to prosper. In Nazi Germany, for example, German physicists fell prey to these extra-scientific forces that were particularly a result of the promulgation of Nazi race laws—it led to the emigration of perhaps one-quarter of German physicists who had been forced from their jobs. Ultimately, this race-based, anti-international, anticosmopolitan condemnation of new fields such as relativity (and the theoretical physical sciences) led to Germany losing ten Nobel laureate physicists, four Nobel laureate chemists, and additionally five more Nobel laureate medical researchers between 1933 and 1945. While they reside in one country, scientists need to move around to visit laboratories and exchange ideas, and thus the tightening of borders and emigration restrictions can be hazardous to the well-being of not just those scientists, but their disciplines as well.

Related to national forms of science are the development of autarkic governmental planning policies—i.e., when a state professes complete economic independence from the global economy. We see these signs today manifesting themselves first rhetorically during times of political campaigns and then tragically in new policy initiatives in both the “liberal West” and East. Extreme examples of this type of isolationist (and at times irrational) state-planning in the recent past (and present), for example, can be seen in places such as North Korea where 90 percent of output is from state-owned industry. The problem is not necessarily state ownership as much as overt state control of priority investment. This typically leads to underfunding of independent research and development and ultimately gives scientists little room to embark on new inventions, creative projects, or develop international connections independent of the state’s interest. This pattern was evident in China until Mao’s death in the late 1970s. In Maoist times especially, the Communist Chinese Government put the scientific establishment under the service to the nation-state, which focused on national economic growth and the industrialization of nature with significant negative consequences for the environment.5For a broad comparative survey of totalitarian regimes (in Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia) and their coercive effect on the scientific and technical intelligentsia, see Paul R. Josephson, Totalitarian Science and Technology, 2nd ed. (New York: Humanities Books, 2005).

Constraints under liberal conditions

The list of twentieth century authoritarian regimes in Europe, Eurasia, and Asia and their control of the scientific and social scientific establishment seems endless.6Another example could also be the past regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and his obsession with large-scale scientific and agricultural projects that benefited elite social classes. This type of control of industry, science, and agriculture however is not specific to authoritarian regimes. During times of war, especially World War II, Western scientists were drawn into serving the state as Western bureaucracies dramatically expanded their control over certain kinds of scientific activity that needed large-scale funding. At the beginning of the Cold War, this trend was further accelerated. Today, as the historian of technology Paul Josephson aptly reminds us, “liberal, pluralistic” governments can continue to display a national style of science and technology that is both influenced by ideology and technology that is influenced by ideology. In fact, in the United States, as of late, Congress has certainly ignored environmental expertise on the repercussions of destroying wetlands, forests, and coastal ecosystems, while at least one past US presidential administration (George W. Bush) has denied global warming trends (and the current EPA head, and Trump administration, is treading dangerously in that direction as well).7See Josephson, Totalitarian Science and Technology. American astrophysicists are also deeply concerned about the possibility of the Clarreo mission (NASA’s satellite-based measuring system of the earth’s radiation budget) being scuttled as its central aim has been to measure and more deeply understand the long-term dynamics of climate change. Recently, the astrophysics professor Adam Frank also expressed concern about the long-term repercussions of ending certain climate change research. Using the analogy of Lysenko’s assault on genetics, he laments that the curtailment of the Clarreo project would inflict long-term damage to our ability to grapple with environmental challenges—hampering, and “infecting,” in his words, “the whole of America’s scientific enterprise.”

Warning signs in the present

What signs can we look for, and what must we defend or avoid in the future? In order for scientific and social scientific inquiry to flourish we must fervently defend the process of peer review and insist that professional experts remain the adjudicators of what is good or bad science, not ideologically driven regime administrators. We must promote open, porous exchange of not just ideas, but the movement of intellectuals across those borders to prevent isolationism—thus promoting international connections in the natural and social sciences. Finally, while national policies may promote fundamentally sound large-scale industrial and scientific projects, which could benefit society, we must still defend against extreme, autarkic governmental policies that exclude either independent nongovernmental voices of opinion or established, diversified international advisory councils weighing in on the direction, ethics, and feasibility of science policies.

“What I am suggesting, however, is that we can learn from the recent past…”

This model of scientific development is not fool-proof, nor am I advocating that nation-states and governments must always subject themselves to the vigilant review of international academic scientific boards regarding their policy initiatives. What I am suggesting, however, is that we can learn from the recent past—i.e., authoritarian regimes, through a variety of methods, can constrain, limit, and grossly censor scientific inquiry through a variety of means. Newly elected French President Macron during his campaign proposed allowing for fired EPA scientists from the United States and other countries to work in France. Interestingly enough, this was met with both support and concern from the French scientific establishment. Some internal critics worried this would shift needed internal, “national” scientific funds to foreign scientists, yet even those critics seemed to support Macron’s general approach to scientific internationalism.

These are very open, healthy civic debates that need to take place between the state, the scientific community, and the public. May they continue globally in an unfettered manner. Indeed, this conversation between state and society currently under way in France in some ways echoes the essence of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment ideals of the value and popularization of science and knowledge.

Posted on June 13, 2017

References:

1
For example, see James T. Andrews, Science for the Masses: The Bolshevik State, Public Science, and the Popular Imagination in Soviet Russia, 1917-1934 (Texas A&M University Press, 2003).
2
Also see, Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture, eds. James T. Andrews and Asif A. Siddiqi (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).
3
For a cogent overview of Soviet attitudes toward the social, political, and historical study of science, see Loren R. Graham, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
4
For an analysis of how the Stalinist science system was constructed and an inventive overview of the many strategies scientists employed to either elude their administrators’ control or advance their own agendas in a subterranean manner, see Nikolai Krementsov, Stalinist Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
5
For a broad comparative survey of totalitarian regimes (in Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia) and their coercive effect on the scientific and technical intelligentsia, see Paul R. Josephson, Totalitarian Science and Technology, 2nd ed. (New York: Humanities Books, 2005).
6
Another example could also be the past regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and his obsession with large-scale scientific and agricultural projects that benefited elite social classes.
7
See Josephson, Totalitarian Science and Technology.