Scientific Cooperation in the Age of UNESCO: Mapping Southeast Asian Plants and Plant Scientists at the End of Empire

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:20 AM
Room 402 (Colorado Convention Center)
Andrew Goss, Augusta University
This paper argues that international scientific collaboration emerged as a mainstream practice in science at the same time that the European empires disappeared in the middle of the 20th century. This scientific cooperation and collaboration has been so largely uncontroversial, and such a profound force of innovation, that it has not merited explanation. This paper endeavors to explain what led to a rapid increase in global cooperation amongst scientists in the middle third of the 20th century. The paper acknowledges the role of Big Science and physics during the Cold War in fostering international collaboration, but emphasizes how decolonization created incentives and opportunities for international scientific collaboration that included scientists from all over the globe, and in numerous disciplines. This collaboration was made possible by UNESCO’s initiatives, while simultaneously the end of empire forced imperial scientific institutions to reinvent themselves as post-colonial entities, now with an international outlook.

The paper focuses in particular on the origin and development of the Flora Malesiana, a project intended to create an exhaustive taxonomy of the Southeast Asian flora. This taxonomic project, initially conceived of in imperial terms by the Dutch colonial botanist K. van Steenis, was only funded after the collapse of the Netherlands East Indies in the late 1940s. The papers analyzes the development of this project in the 1940s and early 1950s, explaining why after 1945 it attracted Dutch colonial, then Indonesian, and finally international support. It involved both colonial scientists and institutions, while enrolling new supporters, including the young Indonesian scientists. Although not a direct beneficiary of UNESCO support, its purpose fit perfectly into the ethos of universal knowledge created by international collaboration. UNESCO provided a language for creating new collaborations, which bridged imperial and post-colonial institutions and scientists.