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Archive for August, 2021

1/2 idea No. 31: Solaris short

By Jon Agar, on 11 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

I really dislike the film adaptations of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.

It’s not just the interminable scenes of lapping water in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), nor the missed opportunity of Steven Soderburgh’s version starring George Clooney of 2002. Neither really engages with Lem’s question: if we encounter something truly alien can we ever know it? All attempts by the visiting cosmonaut-scientists to make contact with the apparently intelligent ocean of Solaris are futile. Hollywood especially cannot resist turning this classic sci-fi conundrum into a metaphor for human-human communication – see the dreadful run of recent films each of which turns the cosmic into the personal and parochial: Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ad Astra (2019), and so on. (Although I have a soft spot for Arrival.)

There’s plenty of critical interpretation of Lem’s Solaris, some of which predictably read it as a Cold War commentary or dissent. Others are better, and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.’s ‘The Book Is the Alien: On Certain and Uncertain Readings of Lem’s “Solaris”‘ is good example.

But there’s two parts of Solaris I would like to see done right.

The chapter I most enjoy in Lem’s Solaris, as a historian of science, is ‘The solarists’. In it Lem gives us the history of Solaris studies, as scientist after scientist propose new hypotheses for understanding the ocean. Each one falls. It is partly a parody of scientific debate, but it also contains a deeper point. Science, as Kuhn told us, makes sense of a subject once a paradigm is established. If a paradigm doesn’t form, then all there is is a churn of failed interpretations. Lem’s Solaris was published in 1961, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions the following year.

The ‘Solarists’ chapter has never been filmed. I think that is a shame, and would make an entertaining short. Historians of science could act the roles of Solarist scientists.

Second, I would bookend it with colourised footage of Earth’s clouds as seen from an airliner. It is clear to me that Lem’s descriptions of the wondrous forms taken by the Solaris ocean take inspiration from such a view.

I have no film-making skills.

1/2 idea No. 30: Airports as differential animal filters

By Jon Agar, on 11 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

Think of this one as Animal Studies meets History of Technology.

Specifically, think how our technological infrastructures are experienced differently by humans and other animals.

Take an airport. It is an extraordinarily carefully designed infrastructure that sorts, stops and moves humans. To a rat an airport is a place for food, shelter or accident. In the 1970s how a rat could move around an airport depended on what species it was. The National Archives file MH 148/888 contains instructions and debate about what to with rats found on aircraft and airports. Generally they were killed, if found, and incinerated. But if a rat was suspected to be a Ghana or Gambian Multimammate Rat (Mastomys natalensis) then it would be differentially sorted, packaged up and sent to Porton Down for analysis. The reason was concern about Lassa fever. 

The authorities even produced this pictorial guide to distinguishing species or rat and mouse, although I’m not convinced it would have helped.

Other big technological infrastructures have also been designed with animal movements in mind. The Channel Tunnel for example has fences not just for humans but also for stray dogs and foxes. The concern in this case was rabies, which had, and has, a distinctive cultural history of fear in Britain.

So the thought is: what would history of technological infrastructures look like from an animal studies perspective?

1/2 idea No. 29: Amersham

By Jon Agar, on 9 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

One of the very first acts of privatisation under scientist-turned-politician Margaret Thatcher was The Radiochemical Centre, floated as Amersham International Ltd in 1982. Much smaller than the the privatisation of public sector telecommunications, gas, electricity, docks and air travel that followed, it nonetheless a first, experimental test of the flagship Thatcherite policy. It was an intriguing mix to me, even more so when I found out that one of the Radiochemical Centre’s key products depended on the supply of blood – and traditionally in the UK blood donation was seen as a ‘gift’ relationship not a market one.

I followed this one up.

Amersham is the main case study in ‘Chapter five:  radioactive privatisations’, in my Science Policy under Thatcher (UCL Press, 2019), available open access for download.

1/2 idea No. 28: Britain, science, and international relations 1970-83

By Jon Agar, on 9 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

This paper argues that historians of science should pay more attention to science diplomacy, which in the UK would mean studying Foreign Office records, and outlines some research findings already made.

I started drafting this paper in 2011, and below is version from 2016. Since then there have been a couple of excellent special issues of journals that have moved the study of the history of science diplomacy on significantly. So I am now sharing what I have done, and then I too can move on.

(Oh, and it also cites documentary evidence that the ‘linear model’ did exist in the 1970s.)


Britain, Science and International Relations, 1970-1983

Paper for “Science Diplomacy in Europe” workshop 28-29 September 2016 (to be read/summarised, with thanks, by David Aubin) (** DRAFT**)

Abstract. In this paper I propose to survey some of major preoccupations and issues facing the British Foreign Office (FO, sometimes Foreign and Commonwealth Office). In particular I will be sharing research on recently opened archives, covering the 1970s to mid-1980s, during which period the UK began its (apparently, unfortunately, temporary!) membership of the European community. The paper is therefore responding to the question set by the organisers: what is science diplomacy and what is it needed for? I will outline what, from the position of Britain’s main governmental body responsible for such matters, was seen as the goals and practice of diplomacy through science and for science. Areas covered will include European relations (including bi- and tri-lateral), and relations with particularly interesting cases (including Japan and China, although less on the latter since I have published on UK-China science diplomacy elsewhere).

I intend my paper to be provisional and open to be moved in other directions, hopefully through collaboration. I would be able to explore, for example, British ends of other case studies that planned to be discussed. The Foreign Office would be one site, but other governmental (for example, aid managing bodies, which have tended to be separate) or non-governmental organisations that have historically shaped international relations (such as the Royal Society), could be other sites of research.  Finally, while the paper would focus on a particularly interesting decade and a half, the wider project (again possibly a collaborative or comparative project) would be to extend the account further back and forward in time.


International Science and International Relations

Science has always been international. Henry Oldenburg at the early Royal Society in London and Marin Mersenne in Paris were at the centres of international networks of exchange of scientific information. The 18th century age of exploration globalised the phenomenon of scientific encounters. From the mid-19th century international congresses have coordinated disciplines, while centres such as the Naples zoological station became sites of international pilgrimage and research. In the 20th century, as science-based industries flourished and the scale and cost of science increased, so international relationships mattered even more, especially as governments were increasingly generous patrons but also demanded a return on investment. Science has been an avant garde of international relations.

The pace picked up after the Second World War. 58 new inter-governmental and similar organisations were set up in the first decade after 1945, more than the preceding 20 years; there were over 300 international scientific organisations by 1976.[1] Other major new organisations – UNESCO, NATO, OECD – had broad remits with large scientific components.

The landscape of international science is fiendishly complex, even when viewed only from any one country. We have, for example, ties between private industries, including multinationals. Many separate government departments – but especially the departments of trade, the Foreign Office, overseas development – watch and influence inter-governmental co-operation. The Royal Society has a special and historic role as the main representative of non-governmental collaboration. The context of the Cold War encouraged a slew of programmes. The European project did likewise. UK annual subscriptions from the middle of my period (1977-1978) to organisations give a sense of the priorities: the £37m to the European Space Agency, £24m to CERN, £20m to NATO (plus a further £4.5m just for the relevant NATO secretariat), 9m through the UN, £7m to Eurocontrol (air traffic control), almost £5m to the World Health Organisation, over £1m to organisations such as the IAEA and EMBL.[2]

My proposal is that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (hereafter Foreign Office[3]) is the organisation that in particular requires further historical examination to understand the development of science, science policy and science diplomacy. From the work of other historians (including work underway or proposed) we have a good sense of the factors shaping CERN, NATO’s science programmes, or the Royal Society’s international roles.[4] But it was the Foreign Office that was the lead diplomatic body for the UK government. The Foreign Office was not necessarily the organisation with everyday responsibility in the management of scientific relations[5], but, I think more importantly, it was where science issues needed to be balanced against other diplomatic factors and demands. It is where we see the value of science diplomacy tested. In this paper I will discuss UK science diplomacy in relation to the European Community, Japan, the Eastern Bloc and China, but it is also the case that any one of these histories would be best be explored collaboratively. Historiographically, science diplomacy must be understood from within from each centre, and the results integrated. My offer is to contribute the detailed archival work and analysis from the UK side to such joint, transnational collaborative projects that might be proposed at this meeting.



Let’s begin the exploration of this landscape with Europe, because I want to say what the newly released documents tell us about the implications for and roles of science as Britain joined the EEC on 1 January 1973.

John Krige emphasised four points in his synthetic overview of European scientific and technological collaboration. The first is that the ‘a fundamental point of reference in understanding European scientific and technological collaboration is, of course, the United States …European scientific and technological development has been reactive, an answer to what has been happening in the United States… We have reacted, they have initiated’; it has been a game of catch up.[6] Second, ‘it is important’, Krige argues, ‘not to forget that this scientific, technical and industrial collaboration is part of the post-war political and economic reconstruction of Europe. It actually underlies the political integration of Europe into something like a unified block’.[7] Third, this process required active political will, and always demanded asking the question of what was gained in return for releasing sovereignty. Points 2 and 3, I say, are what makes the question of Britain and European scientific and technological collaboration important, especially, as Krige says, as such collaboration ‘has been a driver, a forerunner, of political and economic integration which has come afterwards’.[8] Finally, he notes that European collaboration is ‘constantly threatened by the centrifugal pull of national interest’.

Prior to 1973, some of the projects Krige has in mind are as follows. First, CERN, set up in the 1950s, with British physicists ambivalent. As the powerful synchrocyclotrons and proton synchrotrons came on stream, so European physicists were able to compete with Americans. The funding, scale and indeed sheer amount of data produced by CERN required international collaboration. And it was also a way of building Europe, in Krige’s sense. CERN has been a model polity in several ways. It is well known how the world wide web started as a tool to manage CERN’s documents. CERN was also a model and inspiration for European collaboration in other fields, especially space (ESRO, ELDO and ESA) and molecular biology (EMBO). It was Edoardo Amaldi, a CERN founder, who recommended a European space organisation in 1959, as soon as the commissioning of the CERN’s first large particle accelerator demonstrated that European large-scale scientific collaboration could work[9], while the foundational meeting of EMBO took place at CERN in 1962 between Leo Szilard, CERN director Victor Weisskopf, James Watson and John Kendrew.[10]

Other projects include Euratom, JET and the Franco-German Laue-Langevin Institute. Euratom was one of the pillars of the European communities. The Joint European Torus fusion project, sited at Culham, was the ‘first joint undertaking created by the European Communities’.[11] The British siting of JET illustrated the advantages of joining discussions early. The older Laue-Langevin Institute, built around a high flux neutron source, shows what happens when the UK joined discussions late. Physicists at Munich and Grenoble had both benefited from Atoms for Peace initiatives.[12] In the 1950s and 1960s, improved relations, exemplified at the top by those between Adenauer and de Gaulle, meant that both governments ‘were looking for ways of showing their good will’. Scientists, especially Heinz Maier-Leibnitz in Munich and Louis Néel in Grenoble seized the opportunity. It was never going to be easy for the UK to join a project designed to display the strength of the Paris-Bonn axis. Furthermore it was only after the minister for education and science, Margaret Thatcher, turned down a national high neutron flux reactor in 1972 that British scientists pushed to join the ILL. The Science Research Council subscribed to ILL on the same day as Britain joined the EEC – new year’s day 1973. However, despite paying one third of capital costs, the request to add the name “Bragg” to the Laue-Langevin Institute was turned down.[13]

Even before the UK was allowed into Europe, a mechanism had been found to manage the negotiation of European collaboration beyond the borders of the EEC, especially of research on a smaller scale to the giant institutions of CERN or space research. In the 1960s, as part of a general trend for European governments to respond to international competition by articulating explicit science policies (reflecting a model that science was crucial for economic advantage), the Council of Ministers of the Europe of Six set up a Committee for Medium-Term Economic Policy (in 1964) followed by a sub-committee on science and technology (PREST, in 1965).[14] PREST produced two reports – known after their chairs as the Maréchal Report of October 1967 and the Aigrain Report of March 1969 – which identified areas and specific proposals for European cooperation.[15] As a result a new body – Coopération Européenne dans le domaine de la recherché scientifique et technique, or COST – was launched in November 1971, firstly, as a ‘a vehicle for carrying out “a la carte” concerted action projects outside community programmes’, and second , to provide European countries that were not members of the Community with ‘an opportunity to participate in Community programmes’.[16] COST was opposed by countries (such as Belgium) that favoured a single integrated Community research policy. COST was supported by those (including the UK before and after joining the EEC) who saw advantage in flexibility. By 1978 COST consisted of 9 EC members (including by then of course the UK) and 10 others.[17] By then, given the free choice that the COST mechanism allowed, the UK was party to 11 of 14 projects.

That gives a flavour of some, but by no means all, European science collaboration. Now, what do we learn now the archives have been opened?

First, we can note that the commentators have viewed COST as a ‘paradoxical success’, in that despite its ‘institutional instability’ and an ‘extremely troubled existence’ it coordinated a lot of research.[18] The new documents show that the specific reasons, at both high and low levels, what the nature of this instability was. So, for example, the record of a the high-level but informal tripartite meeting between the UK, Germany and France, chaired by Alan Cottrell in November 1972, is quite explicit about the different visions for European collaboration found among the three and outside.[19] Germany wanted to COST to push forward on a programme of coordinated fundamental research projects; by choosing fundamental science ‘administrative and political complications’ would be kept to a minimum, and an exemplary record of success achieved. The alternative would be that OECD would step in to the void which was a ‘danger’, ‘scientifically and politically’. France ‘felt that co-ordination of fundamental research’ was precisely what COST should not do. The UK favoured a different set of projects again. At a low level, the documents reveal complaints and gripes as the gears of European bureaucratic coordination ground slowly. For example, one civil servant recorded the ‘rather dismal experience’ of COST project 43 (on ocean data buoys): ‘meetings heavily weighted with politics, bedevilled by squabbles between the French and Germans and largely devoid of science’.[20] Or you find revealing gossip – for example, as one civil servant confided to another:

There was another scandal over a vast Institute of Practical Philosophy which apparently would make science (and other) policy decisions in a scientific and unambiguously correct way. It now has 71 staff but has not yet got around to making a decision. However the director, von Weiszacker, plays chess with the Federal Chancellor…[21]

However, the headline finding from reading the released archives is that the UK’s position was a sceptical one towards the idea of a single science or technology policy at a European level – or indeed to coordination of European science or technology policies in a significant way. In the late 1960s, with entry into Europe on the horizon (but following the French veto of the UK’s entry into the Common Market in 1968), the approach was to welcome scientific and technological cooperation conditional on widening Europe. For example, here is Harold Wilson’s handwritten minute on whether to accept a proposal to move forward on the Aigrain report:

As long as we are not forthcoming. Our job is to prove that real cooperation is impossible outside a united and widened community.[22]

Once the issue of widening Europe had been settled, the scepticism towards a single science or technology policy was articulated directly. The European Commission saw enlargement as an opportunity to consider objectives afresh and to propose a new coordinated policy, in a strong form as urged by the energetic european commissioner for industry, research and technology Altiero Spinelli and in a more pragmatic form after Spinelli’s remit was split by the commissioner for science and education Ralf Dahrendorf.[23] While impressed by the personal characters of both Spinelli and Dahrendorf, the UK position was that a unified science or technology policy was unwelcome. Brian Flowers, chair of the UK’s Science Research Council, and from November 1974 appointed chair of the new European Science Foundation, noted in March 1972 that he found in conversation ‘quite a number of people still think in terms of an overall science policy, and believe in the linear model: research -> technology -> industrial innovation -> profits’.[24] (Note: the ‘linear model’, as an actors’ term, certainly did exist!) A policy statement from March 1973 stated bluntly that a separate science or technology policy ‘cannot sensibly be developed’, instead policies only meant sense when analysed at sectoral level: ‘the application of technology should be part of and should serve industrial policy’.[25] Not all countries should need to cooperate on every project, and a door should always be open beyond the communities to third parties. Activities should be cost effective. Inter-governmental cooperation was often to be preferred to Community organisation of projects.

The extra ingredient here was the background of Heath’s new national science policy exemplified by the Rothschild proposals to link some national decisions to the customer-contractor principle. As the same document stated: ‘in Europe as in the UK, research and development should be undertaken only to meet the needs of particular sectors by(??) the customer-contractor principle’.[26] As one official wrote, after a sceptical review of the Spinelli proposals: ‘floreat Rothschild’.[27] (The significance of Rothschild’s customer-contractor principle – the customer states what research they want, the contractor provides it, for a named price – is that it represents market – ie neo-liberal – language in science policy in an early, distinct and ultimately influential form.)

How are we to understand this position? It seems to me that there are three positions: first, that it was a principled position, which started with Rothschild and deduced a European position. This seems unlikely, as similar sentiments can be found in the 1960s. Second, that it was simply an extension of the absence of a single science policy at home. Since science policy was essentially sectoral at home, then this was the position to take in Europe. Third, however, it is a hypothesis that can be advanced (but not tested until more archival work has been done), that this approach strengthened as preparations for entry into Europe allowed UK officials to witness the  ‘meetings heavily weighted with politics, bedevilled by squabbles between the French and Germans and largely devoid of science’, noted earlier. The gossip turns out to have a substantial, accumulative impact on policy.



Since we are focussing on the Foreign Office, we can keep a broad eye on the whole diplomatic landscape. The case if Japan should, a priori, be interesting because by the 1980s the country is seen as a potential model for the encouragement of competitive, high-technology industries. But the diplomatic view in the 1970s was often, as we shall see, still looking backwards to the past. It is therefore an open question about how science and technology diplomacy with Japan developed.

The changing relations between Britain and Japan can be gauged by examining the responses to despatches sent from the Tokyo embassy to London in the 1970s. Three ambassadorial despatches are of particular interest: two from Sir John Pilcher (‘Japan in the 1970s: the Trade Mark and the Sword’ in 1970, and the follow up ‘Guns and Butter’ of 1972) and one from Sir Michael Wilford (‘Japan is Entering the Electronic Age’ of 1978). Pilcher had acted as a student interpreter in the Japan consular service before the Second World War.[28] After stints in Tsingdao, London (including time as head of the Japan and Pacific Department in the Foreign Office), Rome, Manila and Vienna, Pilcher was appointed ambassador to Japan in 1967. He sent a ‘first impressions’ despatch in February 1968, in which he wondered whether ‘the myriad chimney stacks that link Tokyo with Osaka’ were really “all that remains of the dreams of warriors”; in ‘the Trade Mark and Sword’, Pilcher returned to the question: ‘is the old militarism dead, quiescent or about to be revived?’[29] Following defeat, the Japanese people had blamed the military for leading the Emperor and society down the wrong path. An alternative path, a civil path to economic prosperity, had been chosen. A now prosperous nation was being asked to contribute to its own defence, which in turn meant rearmament (including even nuclear armament) and a rehabilitation of the military. Yasuhiro Nakasone was the politician leading this rearmament. Japanese sensibilities, young and old, included a strong distaste for dependence on other nations. The United States had withdrawn from Okinawa, while still committing to defence of Japan. In 1968 young rioters had demanded a rejection of the Security Treaty. Pilcher summarised the situation:

The stage is now set for the time when the Self-Defence Forces, adequately armed and rehabilitated in the public mind, could effectively undertake the task of defending Japan, within the framework of the Security Treaty with the United States. In the process of rehabilitation, some recourse has been had to the old military traditions of Japan. The sanction of the Emperor, once the tool of the military has been invoked. The old experts have become involved in plans for rearmament. In the back ground the basic virtues of loyalty and patriotism are still present; the sense of cohesion remains. The ingredients for a military revival are all there. Will they be misused?

Pilcher thought, on balance, the answer was no. The ‘old with their rancours’ were dying away. The middle-aged embraced the path to prosperity and ‘looked realistically at the facts’, and were represented by Nakasone. The young, ‘emancipated by prosperity from the restraints of the past’ had few of the complications that beset the middle generation. While there remained a small risk that ‘Ersatz religions of false ideologies might occupy their minds’, so long as the young remained prosperous then a return to militarism was unlikely.

On 20th and 21st December, 1971, Edward Heath met Richard Nixon in Bermuda, an attempt to initiate a new Anglo-American relationship, which, firstly, was seen in some quarters to have become less close, and, second, needed reconsideration in the light of the decision taken for the United Kingdom to enter the EEC. Other topics under discussion included relations between the west and China: Nixon’s triumphant visit to China would take place the following February and the United States did not want the waters muddied.[30] Bermuda seems to have warmed Anglo-American relations, and mutual support was evidence over issues encountered in late 1971 and early 1972, including the renegotiation of military bases in Malta, troubles in Northern Ireland and Christmas bombings in Vietnam.[31] Also discussed, it is clear, was Japan. Under the heading “Bringing Japan into the Western family”, the private secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office wrote to his counterpart in the Cabinet Office: ‘In the light of the P.M.’s talks with President Nixon in Bermuda we have been looking at the present extent of Anglo-Japanese contacts with a view to recommending improvements’. Presumably a decision was taken by Western powers to embrace Japan further to counter adverse reactions to the opening of relations between the United States and China.

Into this mix, in January 1972, came Pilcher’s second despatch on the subject of Japan in the 1970s. The ambassador described the pressures pointing towards Japanese rearmament. Three American moves had prompted a change of mood: Nixon’s Guam doctrine of 1969 told western allies ‘assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for [their own] defense’. There would be no repeat of Vietnam. Second, on 16th July 1971, Nixon had, without consulting allies, in particular Japan, announced a reversal of US-China policies. Third, on 15th August 1971, the president ended the Bretton Woods system that had structured international financial relations by declaring that dollars and gold would no longer be directly convertible. The last two announcements were labelled in Japan the two “Nixon shocks”. ‘Somewhere in the package sought by the Americans’, noted Pilcher of the consequences, “was a commitment that Japan should support, with more purchases, the ailing but politically powerful United States armament industry’.[32] Alternatively the Japanese arms industry could expand. Within the Japanese state, the ministries of finance and foreign affairs favoured the former; while MITI and the Defence Agency favoured the latter. ‘Many people in Japan’, Pilcher observed, echoing Eisenhower, ‘see a greater danger in an industrial complex manipulating military policy and extending military potential than in a recrudescence of militarism in its classical sense’. However, there was ‘no doubt that industrialists control contemporary Japan and that by comparison with them the military occupy a humble situation’.

There was no more controversial issue in Japan than the question of nuclear weapons on home soil. The possibility was ‘political dynamite’, wrote Pilcher; he continued:

It is admitted that in present circumstances, now aggravated by United States policies, Japan must look to her own defence as soon as she can in a world still afflicted by strife between armed nations and in which a nation cannot feel safe without some form of nuclear defence. But it would still be outside political possibility for any democratic Japanese government today to proceed overtly towards a breach of Japan’s three nuclear principles, i.e. No possession, No admission and No manufacture. I am nonetheless of the opinion that these principles could be breached by the end of the decade.

Again the choice, if such a path was taken, was between home development or buying in nuclear defence from abroad. On the one hand, Japan had begun to acquire ‘uranium enrichment technology and the Japanese Space programme could be the basis of a delivery system’, recorded Pilcher, while on the other, ‘a leading Japanese industrialist has suggested that his country might rent its share of the US nuclear umbrella, both to dispense with the need for the creation of a national deterrent and also to satisfy US demands for financial support without damage to the Japanese armaments industry’.

Overall, Pilcher summarised the Japanese choice in the early 1970s as one between spending the accumulating national wealth on ‘guns or butter’. While at present the Japanese had chosen ‘butter’ – pollution control, housing, schools, hospitals, drainage, improved retirement pensions, shorter working hours and cheaper imported food – to ignore the gathering pressures to choose rearmament would be ‘ill-advised’.

It was in this context that science and technology diplomacy initiatives developed in the 1970s and 1980s. My first impression is that Japan became increasingly a point of comparison, especially with regard to industrial competitiveness during the period, yet we do not know what the consequences were for what this attention might have shaped or even displaced, not least with regards to Europe. A historical project on transnational science diplomacy needs to keep these broad comparisons in view.


Eastern Europe

An interesting area of new policy in the late 1960s and 1970s were the increasing number of International Technology Agreements signed between the UK and other countries. Starting with Romania, Hungary and Poland in 1967, these agreements had a primarily Eastern Bloc focus. By 1971 these three countries had been joined by the Soviet Union (1968), Czechoslovakia (1968), Yugoslavia (1968), Bulgaria (1969) and Argentina (1971), with further memoranda of understanding signed with Finland (1970) and Italy (1969).[33] These agreements did not cover ‘scientific exchanges of a pure research type, nor the exchange of specialists in narrow fields of interest’, which could be covered by separate “Cultural Agreements”. Nor did they offer direct technical aid. What they did do was aim to ‘create a favourable climate and “sponsorship” for collaboration’, leading to sales of products, patents, licenses under patents, and other trade opportunities. The lead organisation on the British side was the International Technological Collaboration Unit (ICTU) within the DTI, while the main participants were firms. There was always a danger of time wasted through ‘rather ritual sessions’, or misunderstandings over what each side could bring to the table. Formal encounters were therefore downplayed, and less formal study tours and fringe meetings encouraged. The Agreements were considered to be more flexible and targeted than the equivalent tools of foreign technological policy deployed by France and Italy.

The supporters of the Agreements struggled, it has to be said, to produce quantitative evidence of their “value”, insisting instead that they must be seen as initiative that would repay effort on a longer term.[34] They were more robust, however, in their rejection of charges that the Agreements ‘encourage or promote a drain of valuable technological information to the other side with no corresponding advantage to the UK’. Instead, firms were put under no pressure to release technological information and if they did so it was because the firms themselves saw commercial advantage.

So what? The first point is that here was an area of new science and technology diplomacy where the Foreign Office was not the lead department. Second, how do these agreements compare to French, German and other bilateral agreements? Were they similar or different? Competitive or coordinated? Were the agreements at all influential in economic terms, or were they merely symbolic, a means of keeping diplomatic doors ajar? Did the agreements matter for history of technology?

I think these Agreements are interesting first as a policy means of organising encounters for science-based industries in the years of relative Cold War détente, and second as a model which later and ultimately perhaps more significant relationships were built, especially with China. In 1975-1976, the ICTU had canvassed industrial opinion about a possible bilateral scientific and technological agreement with China, and had received the response there was no need for one, indeed that it might ‘do positive harm’.[35]



(Note: I have written up this section in much more detail elsewhere.[36])

The late 1970s were pivotal years for the history of modern China. The Cultural Revolution had encouraged attacks on Chinese experts and centres of research and learning, with few institutions (primarily military research ones) emerging unscathed. A period of stasis ended with the death of Mao in 1976, followed by the high-level strife of the Gang of Four, and finally the consolidation of power under Deng Xiaoping. From the West’s perspective, one visible sign of change was the new policies directed outwards from China to acquire … Science and technology were crucial in this process…

To get a sense of the dramatic changes in attitude and the consequences for the UK’s scientific relations with China, let’s start in the early 1970s.

Scientific contacts between the UK and People’s Republic of China, active since Cyril Hinshelwood’s visit in 1959, had been ‘brought to an abrupt end [in 1966] by the Cultural Revolution’.[37] In October 1971, the Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, Kingsley Dunham, had written to the Academica Sinica, regarding the resumption of relations. In January 1972, Yueh Chih-chien, acting secretary of the Academica Sinica, replied saying that Dunham’s letter had been ‘carefully studied’, and agreed that both sides might ‘send some scientific workers to visit each others countries and carry out scientific exchanges’.[38] Dunham in turn proposed a visit by a Royal Society party, including the president, Alan Hodgkin, Dunham and the secretary D.C. Martin in May of that year.[39] Privately, however, the Foreign Office was less than impressed by the modest opening:

The general tone of the letter seems to show that the present regime in China are no more able to make an open-handed and generous gesture than any of their predecessors. The careful restriction upon the numbers and background of any admissible visitors is true to for and surely makes a bit of a nonsense of any real exchange.[40]

Outside of these high-level institutional channels, for example, scientists had little success gaining entry to China for research. The pressure brought to bear by the (ex-?)MP Malcolm MacDonald, via the Foreign Office, in1972 to let in John MacKinnon and his wife, both naturalists, to study pandas, was unsuccessful.[41] (MacKinnon, a protégé of Jane Goodall and Niko Tinbergen, and now an expert on Chinese biodiversity finally got to China in 1987.[42])

Nevertheless, the Royal Society and Academica Sinica arranged exchanges of delegations in May and October 1972.[43] The reports of the visit of the Royal Society delegation led by Alan Hodgkin in May 1972 makes fascinating reading. The devastation wrought by the Cultural Revolution is diplomatically recorded, as well as overall personal impressions (lots of bicycles, ‘drab’). The overall conclusion – expressed in the Royal Society report as a specific comment on the Peking National University, but interpreted by the Foreign Office as a more general conclusion[44] – was that there was ‘nothing in what we saw… to lead us to think that exchanges … could be profitably contemplated in the near future’.

Chinese scientific visits to the UK, on the other hand, picked up, with visits occurring every year. In 1975, for example, three delegations concerned with machine tools, agricultural research and high-speed photography visited, while the British Council enabled 38 Chinese students to also make the trip. Technological missions included link-ups Chinese students at Hawker Siddeley, British oil engineers visits to China, and a deal over the Spey aero engine. These low-level exchanges were also to be found between China and other countries, notably Germany and France. ‘Increased scientific contacts with China, which is fast becoming an important market for nuclear and advanced technology, could be seen as an investment in the future’, noted the Foreign Office, ‘if we can make Chinese scientists and technicians familiar with British methods and equipment we could be better placed to compete for commercial contacts when the opportunities arise’.[45] Even in the nuclear field, where the ‘possibility of substantial nuclear trade’ remained ‘some years’ away, ‘if we do not take advantage now of China’s present positive attitude, we may [fall]… irretrievably behind the French’.

The arguments for encouraging scientific relations with China were threefold: encouraging trade (at the expense of competitors), the desirability of scientific international contact in and of itself, and finally strategically this placed science in an avant garde position: ‘Britain has a broad political interest in involving China more closely with the EEC and ourselves and science is a field where this can be achieved’.[46] Arguments against the first two were that there was a danger that the traffic of technological expertise would be ‘one-way’, while the restrictions, such as low quotas and refusal of access to much of China, on scientific exchanges, as well as the feeling that there were ‘few fields in which [UK] scientists have much to learn from the Chinese’, made them of much reduced value.[47] So it was perhaps the third, strategic, reason that encouraged the FO to watch for and support further openings.

The opening came in early 1978. In China, a landmark was the lengthy speech made by Fang Yi, minister in charge of the State Scientific and Technical Commission, at the National Science Conference, Beijing?, on March 1978.[48] (The conference also heard a speech by the president of the Chinese Academy of Science, 86-year old Kuo Mo-jo, titled ‘It is springtime for science’. Deng Xiaoping also probably spoke.[49]) Fang Yi placed science at heart of the four modernisations, and announced a series of dramatic expansions in resources, personnel and facilities, as well as specific policies for agricultural science, energy research, materials, electronic computers, laser and space science, high energy physics, and genetic engineering. Finally, Fang Yi announced that ‘a logical corollary to a philosophy which maximises the pursuit of scientific knowledge’ was an ‘approach of utilizing the experience of others and avoiding the duplication of their pioneering efforts’, which in turn meant greatly increasing scientific and technical cooperation.

An ad hoc meeting of Whitehall representatives gathered in March and agreed that a new attempt to secure a scientific and technological agreement would now ‘do no harm and might do some political good’.[50] Industry (for example Hawker Siddeley) supported the move.[51] Simultaneously, the Chinese embassy in Tokyo signalled that, following ‘China’s decision to modernise every aspect of her industry and agriculture’ exchanges should be explored.[52] ‘My impression’, glossed the UK’s scientific counsellor in Tokyo, was ‘that they need technical help and are prepared to go to considerable lengths to get what they want’.[53] Adding nuance, he added, after a discussion with more Chinese diplomatic staff, that the Chinese were weighing up to what extent to buy in expertise (and from whom) and to what extent ‘they “should go it alone”’.[54] The ignorance of the professional observers of science and technology in China should not be underestimated. As one informed commentator at the Department of Industry noted, for example, ‘it wasn’t a question of what, if any, research was being done at a specific university: no-one was certain of that University was still in existence’.[55]

The UK’s rivals here were primarily Japan but also France and Germany. Paris received the same signals as London, and had speedily signed an agreement on scientific and technical cooperation in February. British diplomats wheedled the document from French diplomats in Tokyo, and it was read with interest. It was judged to be ‘very unremarkable’.[56] The French had no desire to ‘let things get out of control or proliferate like their scientific relations with the Russians’, which had become burdensome. The Germans followed a similar path.[57] So the UK saw an opportunity, so long as a better agreement could be made. As a model, the UK government turned to its technological agreements made through ITSU. Professor John Ashworth, of the Central Policy Review Staff, wrote:

As you know, there is a growing fear here that we are not doing enough to stimulate trade with China and a bilateral agreement along the lines of the ones we have with East European countries might help. Such an agreement would involve science and technological matters as well as economic and trade concerns…[58]

In late April and May, diplomats received further signals that cultural, scientific and technological agreements would ‘receive favourable consideration’ by the Chinese.[59]

In fact, of the other agreements in the works, none were so advanced as the scientific one, partly it seems because Taiwanese complications did not arise or were not raised.[60] Again, therefore, science was an avant garde. A second general Whitehall meeting on 17 May 1978 agreed that it was in UK interests to negotiate a bilateral science and technology agreement. The model would be the ICTU-arranged agreements with the Eastern Bloc. Thus China was taken to be, at least in this instance, a larger Romania.

The Royal Society and the research councils were consulted, with the Royal Society stating that it ‘had no evidence that their existing contacts would be at risk if we failed to conclude an Agreement’.[61] John Ashworth now wrote to the Lord Privy Seal (Fred Peart) urging the formal, ministerial level opening of negotiations.[62] On 23 June 1978, Peart in turn asked Shirley Williams, as secretary of state for education and science, to proceed.[63]  She visited China in July 1978.

The contrasting experiences of three British scientists who wanted to visit China were also used, at this critical juncture, to draw policy implications. Professor Cocking and Dr Sunderland were both botanists funded by the Royal Society. They visited the Dr Man-chang Wiu and were unimpressed by his well-publicised genetic engineering experiments with goldfish. However, they were both impressed by Chinese plant genetics, judging the wheat and maize work to be ‘undisputedly’ world leading. Cocking, who spoke no Chinese, was subsequently invited to work at the Institute of Plant Physiology in Beijing. In contrast, Dr Stephenson, a Newcastle university-based astronomer, was refused entry, despite the fact that he spoke Chinese and wished only to consult records. ‘The difference’, noted the British Embassy to the FCO, was that ‘Professor Cocking possesses knowledge which China wants; Dr Stephenson does not’.[64] The Chinese approval of Dorothy Hodgkin’s visits to China to work on insulin fitted the same pattern. It was an example of one-sided, self-interested exchange that those negotiating the proposed agreement must seek ways to avoid. But also the existence of world-leading Chinese science made the agreement desirable.

One interesting feature of the growing scientific links between the UK and China in this period is that the Royal Society and the UK government followed separate tracks that only occasionally met. The UK government approach was dominated by issues of strategy, trade and competition with rivals. (To give a – excuse the pun – concrete example of what was being pushed, officials urged the highlighting of Pilkingtons’ new Cemfil, a glass fibre for reinforcing cement.[65]) The Royal Society approach covered science, extending to ‘applied science’ but not, as the Society Foreign Secretary Michael Stoker explained to John Ashworth ‘technology, with its commercial and industrial implications’.[66] The occasion of this explanation was Stoker’s writing to Ashworth with regards to the expansion of links between the Royal Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He suggested a ‘meeting of interested parties’ ahead of the Chinese academicians visit in October 1978 to ‘consider and coordinate our initiatives and responses’, adding that ‘Depending on the Chinese attitude, we might even continue meetings subsequently to formulate strategies for prompting strong scientific links with China’. The point I want to draw from this is that these meetings had not happened before.

Closely foreshadowing the main event, the Royal Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences signed an Agreement on Scientific Cooperation in early November 1978. It provided for a range of scientific interchange, including short-term visits and lectures by senior scientists, exchange of junior scientists, participation in seminars and meetings, joint research projects and exchange of scientific materials and publications.[67] The Chinese began extracting the best of British science, for example soliciting a state-of-the-art bubble chamber, based on the device at CERN.[68] The Royal Society formed its China Committee, with members drawn across the research councils, academia and elsewhere, to review relations.[69]

The senior bilateral intergovernmental Science and Technology Agreement was drafted in autumn 1978 and signed at Lancaster House, London, on 15 November 1978 by David Owen and by vice-premier Wang Chen.[70] It was the first treaty signed between China and the UK since the communist victory of 1949.[71] The agreement between the Royal Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences was considered to come under its ‘general umbrella’.[72] It was, in the judgement of British diplomats and officials, a better agreement than the French and Germans got.[73] [more from George letter on details] On a wider stage, it was also considered to be a good visible counterweight to lack of progress on defence matters.[74] Some of the sticking points in the negotiations are intriguing. For example the Chinese did not recognise the category of ‘fundamental science’:

One immutable point, which we tried several times to get round, was the Chinese insistence that fundamental science should be treated in the same way as other possible fields of cooperation, since the Chinese do not themselves recognise fundamental science as different in kind from applied science. Indeed, given their way of controlling intellectual activity in this country, their position was hardly surprising. (Earlier, and perhaps not consistently, they had hinted that they would not be prepared to include fundamental science at all.)[75]

It is a matter for further investigation to find out how the Royal Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences negotiated this issue of ‘fundamental science’. (As an aside it is precisely because this kind of research reveals assumptions behind the nature of science in different societies that makes it particularly valuable.)

Immediately, scientists and engineers, as well as science-based industrial firms, took up the opportunity of selling their wares in China. The exchange was also symbolic. In July 1979, for example, 6 Sinclair calculators were proudly given as gifts.[76] [more in CAB 164/1430 and 1431] One of the first, and most enthusiastic, missionaries was Peter Jost, self-proclaimed founder of the science of tribology – the science of surfaces in contact: of wear, friction, traction and lubrication. The British Tribology Mission to China left in May 1979.[77] Fittingly, then the science greased the wheels of diplomacy.



The goals of the Foreign Office for diplomacy were very broad and played for high stakes. Science diplomacy, it has to be said, was only one of many moves within this game, and any historical project on the subject needs to address this subordinate role. Even after the entry of the UK into the EEC in 1973, the goals were often national in terms of interest, and before entry the manoeuvres in science diplomacy may be seen as steps towards more important objectives (not least securing entry itself). In this paper I have argued that the period of the 1970s and 1980s is especially inviting for historians: there is a wealth of unstudied documents, there are key events, and the world was pivoting towards the present in ways we need to re-examine. I have also sketched some of the potential topics and questions that could be explored. In the case of the EEC one question might be the extent a single European science policy was seen as possible or desirable. Another set of questions would focus on specific projects, such as facilities, technological systems or institutes. In the case of the Eastern Bloc, there are comparative questions to be asked about bilateral technological agreements. In the case of China, UK efforts were, firstly, seen as in competition with parallel German and French moves to re-establish post-Mao relations; and, secondly, science diplomacy played its – typical, common? – role as an advance guard for later, more trade-related diplomatic moves. In all of these cases, the broader diplomatic goals, in which Europe was balanced with initiatives in relations with the United States, Japan and China, to name just three important axes, need to be kept in view.

In general, we need further, deeper research to understand UK science diplomacy as both competitor and co-operator in European science diplomacy. I repeat my sincere offer: I am very keen to contribute to collaborative, historical research to answer these, and similar, questions.


[1] COI, Britain and International Scientific Co-operation. COI Reference Pamphlet 81. 2nd edition (1st edtion 1968), London: HMSO, 1978.

[2] COI, op. cit.

[3] The FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) was formed in 1968 from the merger of the two offices. The Commonwealth Office had only existed for two years, and had its origin in the Colonial Office.

[4] For the latter see, for example: Peter Collins, The Royal Society and the Promotion of Science since 1960, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[5] So the Department of Industry provided the administrative support to the Overseas Technical Information Unit, which briefed Britain’s Scientific Counsellors (essentially science diplomats) in Washington, Paris, Bonn, Moscow and Tokyo, as well as coordinating Britain’s contributions to EEC programmes. The Department of Education and Science was responsible for research council functions. The Ministry of Overseas Development dealt with aid. Other government departments might have international connections stemming from specific projects. The Royal Society was the main representative in non-governmental collaborations. The British Council covered more ‘soft power’ cultural cooperation and mutual understanding projects.

[6] John Krige, ‘Historical synthesis’, in John Krige and Luca Guzzetti (eds.), History of European Scientific and Technological Cooperation, Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1997, pp. 439-444, pp. 439-440.

[7] Krige, op. cit., p. 441.

[8] Krige, op. cit., p. 443.

[9] John Krige, Arturo Russo and Lorenza Sebasta, ‘A brief history of the European Space Agency’, in Krige and Guzzetti, op. cit., pp. 195-220.

[10] Michael Morange, ‘EMBO and EMBL’, in Krige and Guzzetti, pp. 77-92.

[11] Edwin N. Shaw, ‘Joint European Torus’, in Krige and Guzzetti, op. cit., pp. 165-178.

[12] Dominique Pestre, ‘The prehistory of the Franco-German Laue-Langevin Institute’, in Krige and Guzzetti, op. cit., pp. 137-143.

[13] Harry Atkinson, ‘Commentary on the history of ILL and ESRF’, in Krige and Guzzetti, op. cit., pp. 144-153, p. 146.

[14] Jean-Luc Roland, ‘The history of COST: an unexpected successful cooperation’, in Krige and Guzzetti, op. cit., pp. 355-368, p. 358.

[15] Maréchal identified seven areas (informatics, telecommunications, transport, oceanography, materials, environmental protection and meteorology) while Aigrain listed 47 research proposals.

[16] Roland, op. cit..

[17] Austria, Finland, Greece, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and Yugoslavia.

[18] Roland, op. cit., p. 367.

[19] TNA FD 9/1017. ‘Informal tripartite talks on issues of science policy’, 7 November 1972.

[20] TNA FD 9/1017. R.J.H. Beverton to Odgers, 12 December 1972.

[21] TNA FD 9/1017. S.F. Edwards to Odgers, 20 May 1975.

[22] IMG4946

[23] TNA FCO 55/907 …

[24] TNA FCO 55/909. Brian Flowers, ‘European policy for science and technology’, 2 March 1972.

[25] TNA FCO 55/1051. ‘United Kingdom policy towards science and technology in the European Community’, by Industry, Science and Energy Department, CO(??), 16 March 1973.

[26] TNA FCO 55/1051. ‘United Kingdom policy towards science and technology in the European Community’, by Industry, Science and Energy Department, CO(??), 16 March 1973.

[27] TNA FCO 55/908. Holdgate to Reiners, ‘R and D in Europe’, 19 July 1972.

[28] Hugh Cortazzi ‘Pilcher, Sir John Arthur (1912-1990), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[29] TNA FCO 55/899. John Pilcher, ‘Japan in the 1970s: the trade mark and the sword’.

[30] K.A. Hamilton, ‘A “week that changed the world”: Britain and Nixon’s China visit of 21-28 February 1972’, Diplomacy and Statecraft (2004) 15, pp. 117-135.

[31] Alex Spelling ‘Edward Heath and Anglo-American relations 1970-1974: a reappraisal’, Diplomacy and Statecraft (2009), pp. 638-658, p. 646.

[32] TNA FCO 55/899. John Pilcher, ‘Japan in the 1970s: guns and butter’.

[33] TNA FCO 55/899. ‘International technological agreements’, December 1971.

[34] TNA FCO 55/899. ‘International technological agreements’, December 1971.

[35] TNA CAB 164/1383. Ashowrth to Priston, 8 March 1978.

[36] Jon Agar, ‘“It’s springtime for science”: renewing China-UK scientific relations in the 1970s’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (2013) 67(1), pp. 7-24.

[37] TNA CAB 164/1474. ‘Scientific exchanges between the UK and China’, 29 March 1976. TNA CAB 164/1385. Royal Society, ‘Relations with the Academy of Sciences of the People’s Republic of China. Background note about relations between the Academy and the Royal Society’, 1978.

[38] TNA FCO 34/153. Yueh Chih-chien to Dunham, 29 January 1972.

[39] TNA FCO 34/153. Dunham to Yueh Chih-chien, 9 March 1972.

[40] TNA FCO 34/153. Lamb to Vines, 23 March 1972.

[41] TNA FCO 34/153. MacDonald to Morgan (Head of Far Eastern Department, FCO), 22 February 1992.

[42] Sean Gallagher (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting), ‘Featured expert: John MacKinnon’,  http://pulitzercenter.org/blog/untold-stories/china-wetlands-john-mackinnon#

[43] See for example TNA FCO 34/153. Royal Society, ‘Report of visit of Royal Society Delegation to China as guests of the Academica Sinica, 20-30 May 1972’.

[44] TNA FCO 34/153. ‘Delegation of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’, by Cultural Exchange Department of FCO, October 1972.

[45] TNA CAB 164/1474. ‘Scientific exchanges between the UK and China’, 29 March 1976.

[46] TNA CAB 164/1474. ‘Scientific exchanges between the UK and China’, 29 March 1976.

[47] TNA CAB 164/1474. ‘Scientific exchanges between the UK and China’, 29 March 1976.

[48] TNA CAB 164/1383. ‘National Science Conference’, notes by Canadian embassy, Beijing.

[49] TNA CAB 164/1385. ‘’Mrs Williams’ visit to China. Brief No. 6’, July 1978.

[50] TNA CAB 164/1383. Ashworth to Priston, 8 March 1978.

[51] TNA CAB 164/1383. Steele to Ashworth, 10 May 1978.

[52] TNA CAB 164/1383. Minutes, ‘Meeting at the Chinese Embassy – Wednesday 8 March’.

[53] TNA CAB 164/1383. Prentice to Goodman, 14 March 1978.

[54] TNA CAB 164/1383. ‘Visit by Mt Chen, Mr Chang and Mr Wu of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China – Wednesday 15 March – 3.00PM’, 18 March 1978.

[55] TNA CAB 164/1383. Goodman to Ashworth, 31 March 1978.

[56] TNA CAB 164/1383. Macrae (British Embassy, Tokyo) to Lovelock (Energy, Science and Space Department, FCO), 10 February 1978.

[57] TNA CAB 164/1383. Telegram, Davies (Peking) to London, 21 April 1978. Telegram, Ehrman (Peking) to Hannay (FCO), 8 May 1978.

[58] TNA CAB 164/1383. Ashworth to Prentice, 27 April 1978.

[59] TNA CAB 164/1383. Telegram, ‘Anglo-Chinese relations’, 2 May 1978. TNA CAB 164/1384. Telegram, Peking to London, 31 May 1978 and 7 June 1978. See also TNA CAB 164/1383, Goodman to Ashworth, 9 June 1978: ‘I was buttonholed last night at the Anglo/Finnish Joint Commission reception by Mr Chi Te-Yu the Third Secretary with responsibility for scientific affairs at the Chinese Embassy. Unprompted, he leapt enthusiastically into the possibilities of the above Agreement’, although on the issue of British progress ‘He smiled. I was unable to interpret why’.

[60] TNA CAB 164/1383. ‘UK/China bilateral agreements’, 18 May 1978. Agreements in the works were: an air services agreement (initialled in 1975 but unsigned because of Chinese conditions relating to Taiwan), a shipping agreement (negotiations suspended), the proposed scientific agreement, a cultural agreement and a consular agreement.

[61] TNA CAB 164/1383. Minutes, ‘Meeting to discuss a Science and Technology Agreement with China….19 June 1978 a 3.00pm’, 20 June 1978.

[62] TNA CAB 164/1383. Ashworth to Lord Privy Seal, 21 June 1978.

[63] TNA CAB 164/1383. Peart to Williams, 23 June 1978.

[64] TNA CAB 164/1383. Ehrman (Second Secretary, British Embassy) to Dean, 8 June 1978.

[65] TNA CAB 164/1385. Holdgate to Ashworth, 7 July 1978.

[66] TNA CAB 164/1385. Stoker to Ashworth, 4 July 1978

[67] TNA AT 82/139. ‘Agreement on scientific cooperation between the Royal Society of Londonand the Chinese Academy of Sciences’, November 1978.

[68] TNA AT 82/139. Minutes, ‘Meeting with members of delegation from PRC Academy of Sciences, at the Royal Society, 8 November’.

[69] TNA AT 82/139. Todd to Holdgate, 16 November 1978. Representatives came from the SRC, NERC, DoI, MRC, Department of Environment, British Council, ARC, ITCU, the Great Britain China Committee, DES, seven fellows of the Royal Society (including Joseph Needham), with the President, Todd, as chair and the Foreign Secretary, Stoker, as deputy chair.

[70] TNA CAB 164/1429. ‘Agreement on scientific and technological cooperation between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of the People’s Republic of China’. A separate Protocol was signed by Gerald Kaufman and Liu Hua-che’ing.

[71] The treaty itself is in TNA FO 93/23/68.

[72] TNA AT 82/139. Todd to Holdgate, 16 November 1978.

[73] TNA CAB 164/1429. George to Hannay, 13 November 1978.

[74] TNA CAB 164/1429. ‘Scientific and technological cooperation agreement with China’. 2 November 1978.

[75] TNA CAB 164/1429. George to Hannay, 13 November 1978.

[76] TNA CAB 164/1431. Franklin to Ashworth, 20 August 1979.

[77] TNA CAB 164/1430. Speech by Peter Jost, April 1979. Records of the British Tribology Mission to China, May 1979.


1/2 idea No. 27: Peter Scott + global history

By Jon Agar, on 9 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

I was at the Cambridge UL studying the archives of Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl Trust and perhaps the leading public figure in conservation in the UK before the rise of David Attenborough, when I was struck by a remarkable aspect of his diary. He seemed to spend most of his time in the air. For example, in 1966-7 he was in Washington, Amsterdam (twice), London, Copenhagen, Marseilles, Brussels, Geneva (four times), Paris, Gothenburg, and Aldabra.

I wondered whether Scott might be an example of a new class of hypermobility opened up by the expansion of post-war air travel. If so, who else would be in this class? Would they have social features in common? Was there a hypermobile culture of encounters between members of such a group? What is the relationship between technologically-enabled hypermobility and changing international politics of conservation?

There’s a decent biography of Scott (by Elspeth Huxley), which focusses on his conservation work. There’s also a global history and biographical interest in transnational lives (see Desley Deacon et al’s edited collection of the same name). These would be secondary sources to engage. Scott’s archive, too, is voluminous – 7800 items. So plenty more to study.

I like the irony too of this aspect of the conservationist Scott, perhaps most well-known in the UK for his attention to establishing specific sites as wildfowl refuges (Slimbridge, Welney) and, more pointedly, the fact that these refuges were carefully designed (by ‘baiting’, ie attracting and feeding wild swans, geese and ducks, sometimes to other conservationists’ opprobrium) to keep flying creatures on the ground.

1/2 idea No. 26: Thatcher, PM, scientist

By Jon Agar, on 3 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

This one went from half an idea to a full idea to a full-scale research project which I finished!

You can read Science Policy under Thatcher, free and open access from UCL Press, here.



1/2 idea No. 25: Colin McClare

By Jon Agar, on 3 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

The Colin McClare story is extraordinary and tragic.

The bare bones can be gleaned from the biographical introduction to his archives at King’s College London:

McClare was born in 1937 and educated at Felsted School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he read natural sciences, specialising in chemistry. He undertook research at Cambridge on the chemistry of free radicals in biology as a Medical Research Council student, 1958-1961, and on energy transfer in nucleic acids as a Beit Fellow, 1961-1963, and was awarded a PhD in 1962. He was Lecturer in Biophysics at King’s College, London, 1963-1977. From his growing interest in bioenergetics and the problems of muscle contraction he concluded that classical thermodynamics was inadequate for the description of biological processes, and that the application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to biological machines required the introduction of time scales. His ideas were not generally accepted and although he wrote extensively on the subject his papers were not accepted for publication until four controversial papers appeared in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and Nature , 1971-1972. These generated a vigorous correspondence with scientists all over the world. McClare’s unorthodox views failed to gain the approval of established scientific opinion. He took his own life at the age of thirty-nine, 1977.

A sympathetic tribute to McClare, which gives some detail about the vicious scientific controversy that followed McClare’s publications of his ideas on the bioenergetics of proteins in muscles, has been written by Luca Turin, published in 2009. McClare, he tells us, had been ‘a hero to me since my student days’. (Turin, too, is a fascinating figure, a perfumer-scientist with radical theories of smell.) Turin regards McClare’s work as flawed but profound, and having opened further research avenues: ‘Thirty years later, we can see that McClare had got one fundamental thing right: vibrational energy can be stored and transmitted in proteins. Two other questions he asked remain complete enigmas: how are these excitations generated and how are they used at the receiving end?’

From a history of twentieth-century science perspective, there are several intriguing aspects of the case of Colin McClare.

First, McClare was not alone in the early 1970s to propose that fundamental laws in physics might need to be challenged. McClare questioned aspects of thermodynamics, while the electrical engineer Eric Laithwaite, for example, sparked outrage when he argued (including demonstrations in a televised lecture at the Royal Institution) that gyroscopes broke free from Newton’s laws of motion. I wonder if these radical, critical, anti-traditional views can be understood within the wider context of science in the long 1960s, which I have discussed here.

Second, there is the task of placing McClare into a broader history of biomedical, molecular-level scientific understandings of the body.

Third, as he waded deeper into controversy, McClare sought, and received, advice from Karl Popper. The philosopher had retired from the London School of Economics in 1969 but was still at the peak of his powers. McClare’s bold yet falsifiable knowledge claims were clearly of a kind that Popper would approve, and he did. Again, McClare was by no means the only scientist in post-war Britain to appeal for support from philosophers, especially Popper. Many of these scientists came from the field and life sciences, as Charlotte Sleigh has noted, wondering if there was an element of ‘physics envy’ at work. Neil Calver has argued that scientists’ embrace of Popper was a response to hostility during the Two Cultures debate – the boldness prized in hypothesis-making could be presented as culturally high status emblems of imagination and creativity.

So you might be wondering why I haven’t already written up this one.

A few years ago I went to King’s College archives and spent an excellent day amongst the McClare papers. I made copious notes. The notes I put in my bag, and the next day went to see my parents. While I was there, my parents’ car was broken into, and the thieves nicked my bag, notes and all. Disappointingly, the thieves have published nothing.

1/2 idea No. 24: Severn Barrage history

By Jon Agar, on 3 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

I have keen research interests in the intersections between history of technology and environmental history. I think the next step is to identify a rich case study. The Severn Barrage schemes – proposals to engineer the River Severn to draw on tidal power – have a long and complex history. Schemes have been proposed from the 19th to the 21st centuries, but have always been fiercely opposed on environmental, technical and other grounds.

I’ve just heard (thanks Marianna Dudley) about Alexander Portch‘s recent PhD thesis on the Severn Barrage projects, which sounds fantastic, and I am looking forward to reading it. Portch is part of a current major AHRC-funded environmental history project, The Power and the Water (PI Peter Coates). Great to see work in this area.

Probably means I am looking for a different case study…



1/2 idea No. 23: DSAC

By Jon Agar, on 2 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

Studying the history of defence research should not be laugh-out-loud funny.

But here (pictured) is a civil servant in 1970 summarising  a report on air capability against tanks for the  Defence Scientific Advisory Council (DSAC):

“It shows that

(a) if your fighters are as good as the Israel’s you may expect to kill one tank per sortie.

(b) your fighters stand a greater chance of being shot down if enemy anti-aircraft fire responds when they attack.

(c) tanks in open flat country are easier to see, especially of you know where to look.

These conclusions have been obtained in part by computer simulation”.

Alan Smith, wrote this summary, and others, for his manager (Mr Simpson) and the two leading defence science advisers in the UK, Alan Cottrell and Solly Zuckerman, to warn them that a new and elaborate structure for channeling civilian scientific expertise into shaping defence research programmes was foundering.

The Defence Scientific Advisory Council had been established on April Fool’s Day, 1969. Composed ‘principally of scientists and technologists from outside the Ministry of Defence’, it was asked to provide advice, review ‘scientific and technological aspects of the Defence Research Programme’, advise on ‘long-term policy’ including ‘where appropriate… broader aspects of Defence Policy, advise on manpower, scope and balance, bring to attention relevant developments outside defence, and advise on specific issues on request’.[1]

Crucially it was not just a single panel, but sat atop a vast array of sub-committees, including but not limited to:

  • Land Warfare Advisory Board
  • Biological Research Advisory Board
  • Air Warfare Advisory Board
  • Maritime Warfare Advisory Board
  • Civil Programme Advisory Committee
  • Assessments Board
  • Hull Committee
  • Explosives Committee
  • Equipment Planning Committee
  • Military Engineering Committee
  • Engineering Properties of Materials Committee
  • Biology Committee
  • Chemistry Committee
  • Physics and Engineering Committee
  • Weapons and Sensors Committee
  • Vehicles Board: Fire Control Committee
  • Ships Board
  • Machinery Committee
  • Applied Biology Committee
  • Demolition Techniques Sub-Committee
  • Computer Uses Sub-Committee
  • Ballistics and Fire Control Committee
  • Committee on Operational Research Methodology
  • Materials Committee
  • Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Committee
  • Evaluation and Development Committee
  • Committee on the Application of Computer Systems

Even allowing for some renaming over time, that is a considerable number. In 1970, Smith caustically reported that

1. DSAC has bred more boards and sub-boards than anyone can keep track of.

2. Most of these are yapping around the periphery of the MOD without coming to grips with real issues.

3. Some of them are still getting in one another’s way.

Another DSAC meeting was described by Smith as

rambling and inconclusive … in the course of which they raised several thorny and some potentially seditious questions, most of which concern subjects outside their terms of reference … If the Minutes are to be believed, this meeting was in the nature of a collective confessional, and about as constructive.

Yet I think DSAC deserves close historical scrutiny. Each of the committees, boards and sub-committees was filled with scientists most of whom otherwise worked in civilian science. The DSAC system probably represents the largest influx of civilian expertise into the UK defence research system since the Second World War. What did these experts bring, and what did they take away? How were military technologies and techniques shaped by these experts, if at all? Were there consequences for the development of civil science, in academia or industry? How does their work compare to, say, that of the JASONS in the US?

Furthermore the system lasted. Surely an advisory structure has hopeless as Smith portrayed would have been wound up quickly. But the DSAC system continued until 2016, and even then its function was merely reclassified, and was replaced by the similar-sounding Defence Science Expert Committee.

The concentration, and consequences, of British investment in defence research is often overlooked by historians, as David Edgerton has argued many times, not least in The Warfare State (2005). One reason among many for this amnesia is that the archives, born confidential, secret, or top secret, trickle into public view. Brian Balmer and I, when we examined the archives of the Defence Research Policy Committee, which operated from 1947 to 1963, found that commentators on science policy had repeatedly underestimated its significance largely because it had operated discretely and in secret. (I have also studied the DRPC’s successor body, the Defence Research Committee, DRC, up to the late 1960s, and confirmed the effect in a paper published in the collection, Scientific Governance in Britain, 1914-79, edited by Charlotte Sleigh and Don Leggett.)

If we want to understand the factors shaping military science in Britain, and the interdependencies between civil and defence research, then we need a historical account of the DSAC system.


[1] TNA DEFE 10/807. ‘Defence Scientific Advisory Council’, 2 April 1969.




1/2 idea No. 22: Do all public spheres have a science? Has entirely private science existed?

By Jon Agar, on 2 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

A couple of naïve questions, which can be answered with examples or counterexamples.

  1. Do all (modern?) public spheres have science?
  2. Have any entirely private scientists existed?

Science seems to be an inherently public process. Data can be gathered, experiments conducted, phenomena observed by isolated individuals. The conduct of more complex scientific procedures is usually the work of many, although such groups might remain private. But the validation of claims to scientific knowledge, the testing of claims by independent parties, and the incorporation of validated claims into a system of knowledge, held in common, all require not just multiple private persons but an opening into, and operation within, a public sphere.

The first question asks whether the overlap between public spheres and science is exact. If science is necessarily public, do all public spheres entail a science? Scholars of Indian Ocean have shown that there existed, prior to and outside of colonial networks, a vigorous global South-South public sphere. What kinds of science were implicated?

The second question might be in the category of things we don’t know we don’t know. Does, for example, anyone know of an example of someone working alone on their science in the twentieth century, who never tried, or was not able to, connect their science to public networks? What would their science be like? Would it indeed be science at all? It is possible to be an entirely private novellist, or an entirely private artist, but is it, categorically, possible to be an entirely private scientist?

The answer to the main question might be a group rather than an individual. So a second class of answers might be from private commercial science. (A third class might be from secret defence science.) Most commercial science is conducted mostly in private spaces, but is partly made public in minimised ways, such as through patent descriptions, or through the necessarily public connections required by metrological calibration. There are clearly degrees of privacy. But what would be the most extreme case? Has there ever been attempts to take science, so to speak, off grid?