The Royal Society had an internationalist outlook from its earliest days. In the aftermath of World War II, and despite the political and bureaucratic constraints of the Cold War, the Society put a great deal of effort into using its connections with academies behind the Iron Curtain to facilitate international scientific collaboration. It also promoted links with western Europe through the European Science Exchange Programme.
The Cold War
This paper examines how the Royal Society tried to rebuild scientific relations between Britain and the rest of Europe in the aftermath of World War II.
This was a war of horrendous magnitude and impact, a war whose aftermath arguably extended for 50 years until after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. And it is this period that we usually refer to as the Cold War, a term probably coined by George Orwell. I make these points because we need to remind ourselves that the Europe of 1945 was one of physical and economic devastation, with the destruction of the institutions of a civilized society, with a massive refugee problem and with all normal human interaction broken. Britain got off relatively lightly by comparison with continental Europe, particularly in one respect: it emerged with its major institutions intact and with much of its infrastructure functioning. France, for quite other reasons, was also physically relatively unscathed.
Moreover, there was, in effect, only one winner of the war—the USA—which, although it had suffered huge losses on the battlefield, emerged with a buoyant and strong economy, with all its domestic infrastructure undamaged, and an infrastructure that had been improved during the war. It was exceptionally strong in science, having assembled groups in the safety of the US mainland to conduct major research on issues important to the war effort, the most famous being the Manhattan project. It also cleverly ensured at the end of the war that key German scientists were recruited to undertake scientific work in the USA in a campaign called Operation Paperclip.
The Soviet Union, on the other hand, had suffered as much as any other nation and emerged with little more than an enormously powerful army, a substantial military/industrial complex, which it further developed during the Cold War, and a strong belief in a political ideology that it wished to export as widely as possible. Its size and power made it the only country that could challenge the USA for world domination, despite the devastation it had suffered in the war. Thus the stage was set for a Cold War with two massive military powers camped opposite each other across Europe.
In some ways science emerged from the war in reasonable shape. It was perceived by the Allies as having helped to win the war, whether through the development of radar, sonar, early computers for code breaking, penicillin, jet propulsion or, of course, the atom bomb. So it was quite natural that science should be seen as an important element in winning the Cold War, whether through supporting the arms race or as a way of strengthening the economies of the two sides. It is worth, for example, reminding ourselves that President Truman did not give the go-ahead for the development of the hydrogen bomb until January 1950, while the Soviet Union was building its own nuclear arsenal and also supporting the development of science throughout the eastern bloc, particularly through the establishment of academies of science.
The Royal Society and reconstruction
The question I want to look at is why and how, in the circumstances of the Cold War, the Royal Society became involved in the process of reconstructing science and research in Europe.
The Society was born in the aftermath of the Civil War in England and, since its foundation, had been in the business of supporting and encouraging international scientific endeavour. The scientists of seventeenth-century England recognized that science was universal and could not be constrained by national boundaries. The Society's charter of 1663 makes it absolutely clear that the Society should look beyond these shores when it states that the King had resolved ‘to extend not only the boundaries of the Empire, but also the very arts and sciences’. Later on, the Charter explicitly enjoins the Fellows of the Society ‘to enjoy mutual intelligence and affairs with all and all manner of strangers and foreigners whether private or collegiate, corporate or politic, without any molestation, interruption or disturbance whatsoever’.
This makes clear that the Society should develop contacts between individual scientists wherever they were, and such contact should not be impeded in any way. This became a seriously important issue in the Cold War era, because the two great powers had divided Europe between them. As Churchill said in his speech in Fulton, Missouri: ‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.’
Interestingly, it was on the other side of the Iron Curtain that much of the early activity of the Royal Society was concentrated. There can be little doubt that, for an individual scientist, cooperating with scientists in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was a much more difficult enterprise than working with colleagues in the West. There were the usual barriers of language and culture, but the regimes also erected physical and bureaucratic impediments to such collaboration and actively sought to control the movement of individuals. Thus there was a real need to have some sort of arrangement to overcome or manage these controls and support scientists in making contacts. This assumes that scientists wanted to work together, and there is strong evidence that they did. There were pockets of excellent world-class science in the East, especially the Soviet Union, that were attractive to UK scientists. There remained in Britain, and especially in the academic community, a sympathy with communist ideology and a strong wish to help scientists in countries so devastated by war. On the eastern side I have little doubt that there was a real appetite to maintain links with the West, despite the authorities' wish to control. Even they recognized the importance of developing and exploiting contacts with western Europe to help rebuild their economies and their military power.
Russia's own Academy had been created by Peter the Great in St Petersburg in the eighteenth century, but in 1920 it was renamed the Soviet Academy, put under party control and put in charge of scientific activity across the whole of the Soviet Union. From that experience in the 1920s the Soviets, as part of their policy towards strengthening science, set about encouraging, some would say forcing, the development of academies of science throughout eastern Europe in the immediate postwar period. These generally replaced existing learned societies so that, for example, the Polish Academy of Sciences was founded in 1952, replacing two existing academies—one based in Warsaw and one in Kraków. In Hungary the Academy was placed under direct party control in 1949. This process of creating new academies and controlling existing ones was repeated throughout the Soviet satellite countries.
This is important because it meant that academies with direct links into the Communist Party machinery were treated as trusted bodies and seen to be important in promoting the intellectual and economic life of the state. They were charged with running scientific research in their countries, which they did through research institutes employing large numbers of scientists and coincidentally large numbers of non-scientific staff. In other words, science was done in academy institutes rather than under the British model using universities to do research. It may have been easier for the state to control academies, but this approach was also to be found widely in continental Europe, including France and the Federal Republic of Germany.
Most importantly for our purposes today, these academies were trusted to encourage international collaboration and had appropriate financial and administrative resources to make this possible. However, there needed to be some sort of formal agreement to collaborate with a partner overseas, and there was a strong preference for the partner to be an academy. Hence the Royal Society as an academy of science became the partner of choice for these Soviet-style academies rather than, for example, the British Council. Indeed, in recognition of its unique role the Society received a grant from the British Council to help with this work as well as money from the Department of Education and Science as part of its grant-in-aid. Formal relations with the Soviet Academy began in November 1955, when its President and five other academicians came on a two-week visit to Britain; this was followed by a Royal Society delegation led by its President, Cyril Hinshelwood, to Moscow six months later.
The formal agreement between the Royal Society and the Soviet Academy came into effect in April 1957 and provided for reciprocal visits by two academicians in each direction and two one-year fellowships—modest in the extreme, but a start to what was to be a long-standing relationship.
Similar agreements were signed with Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and with Yugoslavia and the German Democratic Republic in the late 1970s. These agreements, initially liberating, often became straitjackets because they contained specific quotas for exchanges usually expressed in ‘man-months’.
Although these agreements originally involved very small numbers, later agreements such as that with the Soviet Academy signed by the then Royal Society President George Porter in 1986 in Moscow allowed for a quota of exchanges amounting to 100 person-months on each side, plus symposia, colloquia, seminars, joint projects and staff exchanges. There was also an opportunity for extra visits referred to rather quaintly as ‘ex quota’ visits.
These agreements were extremely important for eastern European academies and their scientists. They provided the legal framework to enable cooperation to take place, and they had money attached to them provided that they operated on the basis of strict reciprocity—partly to overcome the paranoia in communist countries that they would lose out to the West in any collaboration and partly for the eastern bloc countries to preserve their meagre foreign currency reserves. But perhaps most importantly these agreements enabled scientists from eastern Europe to travel, a huge privilege because it gave them access to foreign currency and the whole range of goods freely available in western consumer-based societies but unobtainable in eastern bloc countries.
The Soviet agreement, for example, was very detailed, so that under a heading ‘financial arrangements’ it stated:
The host Side will arrange and pay for the visitor's accommodation in a separate hotel room or university hostel or other appropriate lodging, and for local travel including that required on arrival and departure, in accordance with the agreed programme and with the Financial Annex to this Agreement.
Additionally, the host Side will pay the visiting scientist a daily allowance (in advance for study visits; by instalments for Fellowships) as stated in the Financial Annex.
In cases where visiting scientists are accompanied by their spouses and/or children, this will be at their own expense, but the Sides will do all in their power to facilitate arrangements, and keep the additional costs to a minimum.
The reality was, however, that the communist countries fulfilled their quotas and also took advantage of ex quota visits, whereas the UK rarely did. At the joint talks before the signing of agreements we were always politely chided for not doing enough to encourage more British scientists to travel to their countries. In our talks with the USSR we raised human rights issues and drew attention to individual cases of scientific dissidents. In 1980 Lord Todd refused to extend the agreement with the USSR in protest at the treatment of scientific dissidents. The Society regularly raised the case of Academician Sakharov until he was eventually released from internal exile and then became an international celebrity, travelling to most western countries, and visiting the Royal Society in the late 1980s.
These joint talks were extremely important because they provided the opportunity for a formal review of the workings of the agreement, an opportunity for a ceremonial signing, and, usually, scientific visits for members of the delegation to laboratories or scientific institutes. The last of these provided a veneer of scientific credibility to justify to the authorities the expense of such visits. Their real value, however, lay in the personal relations established between the scientific elite of each country, to be called upon in times of difficulty or uncertainty.
The hospitality on the eastern bloc side was lavish and though, in my experience, we did our best to compete, the Society did not have the same level of resources to put to these events. In fact, the demand from communist countries to visit Britain far outstripped the wish of British scientists to go there. This lavish entertainment for Royal Society delegations and indeed incoming Fellows, whether they were Officers or not, was one way of redressing the balance.
European Science Exchange Programme
It was more than 10 years after the first significant contacts between the Royal Society and the Soviet Union that the Society began to think seriously about supporting scientists to travel between the UK and western Europe. This is not to say that it had been inactive in western Europe, but much of this activity was related to supporting institution building rather than supporting scientist-to-scientist contact. The Society actively supported the re-establishment of the International Council of Scientific Unions and the creation of new international scientific unions, and hosted the UK–UNESCO science committee in the immediate postwar period. It also encouraged such ventures as CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), the European Molecular Biology Organization and particularly the European Science Foundation (ESF). All contributed to rebuilding science in Europe.
However, in 1966 the Society did what it often does when it wants to do something different: it set up a new committee—the International Relations Committee—one of whose major functions was to explore how to encourage cooperation between scientists in Europe. This committee was very high powered: it was chaired by Tommy Thompson, the Society's Foreign Secretary, and included past, present and future Presidents (Howard Florey, Patrick Blackett and Alan Hodgkin) as well as John Cockcroft, John Kendrew, Nicholas Kurti, Ashley Miles, Joseph Hutchinson, Bernard Lovell and Solly Zuckerman.
The minutes of the first meeting make it clear that the Society wanted now to stimulate closer cooperation with Europe, recognizing that in the immediate postwar period it had tended to look to the USA for cooperation and scientific leadership. The Committee minutes record:
With the prestige of British science and its traditional influence in Europe, the Royal Society was in a unique position to exercise leadership and encourage the development of European science and to re-build the scientific community by direct contact and exchange with centres of excellence on the Continent: this could be done through the scientific academies, other organisations and individual scientists by exploration and exhortation. In discussion the difficulty of providing fellowships and scholarships for European scientists was contrasted with the ease of establishing such exchanges with N. America. It was agreed that while two-way exchange was very desirable priority should be given to sending British scientists into Europe, and though special mention was made of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Scandinavia it was pointed out that countries which fell short of the highest excellence were in need of encouragement and should not be excluded.
It was also agreed that priority should be given to sending younger scientists for longer periods.
Thus the European Science Exchange Programme was born, first using private money and then money granted by the UK government. It provided three things—study visits, fellowships for young research workers, and travel grants—although these were subsequently subsumed into a much bigger scheme, covering the whole world. Money was the limiting factor, and the grant of government money was predicated on the Society's convincing partners to provide matching money. The choice of these partners was entirely pragmatic. The Federal Republic of Germany did not have a national academy, and the academies of several other countries, most notably France, had no resources to enable them to take part in such a programme. In these cases the relationship was with the country's research council. In contrast, some academies were well resourced, notably those of The Netherlands and Sweden, and so they were the Society's partner in the programme. Thus an exchange programme emerged. And it was substantial, supporting 267 fellowships (145 from and 122 to the UK) and 312 study visits (238 from and 76 to the UK) in the first three years. I suspect that the major catalyst for the establishment and rapid growth of this programme was General de Gaulle's decision in 1967 for a second time to veto Britain's entry into the Common Market. The fear of being left isolated from our colleagues in Europe must have seemed very real.
The scheme was unusual, however, in that it was not multilateral. It was a series of informal bilateral agreements between the Royal Society and the relevant body overseas. There were no direct links through this scheme between, for example, France and Germany or The Netherlands and Italy. Those relations were conducted separately and increasingly through the mechanisms of the European Union (EU). The scheme itself became increasingly redundant once the EU provided much of the support needed to enable scientists to travel freely throughout Europe.
So what is it that we needed to promote to ensure that scientists could work with colleagues in other European cities? To do so they would need certain freedoms: freedom to conduct research in their own country unencumbered by political interference, freedom to publish their work, and freedom to meet their fellow scientists and communicate with them in all appropriate ways—meaning, of course, the freedom to travel to other countries. All these freedoms were in one way or another severely constrained in wartime and although there is the famous story of Humphry Davy's going to Paris to receive a medal from Napoleon during the time that England and France were at war, such eccentricities were a rarity in any war and, I conjecture, completely impossible in the war-ravaged Europe of World War II. The building of institutional and personal contacts in the scientific area in the postwar period was highly important, and the Royal Society was central to that endeavour.
- © 2010 The Royal Society