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Science popularisation for a united, peaceful and modern world

UNESCO’s Division for Science & Its Popularisation propagated science popularisation as a foundation for modern democracies all around the world

By Kristian H. Nielsen

After Second World War, expectations for science and science popularisation were high. Scientists such as Julian Huxley and Joseph Needham propounded the view that science and international scientific collaboration would contribute to peace, development and understanding.

Science, however, was not part of the original proposal for an educational and cultural organisation under the United Nations. Needham in particular campaigned for its inclusion and successfully so. At the conference for the establishment of such an organisation, British minister of education and president of the conference Ellen Wilkinson recommended to include science. She argued:

‘In times when we are all wondering, perhaps apprehensively, what scientists will do to us next, it is important that they should be linked closely with the humanities and should feel that they have a responsibility to mankind for the results of their labour.’

Huxley served as the first Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Needham as the first head of its Natural Science Section. They both were prominent science popularisers. For them, popularisation was integral to science and to advancing the social relations of science. At the time, this implied appreciating the moral and social advantages of science, but also advancing public understanding of science and planning of science.

Huxley and Needham approached Danish science journalist Børge Michelsen about heading UNESCO’s Division for Science & Its Popularization. A science journalist sympathetic to the social relations of science ideas, Michelsen accepted right away. His first task included setting up an exhibition on atomic physics for the UNESCO’s General Conference held in Beirut in November–December 1948, commissioning reports on science popularization, and establishing the UNESCO journal Impact of Science on Society.

The first issue of the journal appeared in 1950. In the editorial, Michelsen argued that public understanding of science was ‘a modern necessity’. He gave expression to the idea, shared by many scientists and science popularisers at the time, that science embodied universal rationality and as such would safeguard humanity against anti-rational and anti-democratic tendencies such as totalitarianism. Moreover, he said, science was constitutive to wealth and welfare, which required citizens, politicians and decision-makers to understand science and its implications.

In the years just after its creation, UNESCO propounded science and science popularisation as one of the essential foundations for the establishment of development and democracy on a global scale. However, Michelsen’s division operated on a very limited budget and there was only so much, he and his few co-workers could do. They established a network of science clubs in many countries, they arranged for travelling science exhibitions in South and North America, they developed an experimental protocol for public understanding of science, and they established the Kalinga Prize for science popularisation.

In 1952, Michelsen became weary of UNESCO bureaucracy in Paris and left for a position as a position as science co-operation officer in Djakarta. UNECSO dismantled its Division for Science & Its Popularization, focusing instead on science education. Still, the Division has historical significance. It testifies to the great, but also somewhat naïve expectations for science and science popularisations in the aftermath of Second World War. The Division forms part of public understanding of science’s intellectual genealogy and has helped shape the way in which we today understand it.

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Kristian H. Nielsen is associate professor of science history and science communication at Aarhus University. He is the acting head of the Centre for Science Studies. His research interests include the history of popular science and science education. He has recently published an essay in BJHS Themes on UNESCO’s Programme for Integrated Science Teaching from 1969 to 1991.