STEP Conference Galway 2010

Science and Technology at the European Periphery

Global Networking: the Core-Fringe Problem

Roy H W Johnston PhD(1); Techne Associates, Dublin, Ireland


The 2010 STEP (S&T at the European Periphery) event, which took place June 17-20 in University College Galway, Ireland, for the author was of key cultural significance, perhaps an important opportunity to develop east-west and north-south networking with a view to discussing regional aspects of the centre-preiphery and peripheral brain-drain problems in science policy. May I thank EASTS for responding positively to my proposal to publish, as it gives me a chance to express a critical view of the way science has developed in Europe, and to support the argument that there is serious need for 'science in society' studies to address the problems generated in post-colonial situations, in most cases by the cultural identification of science with the imperial cultures of the states which had earlier been their oppressors.

These problems were adumbrated in the 1930s by J D Bernal FRS(2), and later in the 1950s, but due to his basically Marxist position, and the negative experience of the corrupt pseudo-Marxist influence from the Soviet Union, his work became sidelined. There is however currently a revival of interest in Bernal; a commemorative event in Limerick in 2006 was organised by the Irish section of the Institute of Physics, presenting an opportunity for me to publish a paper(3) in which I outlined a possible organised approach to science in society studies appropriate to Ireland as a post-colonial fringe nation. Bernal was born in 1901 in Nenagh, near Limerick, and a plaque had been unveiled there in his memory in October 2005; this has aroused the interest of Limerick University, and the subsequent commemorative conference was a consequence.

Conference Overview

The Galway STEP conference began with 4 papers dealing with historical topics in Ireland: Susan Mullaney on 18thC hospitals, Clara Cullen industrial applied science in the 1850s, Miguel DeArce on Irish contributions to Victorian science debates, and Laura Kelly on body snatching and anatomy teaching in the 19thC.

This was an initial nod in the direction of Irish participation in the STEP network, an innovative link indicating the scope of the potential field for centre-periphery studies in Ireland as a European post-colonial emergent peripheral nation, still grappling with sovereignty and identity problems. There are some indications that an active node in the STEP network may emerge in Ireland, as a focus for science in society studies(4).

It was followed by a series of sessions, mostly with 4 papers, sometimes 3, on a variety of topics, all with explicit comparative objectives, in some cases implicitly or explicitly linked with contemporary or historic political issues. In what follows I attempt to outline some aspects of the issues raised in key comparative studies.

Comparative histories, in general terms:

We get a comparative study of the teaching of physics in schools in England, France and Spain from Josep Simon, seen from a Spanish perspective; the introduction of calculus in French and Spanish education systems from Monica Blanco; an assessment of the role of the 'assistant' to a prominent researcher in Hungary in transition to the US from Gabor Palio; and finally from Japan an assessment of the trajectory of the chemist Edwards Divers (1837-1912) in a career that led from London to Tokyo via Galway, from Yoshiyuki Kikuchi.

In a second session on this theme we get some critical reflections on the validity of the transnational approach to the study of science history from Nestor Herran (Strasbourg) and Simone Turchetti (Manchester); in a detailed paper they abstract from the 'core-fringe' problem and concentrate on the problems posed in the context of the 'cold war' and the positive roles of the various international scientific organisations. We then get a comparative study of how the role of the 'nuclear engineer' evolved in the UK, the US and Canada, from Sean F Johnston in Glasgow, followed by a comparative study of how nuclear programmes evolved in Spain and Portugal, from Julia Gaspan in Lisbon. Finally in this group we get a comparative study of how governments in the 19thC in Europe responded to famines, comparing Ireland with Finland; in this the Russian imperial government emerges as decidedly more friendly in the Finnish case than does the British government in the Irish case; a key factor was the status of Finland as an autonomous 'grand duchy', analogous perhaps to what Ireland would have had under Home Rule.

In a third session in this group there were three papers on the transfer and reception of nuclear technologies in Austria, Spain and Italy, regarded in this context as being peripheral. A further session dealt with centre-periphery interactions in the early modern world, specifically between Spain and South America, and between Portugal and the East Indies, in the sixteenth century.

Comparative studies within focused topics:

There was a 'psychometry' group, with paper on intelligence testing in Spain, from Barcelona, a paper on its introduction to Brazil, from Rio de Janeiro, and one on the beginnings of psychometry in Hungary, from Miskolc. This group generated some comparative comments from Anette Mulberger in Barcelona.

There was a 'popularisation' group, with a critical paper from Leuven suggesting a combination of entertainment and degradation of science, one on the spread of domestic appliances in Catalonia in the 1920s, one on the Barcelona exhibition in 1929, and a comparative study of popularisation in Britain, Portugal and Brazil.

A 'laboratory cultures' group had a paper from Leuven on adaptation, replication and appropriation in the periphery, one on lab practice in Greece, one on interactions between Brazil and France in experimental physiology in the late 19thC, and an anomalous paper which was an overflow from the 'early modern world' group, on the role of a group of enlightenment women in Spain in upgrading the service in a foundling hospital.

This 'early modern world' group had an account of the first Spanish scientific expedition to America 1571-1651, some analysis of the work of Garcia de Orta (physician) and Carolus Clusius (botanist), from Portugal, in the East Indies in the 16thC, and an analysis of Spain as a scientific centre in the 16thC, focused on the work of Hernandez in New Spain, and exploring his related network, in a project to explore the Renaissance science revolution in its Spanish context.

There were six papers in two groups, all on various aspects of the transmission, and eventual acceptance in various national cultures, of the origins and implications of the Mendeleev periodic table. Beginning of course with Russia, then Germany, France, Spain, Scandinavia and Japan are treated. A unifying overview by Gabor Pallo was available to those who attended, but alas the skeleton 'Proceedings' I have to hand does not give it.

A 'science and religion at the periphery' group tends towards debunking of pseudoscience in papers on Islamic creationism in Turkey, and on spiritualism in Hungary. These are accompanied by a paper on architecture in Spain under Franco, the influence being 'national Catholicism' as evidenced in Opus Dei.

The foregoing material suggests the need for a procedure for unifying overview commentators (a good idea in groups such as this, giving an opportunity to develop a philosophy): they should have access to the papers in advance and submit a script to the Proceedings editor. Maybe this has happened, and we will see it in a final printed proceedings, after much delay. Ideally we should be able to see it in a website proceedings, edited rapidly, while the impact of the conference is still in mind with the participants.

Interactions within the periphery:

There was a session on 'universities at the periphery' which was introduced by an overview paper by Gavoglu et al (Athens) with case-studies relating to Enlightenment-fringe countries in eastern and southern Europe, seen in terms of social history, the modernisation process in Greece in the late 19thC, electrochemistry in various centres in Spain, and the 20thC reconstruction of geology in Portugal. It also included a study of biochemical sciences in the Belgian universities, academic reforms and knowledge transfers among the Hungarian universities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the origins of the science faculty in Lisbon, in the political context which existed 1911-1947.

This was followed by a session based on knowledge-transfer and mobility of personnel: the role of patents and patent agents; in Brazil the complexity of the mobility paths between Portugal, France, and the United States, and their relations with the required technologies, especially mining, was analysed; there was also a case study of transfers from centre to periphery and then back to centre, with post-war penicillin production as the example.

The session on national identity had a paper on an attempt made in the 1950s by Israeli geneticists to construct a collective Jewish national identity, based on the analysis of the presumed returned diaspora. The author, Nurit Kirsh, treated this critically, as a manifestation of Zionist ideology, for which she is to be commended. Modern nations are socio-economic constructs, based on citizenship, rather than on the discredited 'race' concept. There was also an analysis of the history of the hominid fossils found in Spain; the early ones ended up in France, but in the end Spanish archaeology asserted itself strongly enough to keep control over the work on the most recent find, that at Atapuerca of homo antecessor dated 780,000 years ago. The epic conflict between Spanish and French archaeology is explored, over a sequence of episodes, during which the national standing of Spanish science became successively stronger.

There was then a final sequence of two sessions on the roles of experts, in areas which included the regulation of the use of saccharin (Spain), bacteriology in the public arena (Belgium), radioactivity (Austria), soil productivity (Russia), toxicology (Spain), and intellectual property in the courts, relating to the electrical industry in Britain.

Conclusion: need to define the problem and analytical philosophy

Most of the above papers are available in full, in edited .pdf versions, via a Proceedings of sorts, the makings of which is accessible via an EXCEL spreadsheet which was circulated to those who attended. This however is unsatisfactory, as the navigation is not user-friendly, and the pdf, as edited, blocks the taking of quotes, should one want to reference a paper. There is clearly a procedural agenda for the establishment of 'best practice' in the use of the Internet in support of conference-type events.

The foregoing brief overview gives some flavour of the range of topics discussed, and suggests a need for the development of an active structured philosophy for the study of 'science in society' and its relationship to whatever processes determine the 'central' and 'peripheral' nature of specific locations. In the philosophy of the present writer, the key factors must include the development of technology within nation-states in classic capitalist mode, with accompanying scientific understanding, and the development of the related marketplaces towards global scope, with accompanying political arrangements, usually, but not always, giving rise to imperial-colonial relationships.

The dynamics of the development of modern nationhood in the colonial fringe, and the emergence of new post-colonial nation-states, has in many cases proved problematic for the culture of science, with the latter being in some cases seen as an imperial tool, to be rejected, rather than a universal tool, adapted to the support of the emergent national development-economic analyses by the emerging post-colonial leaderships. These processes present a rich field for 'science in society' studies, not only in peripheral Europe, but in Africa, East Asia and Latin America. Thus the STEP concept needs to be broadened, networked and globalised.

The STEP network(5) consists of a handful of academic innovators who have managed, in their marginal time, to set up an interesting series of biennial conferences over the past decade. The time has come perhaps for this informal network to develop a professionalised focal node, with potential for influencing policies of individual European States, and the European Union as a whole, relating to science, technology, science popularisation and education, and all aspects of science in society. There exists also the Euroscience lobbying network (6) which however lacks in its structure any explicit recognition of the existence of a 'centre-periphery problem' requiring policy analysis. Likewise there exist globalising networks within scientific specialisations, such as the Institute of Physics (7) which would be enriched by relevant interactions with other scientific specialisations, and in this context there undoubtedly is a core-fringe dimension.

In the light of the foregoing, it is perhaps worth exploring how best to organise so that these networks can interact and be enriched in the process. An initial step might be for the STEP network to associate with Euroscience and seek funding for an associated professionalised node dedicated to developing, at a European and eventually global level, the systematic study of science in society, the relationship between science and development economics, and associated centre-periphery problems.

Networking along these lines has been attempted in the past, but usually fuelled by political issues, examples being the World Federation of Scientific Workers WFSW(8), and the International Network of Engineers and Scientists INES(9), for which the main problem was seen as the threat of nuclear war. Neither of these, while being effective to a limited extent, has developed an effective broad-based approach to global 'science and society' analysis.

In the current global intellectual environment, increasingly dominated by religious fundamentalism, creationism, climate-change denial, and with exclusive nationalistic politics emerging as a response to the current economic and financial problems, there is an increasing need for a genuine inclusive critical scientific philosophy to emerge and influence human culture, using the increasingly effective means of communication at our disposal. All the organisations mentioned, as well as EASTS and many others, are in a position to satisfy this need, provided they develop their global networking potential, and project to the world at large a positive image of the culture of science and technology as being tools necessary for the peaceful and sustainable development of human civilisation.

Notes and References

NB The EASTS published version can be seen at

1.The author is a physicist who evolved into industrial instrumentation and systems work, and then into techno-economic systems analysis, at the interface between scientific research and industrial innovation. Currently in semi-retirement, he is concerned with promoting the need for encouraging socio-economic and cultural research into problems of science in society. Some of his publications are archived at

2. Physicists of Ireland: Passion and Precision; ed Mark McCartney & Andrew Whitaker, IoP 2003; I have edited my Bernal chapter for my website at

3. I have edited this for screen at and it is also accessible via the Institute of Physics website at

4. Continuity in Ireland of the experience of the 2010 STEP conference remains with Juliana Adelman (adelmanj at TCD dot ie) who specialises in science history in the Trinity College Dublin History Department.

5.The website is currently under development, replacing an earlier version.

6. The local sections of have a decidedly peripheral flavour, indicating that scientists at the periphery are more aware of the existence of policy issues than those in the main centres.

7. See this at; the present writer is a Fellow, and a founder-member of the Irish section.

8. The WFSW website still retains UNESCO status based on its foundation shortly after world war 2.

9. The emphasis of is on global peace and sustainability.

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(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Roy Johnston 2003; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.