A Diplomatic Turn in History of Science

or How a 2 Million Euro European Research Council Grant Offers New Perspectives on the History of Radiation Protection

by Maria Rentetzi

In May 2011, only a couple of months after the Fukushima accident, The Guardian reported an interesting incident. Furious parents in the Fukushima area filled up a black bag with radioactive playground earth and delivered it to education officials in protest of certain moves to weaken nuclear safety standards in schools in the area. Three years later, CBS News reported that Fukushima parents were still too scared to let their kids play outside. It was around the same time that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was bringing together some of the world’s foremost experts and speakers on radiation protection in its headquarters in Vienna to discuss nuclear safety after Fukushima. But what do these incidents have to do with history of science?

Arguably, radiation protection is the next frontier in nuclear sciences. It has become evident that aspects of nuclear power production and even the use of radiation in medicine have been harmful to humans and the environment. In response, scientists have proposed technical radiation standards in order to reduce the harmful effects of radiation exposure and politicians have often adopted them in their convenience, as in the Fukushima case. But none of them has questioned the history behind the implementation of these standards. Moreover, they have neglected societal concerns as well as the powerful role of international organizations and diplomacy in shaping radiation protection standards.

Indeed, the history of radiation protection is more than just a story of scientific cooperation at an international level that required—and still does—interstate relations and assumed rigid national boundaries. It asks for a broader conception of international relations, science diplomacy, and circulation of knowledge, materials, and expertise, all pointing to international organizations such as the IAEA. Established in 1957, the IAEA has become the most influential player in implementing dosimetric methods worldwide and in establishing protocols of practice in medicine and industry. It is the only United Nations body with specific statutory responsibilities for radiation protection and safety in all sectors. IAEA meets these responsibilities through the exchange of scientific and technical information, the circulation of materials and personnel, and also through highly sensitive political and diplomatic negotiations.

An obvious question arises: How did the IAEA, a diplomatic and political international organization, come to dominate scientific institutions with a long tradition in radiation protection? This is the central question I am going to address in the next five years, funded by an European Research Council (ERC) consolidator grant of 2 million euros and supported by a group of young doctoral and post-doctoral students. The project is titled “Living with Radiation: The History of Radiation Protection and the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

Since 2007 the European Union has supported excellent researchers in Europe through what has been known as the European Research Council grants. Operating on a “bottom-up” basis, without predetermined thematic calls, ERC grants range from 1.5 to 2.5 million euros, depending on the applicants’ experience since completing their PhD research, and are awarded for a period of 5 years. The basic idea and overall aim behind this EU initiative is to provide excellent research conditions allowing an independent researcher to develop innovative ideas and to identify promising areas of research, and the ERC program has been set forward both as a European response to the US eminence in science and technology and as a way to promote Europe to a global player in the latest research. Given the shortage of academic jobs in history of science within the EU, new forms of insecure employment under short-duration contracts, and a wider gap between tenure-track positions and short-lived junior professorships, academics depend increasingly on external funding, EU’s Horizon 2020 (H2020) being the most popular of all. Yet, as the EU’s FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) Advisory Group recognizes, humanities in general have not been well integrated into the H2020 program, and there have been several areas within H2020 where humanities are not even present. ERC grants remain among the few, if not the only ones, that provide almost equal opportunities to researchers in the physical, engineering, and life sciences and those in the humanities. It is one of these grants that will enable me to advocate a diplomatic turn in history of science, arguing that the concept of techno-scientific diplomacy should become central in our narratives as we analyze postwar science.

Diplomacy has historically been a malleable social practice and diplomats have been political actors with professional identities in constant transition. Yet, only recently have diplomatic historians, embracing international history, shifted their focus from intergovernmental relations to study the professionals whose mission it has been to shape them. Stemming from the history of science, my approach helps to adopt an even broader conception of the diplomat, one that combines attention to political, military and economic intervention with recognition of the role played by science/technical experts and international organizations. It actually turns our attention to global techno-scientific diplomacy as a means to understand historical processes in science and technology, thereby dramatically affecting our understanding of the latter.

It is indicative that despite the importance of international organizations for the development of postwar science there is no work on the history of radiation protection in relation to the development of the IAEA. It is time that we address what we usually treat as a strictly techno-scientific issue—how best to protect us from ionized radiation—in a groundbreaking way. Using methods from history, philosophy, and sociology of science, all within the context of international history, in this project I combine attention to state actors, technical experts, diplomatic negotiations, technical assistance, and circulation of scientific devices on a global level through international organizations.
The main objectives of the project are, first, to retrace the international history of radiation protection after World War II, focusing especially on the “Technical Assistance Programs” of the IAEA known today as the “Technical Cooperation Program”; second, to investigate the role of the IAEA in sponsoring knowledge production in the field of radiation protection in competition and/or collaboration with other regulatory agencies; and third, to analyze the standardization of instruments, objects, procedures, and technical vocabulary as the main strategy used by the IAEA for guiding radiation protection worldwide.

The project is highly interdisciplinary in that it brings together expertise from history, sociology, and philosophy of science, international history, and diplomatic history. My hope is that the project will also result in a major travelling museum exhibition on the history of radiation protection in order to reach a wider audience and raise awareness of radiation protection as a social and public concern.

Historians of science have recently recognized the power of exhibitions in engaging the public in the production of knowledge. Nevertheless, they have the potential to do something more. They make political statements and become sites for the visualization of different social futures. For example, in 1930, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration assembled a collection of products that illustrated shortcomings in the 1906 Federal Food and Drug Act, which prohibited interstate commerce in adulterated and misbranded food and drugs. The FDA exemplified the state of affairs in the market place with an exhibition titled “The American Chamber of Horrors,” which also included several radium products of the time. The exhibition shocked the public and played a key role in reshaping drug provisions in the proposed law and passing the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act on 25 June 1938. I hope that as I use this public research money, I can reach out to a wide group of people and provide an answer to how we can avoid limiting our kids’ access to their playgrounds in the future.

The Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, one of the most prestigious museums in Europe, and the Marie Curie Museum in Paris, one of the most relevant to the project, have already agreed to host the exhibition. In addition, the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute for Physics (AIP) will provide its long-lasting expertise and help us create an on-line counterpart. I would like to welcome and invite the whole community of historians of science to our five-year journey.

Acknowledgments. Writing a research proposal is never a solitary process. Martin Kush and Ellen Balka were those wonderful colleagues and close friends who read and reread my ERC draft several times, commending, correcting, and suggesting different wording and different pathways. Gary Downey spent an entire morning in the midst of a hectic schedule to remind me that we have to put our feet where our hearts want to be. Aristides Baltas took me in hand throughout the whole process and insisted that excellence means to be the self you imagine. The staff from the Department of Research Services and Career Development of the University of Vienna and Ylva Huber from the Austrian FFG helped enormously by reviewing the proposal and offering advice on technical matters. I would like to thank a number of our colleagues who agreed to contribute to the project in the next five years: Ellen Balka, Simon Fraser University; Geoffrey Bowker, University of California, Irvine; Angela Creager, Princeton University; Paul Frame, Oak Ridge University; Greg Good, Center for History of Physics/AIP; Jacob Hamblin, Oregon State University; Akira Iriye, Harvard University; Ilona Kickbusch, WHO adviser; Martin Kusch, Vienna University; Erez Manela, Harvard University; Johann Marton, Vienna University; Christopher Soares, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Thomas Weiss, CUNY-University Intellectual History Project. To Spiros, Katerina, and Nikolas Flevaris I owe my sanity having gone through such a tough process.


Maria Rentetzi is Associate Professor of History and Sociology of Science and Technology at the National Technical University of Athens. The host institution at the time of her ERC Consolidator Grant application was the University of Vienna.