Contributed Papers

Climate, Planetary, and Nuclear Big Science

Presenter 1

Climate Cycles, Historical Explanation, and Popular Science in Twentieth-Century Japan

John Hayashi

Harvard University


Writing in a popular scientific magazine in 1935, Japanese geophysicist Shida Toshi enumerated the disasters that had beset Japan and its empire ever since the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, and warned readers that things were only going to get worse-the 21st century would be an age of disasters. Beginning in 1947 and continuing for decades after, archaeologist Nishioka Hideo drew from Shida's work to argue that the earth was getting warmer, and that Japan's leaders needed to invest in long-term planning for an unstable climate. Responsible for these dramatic shifts was not human action of any sort, but rather a regular, 700-year climate cycle that had governed human affairs across recorded history. Shida and Nishioka cited evidence ranging from tree rings and sea lion populations to names of flowers in ancient poems, and argued tirelessly for the cycle's existence. My paper examines their theory not as a precocious early recognition of global warming (indeed, Nishioka would eventually use the theory to argue against anthropogenic theories of climate change), but rather as a case study in contested, popular science in twentieth-century Japan.


Presenter 2

Climate Futures and the Problem in the U.S. Post-War Science-Policy Nexus

Emil Flato

Research Project: "Lifetimes - A Natural History of the Present", Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo


The history of scientific futures and the emergence of a futures regime in climate science during the Cold War have been hot topics in the last decade. In contrast to the increasingly "scientific" representation of futures methods at the IPCC, this work has resurfaced inventive ways of engaging the uncertainty of the future: conjecture, gaming, heuristics and social engineering. However, as accounts have attended to how those approaches were ultimately enrolled in efforts to "domesticate" uncertainty and manage climate as an object of global governance, their epistemological alterity has fallen out of view.
In this paper, I will look at the notion of "problem-oriented science", prevalent in the U.S. around the turn of the 1970s, particularly at MIT. I will argue that inquiring into what it meant to think the problem is crucial to understanding the scientific context climate futures originate in.
Work on problems foregrounds various forms of emergent and science-adjacent expertise in the history of climate futures - management, planning, socio-technical engineering and systems dynamics. Their thinking on the problem exhibits an ambition to create a science which could forge new connections between knowing and doing; the practice of "problem-oriented science" often navigated between science, politics, the corporate world and the public in sophisticated and novel ways. While fields like planning and engineering are often associated with high-modernist technocracy, this ambit also originated an understanding of the "wicked problem", of which climate change would prove, perhaps, to be the most prominent and vexing example.


Presenter 3

Bringing It Back to Earth: Planetary Scientists and Their Responses to Federal Budget Cuts in the 1980s

Ian Jasper Varga

Florida State University


While historians of science have devoted much attention to the Cold War and its catalyzing effect on science in America, investigations of science at the end or after the Cold War have only just begun. The Cold War ushered in golden age for federal patronage for space science research. However, as Cold War competition abated and as financial conservatism strengthened in the 1970s and 1980s, NASA and its various dependent scientific communities began a lasting battle against Congressional and presidential budget cutters. This paper examines how planetary scientists and exobiologists fought for the survival of their fields within NASA amidst political and budgetary controversies in the 1980s which posed constant existential threats from both Congress and the Reagan administration, including, for instance, a White House demand in 1981 that NASA cut its entire science budget. American space scientists faced potential facility closures, job losses, and an end to American prestige in space science, forcing them to organize politically, lobby Congress, and redefine their role in American politics.
By examining a period of contraction in federal patronage during the 1980s, the paper argues that federal patronage does not only strengthen or create new scientific fields. It can also destroy them or force them to reform or reorient their communities. NASA provides an ideal example to demonstrate the double-edged nature of federal patronage. Because of federal cuts which ended or postponed planetary missions, such as Galileo and a comet lander, planetary science and exobiology entered a period of stagnation, particularly in NASA research centers such as Ames. Thus, scientists had to adjust their relationship with an antagonistic Capitol Hill. As scientists face a comparable climate today, including serious cuts to scientific personnel and agencies, analyzing past similar circumstances and how scientists reorganized and lobbied for their survival grows increasingly pertinent.


Presenter 4

New Big Science in Belgium? - SCK CEN and the History of MYRRHA 1995-2020

Hein Brookhuis

KU Leuven, Cultural History; SCK CEN, Nuclear Science and Technology Studies


With definitive approval from the Belgian government in 2018, the Belgian Nuclear Research Center (SCK CEN) is currently starting the construction of a GEN-IV nuclear research reactor named MYRRHA. Presented as a multi-purpose reactor it aims to reduce (toxic) nuclear waste and also produce medical radio-isotopes. As a research infrastructure that has been in the making since 1995, MYRRHA offers a unique opportunity to analyze recent developments in (New) Big Science.
Recent scholarship has identified an increasing focus on economic and societal returns in legitimization of Big Science from 1980 to 2020. As a national research center, SCK CEN embodies many characteristics of these developments. In the early 1990's, SCK CEN claimed to have undergone a significant transformation that would reshape its relation to the state, society, and the industrial market. As the initial plans for MYRRHA were conceived shortly after this transformation, this paper will analyze how a proposed large-scale research infrastructure dealt with these dynamics, and how it both answered to new demands, and as well shaped new expectations.
In this paper, I propose to locate the history of MYRRHA as a techno-political enterprise within the growing historiographical literature on 'New Big Science', which addresses the ongoing transformation of Big Science research facilities and their position in current science policy. By analyzing the expectations and organization of MYRRHA in this framework, this paper aims to enhance our view on the legitimization and coordination of Big Science in the recent history of science policy.