Società italiana per lo studio della storia contemporanea


American Foundations and Large-Scale Research: Construction and Transfer of Knowledge

Giuliana Gemelli (a cura di)

Bologna, Clueb, pp. 256, euro 20,66 2001

This volume is the output from an international research network on the role of American Foundations in Europe from the 1920s to the 1990s. The topic of the book is the transfer of scientific knowledge in the period from the 1920s to the 1970s. One aspect of the knowledge transfer is the theoretical and organisational changes in disciplines like physics, mathematics, biochemics and medicine. A special attention is paid to the impacts of large-scale research programmes on theoretical and institutional developments. It is obvious from the volume that there is a close interaction between theoretical development and politics. This is true for widely varying historical contexts. The activities of the American Foundations in Europe expanded from a bilateral focus on specific countries during the inter-war period towards a more general Western approach in the 1950s and on the relationships between East and West and developed and underdeveloped countries in the 1960s and 1970s. The impact of politics does not mean a hard and well-structured planning of the research. Several of the contributions in the book emphasise the personal and informal contacts when new projects were initiated and where issues of trust and competence were crucial. The development of large-scale scientific networks was not the product of intentional planning. Academic rivalries, theoretical misunderstandings and political conjunctures were all factors that contributed to the final shape of the research designs. The political context in all its variety adapted the original project drafts in different directions. John Krige, for instance, in his analysis of the Ford Foundation's programmes in physics in the 1950s, demonstrates how the aim of strengthening the Western alliance scientifically and technologically emerged. The impact on the research agenda of the growing insights of a global problem field in areas such as economic development, environment and technological progress was also evident as Giuliana Gemelli shows in her contribution. Also the growing role of international organisations dealing with issues of academic research, such as Unesco and Oecd, changed the preconditions of the American research sponsoring. However, the dynamics between knowledge production and politics could also go in the other direction, where the role of local academic actors and of the conflict between academic groupings could bypass the obstacles that a specific political situation produced. Giovanni Paoloni demonstrates how the rules of American Foundation policies were shaped when Istituto Italiano di Sanità Pubblica was created. The American Foundations were increasingly committed to large-scale research programmes and the early interest in the academic/theoretical content of the research shifted towards an interest in models for research organisation. All in all, this is a well-argued and highly interesting book in a field that in the wake of the growing globalisation/Americanisation rhetoric is becoming ever more urgent to explore.

Bo Stråth