Who Gets to Set the Research Agenda for the Planet? On Lorraine Daston’s “Rivals”

By Deborah R. CoenOctober 17, 2023

Who Gets to Set the Research Agenda for the Planet? On Lorraine Daston’s “Rivals”

Rivals: How Scientists Learned to Cooperate by Lorraine Daston

I RECENTLY ATTENDED a conference in Europe where elite climate scientists argued over the future of their discipline—and of Earth. As a historian, I was there to provide lessons from the past. The event was billed as a step towards an inclusive international collaboration that would provide the highest-quality information on future impacts of climate change to those who need it most. Yet the vast majority of participants came, like me, from the United States or Western Europe. The organizers hoped to harness massive computing power to build Earth’s “digital twin,” a forecasting model so detailed that its output would be too large to store. Their critics pushed back, urging attention to “lower hanging fruit” that might rectify the current information imbalance between rich and poor countries before it’s too late. Disagreement hinged on a fundamental question about international cooperation in the sciences: who gets to set the research agenda for the planet?

If this question has rarely been asked explicitly, it may be because the world’s top scientists typically manage their disagreements behind closed doors. Lorraine Daston’s new history of international scientific cooperation over the past three centuries investigates how they’ve learned to do so: “In the face of two global crises, disastrous climate change and a deadly pandemic, the scientific community has shown itself capable of consensus and concerted action that even the most cohesive nation-state might envy.”

As the director emerita of one of the world’s leading centers for the history of science, Daston is no stranger to the challenges of generating consensus among prickly scholarly personalities. Rivals: How Scientists Learned to Cooperate explains what induces scientists to set aside their personal and national interests in order to sustain long-term transnational collaborations. This slim volume was commissioned by Columbia Global Reports, which says it publishes books on up-and-coming issues for readers who are “curious and busy.” These readers will have no trouble digesting Daston’s witty and efficient narrative en route to their next international conference.


Since the 18th century, scientists have recognized that subjects like meteorology and astronomy demand coordinated observation from vantage points around the world. Daston recounts the efforts of one 18th-century German learned society to build the first worldwide meteorological network. Though the organizers appealed to 27 foreign academies, they found only eight loyal correspondents, all of whom were beholden to the local prince. The effort collapsed entirely in 1795 in the face of the invading French army. Until the late 19th century, Daston shows, international cooperation repeatedly foundered on political and personal rivalries. How were scientists ever convinced to subordinate their investigations to foreign norms and goals?

Daston’s answer builds on an insight that she has been honing since the 1990s—a way of thinking about science that has inspired multiple generations of historians, myself included. She argues that science is structured by its own “moral economy”: scientists in training are rewarded for embodying specific virtues and punished for betraying them. Becoming a scientist means molding one’s mind, body, and emotions to fit a reigning image of the agent of truth. Daston argues that this image constitutes a unique moral code that sets experts apart from the uninitiated.

In this way, scientists have built disciplinary identities that can compete with national ones. One lesson of Rivals is that international cooperation has never been a product of abstract ideals—its success hinges on face-to-face interactions. The advent of railways and steamships in the mid-19th century made it possible for scientists from across Europe and beyond to congregate regularly, while the new world’s fairs offered convenient and festive venues for international congresses. Daston’s archival research shows that scientists were more amenable to compromises over rules and regulations once they had bonded over lavish meals and sightseeing excursions.

Yet the new international scientific associations of the 19th century—such as the International Statistical Congress, founded at the Great Exhibition of London in 1851—faced a fateful trade-off. Most originated in the 19th century as voluntary associations among private learned societies; as such, scientists enjoyed the freedom to make their own rules but had no power and limited money to enforce them. The alternative was to turn to state governments for help. Intergovernmental organizations would be able to fund research and compel compliance—but decisions about membership would lie in the hands of diplomats, not scientists. For Daston, this dilemma defines the predicament of international science throughout the 20th century and today.

As an example of a project that opted for “autonomy,” Daston tells the 80-year saga of the Carte du Ciel—albeit in under five pages. Launched in 1887 as an agreement among the directors of 18 observatories on five continents, this was to be a map of every visible star in the night sky. And yet the Carte du Ciel is an ambiguous example of success: what was expected to be the work of 20 years was still unfinished by the time it was overtaken by new technologies in the 1970s.


This brings us to the problem of defining success. Consider Daston’s opening examples of climate change and COVID-19. In both cases, scientists joined forces to produce targeted, usable research in record time. And yet, each crisis has exacerbated preexisting inequalities, both between and within countries. Whether this “concerted action” constitutes success is a matter of standpoint. What’s more, the scientific community was much slower to address aspects of these crises that disproportionately affect disadvantaged populations, such as adaptation and sustainable development in the case of climate change and the equitable distribution of vaccines in the case of COVID-19. My point is simple: if international science is science on behalf of the world, it should be evaluated from standpoints representative of the world as a whole. This leads me to wonder what the history of scientific internationalism might look like from the perspectives of those who weren’t invited to the congress banquet.

Rivals invites this question without answering it. Daston notes that scientific cooperation has depended on the exclusionary elitism of international organizations. She remarks that until recently the “scientific community” was almost exclusively white and male. (Historians have yet to chronicle the invisible labor of the women and nonwhite men who likely orchestrated their gatherings and saw their proceedings into publication.) She also observes that the modern sciences of the globe were utterly dependent on Europeans’ exploitation of colonial lands and labor. Perhaps a project like the Carte du Ciel could avoid intergovernmental diplomacy in part because—for most of its existence—astronomers counted on coerced labor at colonial observatories.

What finally put an end to the Carte du Ciel was the advent of telescopes so powerful that they could survey 70 percent of the sky from a single location. By the 1950s, sciences like astronomy and meteorology were costly, high-tech, “Big Science.” Since then, participation in cutting-edge science and technology has been the privilege of the wealthiest nations. Economic growth has partially opened the door to countries like China, India, and Brazil, but not to most countries in Africa.

Meanwhile, in the 1960s and ’70s, decolonization began to change the face of intergovernmental organizations. Daston takes the postwar World Meteorological Organization as a case study of a body that opted for intergovernmental status, its membership mirroring that of the United Nations. In the first 20 years after the WMO’s founding in 1950, member countries grew from 51 to 127. But colonialism left an indelible imprint: meteorological data is still all too sparse in much of Africa, Southeast Asia, and small Pacific Island states. Because wealthy countries have not invested adequately in observing networks in these regions nor shared data freely, the populations most vulnerable to climate change now suffer from an information deficit. Only in the past few years has the WMO begun to address this problem by supporting open data and capacity building for the Global South.

For many postcolonial nations, it was not enough to be included in scientific organizations: the barriers to participating in and benefiting from scientific research have remained entrenched. From their perspective, scientific cooperation looked less like a voluntary relationship among peers and more like what a parent means when she tells her child to “cooperate.”

These and other failings of scientific internationalism were already clear to intellectuals in the Global South 50 years ago. Consider the views voiced in 1979 when the United Nations sponsored a series of symposia—in Tallinn, Estonia; Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Mexico City—on the theme of “science and technology for development.” Scientists and policymakers from the Global South called for the redirection of scientific research away from military uses and towards “need-oriented” research and development. They asked for assistance to build capacity for homegrown technologies rather than exports. They demanded the release of proprietary data and stricter regulation of clinical trials exported to developing countries.

From their perspectives, the disputes that Daston chronicles over the proper degree of autonomy versus governmental oversight were beside the point. Third World scientists could not do without government support if they were to resist the “brain drain” luring them to employment in wealthy countries. As historian Perrin Selcer has written of the decolonization era, “Anxiety regarding the overinstitutionalization of science was a First World problem.”

Postcolonial intellectuals gave new meaning to the idea of international cooperation. As political scientist Adom Getachew argues, their goal was not to be included in the existing international order but to reinvent international relations, eliminating informal as well as formal modes of domination. In this spirit, participants at the 1979 symposia on science for development went beyond a litany of critiques to propose a positive vision of international science grounded in economic redistribution, South-South cooperation, and respect for traditional ways of knowing.

This program stood little chance of success in 1979, with the dawn of the Reagan-Thatcher era and the rift between OPEC and the developing world. Yet it finds echo today—for instance, in the recent efforts of the WMO to establish scientific capacity and data equity in the regions of the world most threatened by climate change.

Rivals is concerned instead with assessing the strengths and weaknesses of today’s dominant modes of international science on their own terms. Daston is sympathetic to the challenges these projects face, and her judicious analysis will be instructive to scientists and policymakers alike. Still waiting to be written is a history of alternative visions of the large-scale organization of knowledge-making and the distribution of its benefits.*


Deborah R. Coen is a professor of history at Yale University who is interested in the science and politics of climate change. Her latest book is Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (2018).


* Two excellent starting points are Daniel S. Chard, “Science for the People and the World,” in Science for the People: Documents from America’s Movement of Radical Scientists (2018), and Simone Turchetti, “Decolonize the IGY” (2023).

LARB Contributor

Deborah R. Coen is a professor of history at Yale University. Her research centers on the relationship between science and democracy, including the politics of climate change. Currently, she is studying the historical roots of operative concepts like “usable” knowledge and “vulnerable” populations. She also writes and teaches about feminism, disasters, and all things Viennese. Her latest book is Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (2018).


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