International scientific conferences are public spaces par excellence. The gathering of scholars from various origins, united by common concerns in the pursuit of knowledge, has often been described as an exemplary form of transnational integration. Originally a European phenomenon, and following the Enlightenment ideal of a cosmopolitan Republic of Letters, thousands of science conferences have been organised since the nineteenth century, and still today many science policy actors (including ERA) promote scholarly meetings as prime sites of international community formation. With their idealised openness, conferences seem to fit all the criteria of what Jürgen Habermas has called the “public sphere”. Yet they are equally susceptible to critiques of that notion, that their alleged public character harbours hierarchy, exclusion, paternalism, and nationalism. This contested nature makes conferences perfect foci for studying ideals and practices of public spaces.
International conferences are now standard features of scientific life. Their total number since 1851 is estimated at 170 000 according to the UIA International Congress Calendar 2017. Yet for all their prominence, the history of scientific conferences and their role in the development of scientific culture has not been researched in any depth. This is unfortunate, not just for understanding scientific practice, but also for grasping the extent to which expert networks have contributed to the “hidden integration of Europe” or how the twentieth century nationalisation of science has affected global cooperation. Historians are increasingly aware of the links between the exchange of knowledge and the shaping of international relations – and conferences are key to this interplay.
As public spaces, conferences are peculiar and paradoxical phenomena. They are open yet selective, localised yet claiming to transcend place, routed in specialist expertise yet aspiring to make wide public impacts. Moreover, conferences combine material with symbolic dimensions. They are both physical manifestations of expert communities and steeped in rituals that celebrate and define that community, such as openings, closings, dinner speeches, excursions. These cultural practices are vital to their functioning.
This project will explore the evolution of scientific and medical conferences as public spaces where knowledge is defined and exchanged, communities are shaped, and international relations are performed. The project has three ultimate goals:
- To increase our understanding of international scientific culture – i.e. the crucial ways in which conferences served to articulate common concerns, aspirations of integration, and the formation and maintenance of expert communities.
- To deepen our insight into international relations – i.e. the formal and informal ways in which conferences reflected and shaped geopolitics, both between experts and for global policy makers.
- To encourage a range of organisations today to actively reflect on their use of the conference format, and to help them to understand and address their opportunities, consequences and shortcomings.