Science diplomacy is part of the basic blocking and tackling of American foreign policy. The State Department’s Office of Science and Technology Cooperation, for example, manages a US Science Envoy Program and an Embassy Science Fellows Program in an effort to “build relationships and partnerships that advance American foreign policy and scientific priorities”. Yet it is rare to hear any real debate about the role of science in America’s work abroad, or about how science came to be incorporated into the core functions of American foreign policy. Enter Audra Wolfe, a historian whose recent book, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science covers the rise and consequences of science diplomacy as a tool of the American state and the rationalizations scientists made along the way. I spoke with Dr. Wolfe over e-mail about how the Cold War shaped American science in the 20th century and how effects are still felt today.
Sam Ratner: Your work centers around the idea of “scientific exceptionalism”, which isn’t a concept that we hear a lot in foreign policy discourse. What exactly is scientific exceptionalism, and why does in matter to broader questions of diplomacy?
Audra Wolfe: Scientific exceptionalism is the claim that science — and scientists — somehow exist beyond the reach of politics, and especially international politics. It’s a claim that obviously isn’t true, and yet it is also a core belief among many American scientists. I wanted to figure out why that is, so I dug into the history of American science. What I found kept bringing me back to Cold War propaganda.