The Legacy of the International Polar Years and the International Geophysical Year


I have been participating in a workshop organized by the National Academies with the subject, “Legacies and Lessons of International Polar Year 2007-2008.” In preparation for that workshop each participant was asked to write up some comment on the legacy of the International Polar Year. Here is what I contributed to the briefing book. I would welcome your comments on this. Am I way off base?

Introduction: Since I am an historian rather than a scientist, let me focus my attention on the historical record and the larger significance of the International Polar Year. I believe there are three overarching issues that were brought to the fore because of the multiple IPYs, as well as the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, These relate to diplomacy and international relations, global scientific discovery, and the creation of broad interdisciplinary analysis and dissemination. Each of these issues may be seen in other settings and times, but they truly emerged as the normative manner in which scientific knowledge has been created and disseminated through the IPYs and IGY. I will elaborate on these in the paragraphs that follow.

Diplomacy and International Relations: Through the global reach, and especially the global quest for knowledge, of the scientific community all three IPYs and the IGY have led to the creation of a internationalization of space at the poles as the best option for all interests. The rhetoric of scientific internationalism has served well as a principal tool for achieving goals of all types. Science in general, and the goodwill generated by the IPYs and IGY in particular, offered a nonthreatening way to bring territorial rivals together to discuss political questions. Because of these issues, and this is especially present in Antarctica over the last fifty-plus years, the undeniable conclusion is that all parties have enjoyed an uneasy relationship in which they have recognized that they were better off cooperating rather than competing and in which they constantly jockeyed, even while cooperating, for a superior position vis-à-vis the other nations in partnership. Certainly, that has been the case among senior officials of the United States; many over the years viewing the nation’s efforts in the IPYs and IGY at a fundamental level as a program aimed at least in part at ensuring the United States’ foreign policy objectives. If securing those objectives involved cooperative relations such was most assuredly acceptable and supportable as a national objective. In this context, scientists around the world have enjoyed a stable environment in which to conduct their research.

The traditional narrative of the internationalization of the poles suggests that the three IPYs and the IGY functioned as a deus ex machina coming out of nowhere to resolve the vexing political problems through a wave a scientific idealism. In this interpretation, the cooperation and goodwill generated by through these international scientific efforts acted as a force “above politics,” with the ability to overcome the petty squabbling that plagued these regions. IPY/IGY science fundamentally changed perceptions of the region. Having decided that internationalization was the way to go, various nations exploited scientific goodwill as a means to bring this about. We have all been richer for this transformation. In the IPY just concluded the internationalization of the effort, and the cooperative nature of the enterprise was unquestioned. While issues had to be negotiated and made clear in various agreements, the basic underlying principals of scientific internationalism and scientific diplomacy provided a firm foundation upon which to erect the IPY scientific program.

Global Scientific Discovery: Even though the three IPYs and the IGY arose from varied motivations and interests, many of them far removed from the pursuit of basic science, they proved true successes in advancing scientific understanding about Earth. These activities radically altered our understanding of the Earth, advancing knowledge and shaping interdisciplinary understanding, both by scientists themselves and the broader public. The emergence of a global sense of geoscience embedded as it is in transnational scientific organizations and competing national interests represented a fundamental shift in understanding. A. Hunter Dupree may have been the first historian of science to recognize and articulate the inherent interest that governments of all forms have in campaigns of exploration, and his observations have been extended and refined by others who demonstrated that whether or not governments paid the bills, still they benefited from the activity and facilitated research through such contributions as infrastructure and security. This picture was greatly enhanced through the the IPYs and the IGY, with their stimulation of professionalization of the various disciplines and the emergence of an interdisciplinary sense of identity within the geosciences, and how they elucidated knowledge of Earth’s processes.

Since the first IPY in 1882–1883, collaborative scientific activities may appropriately be viewed as part of an ongoing effort by scientists to understand this planet. The application of the latest technologies and methodologies to measure and monitor remote and extreme environments, to incorporate that knowledge into a broader capability to share, archive, and compare data, and to synthesize and disseminate the knowledge gained represent a fundamental result of the IPYs and the IGY. The interrelations of science, technology, politics, economics, and culture in the IPYs and the IGY serve as a uniquely valuable location for exploring the implications of international science, the intellectual and technological claims and aspirations of global geoscience, and the crucially important but often marginalized roll of the ethno-sciences. The result is an opportunity to explore commonalities and tensions among diverse scholars and disciplines and the interplay of individual and institutional, national and international, and scientific and technological issues.

Scientific Knowledge Creation and Dissemination: Among the most significant results of the IPYs and the IGY was the creation and long-term use of the standardized means of measurement and recording of scientific data. This was first attempted in the IPY of 1882-1883 on a limited scale as each post in the Arctic, regardless of the national sponsoring it, took readings and recorded data in an identical manner using the same types of instruments. This approach has been expanded over time to create much more broad data sets than ever before. This effort has been remarkable, and unique in world history.
Likewise, the compilation of scientific results from these endeavors has been critical to the development of a global scientific effort. The publications subsequent to the completion of the various expeditions of the cooperating nations and the data gathered by the IPY research stations marked a signal change in the manner in which science was presented and made available. Prior to these international scientific endeavors, publication was rarely built into the budget of scientific efforts. Too often, publication was delayed because of this failure. Moreover, the maintenance of the data in readily accessible sets for other’s use was problematic before these international scientific efforts. All of this reminds us that broad dissemination of results was often a neglected aspect of scientific research before the IPYs and the IGY. It is a consequence of significance to ponder in considering the current IPY effort and its aftermath.

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One Response to The Legacy of the International Polar Years and the International Geophysical Year

  1. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders #36: The ABCs of the History of Science « The Dispersal of Darwin

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