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Science in Times of Crisis Episode 1 – What can we learn from history?

ISC Presents: Science in Times of Crisis released its first episode Science, Geopolitics and Crisis: What can we learn from history? with expert guests Dr Egle Rindzeviciute and Dr Saths Cooper.

ISC Presents: Science in Times of Crisis is a 5 part podcast series exploring what living in a world of crisis and geopolitical instability means for science and scientists around the world.

In this episode we were joined by Dr Egle Rindzeviciute, Associate Professor of Criminology and Sociology at Kingston University and Dr Saths Cooper, President of the Pan-African Psychology Union. Delving into contemporary history, we explore two examples of science in times of crisis, the Cold War decades between 1950 and 1990, and the Apartheid era in South Africa.

As crises including human-induced climate change, rising levels of social inequality and new geo-political conflicts continue to unfold across the globe, are there lessons we can learn from history for scientific collaboration today?


Holly Sommers: We exist at a time in which war, civil strife, disasters and climate change impact almost every corner of the globe. And crisis is, in many ways, an inevitability. Paired with this are the sensitive geopolitics that shape the way in which policymakers and governments prepare for and react to those crises.

I’m Holly Sommers, and in this five part podcast series from the International Science Council, we will explore the implications for science and scientists of a world characterized by crises and geopolitical instability. 

For our first episode, and the introduction to our series, we’ll delve into contemporary history to explore two examples of science in times of crisis. We’ll be looking at two differing crises, the Apartheid era in South Africa and the Cold War decades between 1950 and 1990. We’ll be assessing how each crisis impacted the scientific community, as well as the role of science and scientific organizations during the crisis itself. 

As crises including human induced climate change, rising levels of social inequality, and new geopolitical conflicts continue to unfold across the globe, are there lessons for scientific collaboration we can learn from history?

As our first guest today, I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Egle Rindzeviciute. Egle is an associate professor of criminology and sociology at Kingston University and holds a PhD in cultural studies from Linköping University in Sweden. She has a particular interest in the relationship between governance and scientific knowledge, including East-West cooperation during the Cold War. In 2016, Egle released ‘The Power of Systems: How Policy Sciences opened up the Cold War world’.

Thank you so much for joining us today. Could I ask you first about your interest in East West cooperation during the Cold War? What was that borne from? And what is it about that period of time that interests you?

Egle Rindzeviciute: That’s such a good question really and thank you for asking it. I was really wondering where does this interest come from? And I thought that it must be connected to my childhood, I was born in 1978, so that meant that I saw the Iron Curtain collapsing, I saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening up of the country, of course, from the perspective of a very young person back then. But that meant also that I experienced what it meant to live behind the Iron Curtain. I just got really very much interested in both personal but also institutional capacities of scholars and institutions in the Soviet Union, to challenge what was a very limited, very rigidly controlled system. Because there was some movement across the Iron Curtain, and I thought that there was just not enough understanding, not enough knowledge, of how it was really organized. I also thought that the 1970s and 80s, especially in the context of the Soviet Union, were two neglected decades, and I didn’t like it, I was born in the 70’s, I wanted to know more about the 70’s. It felt wrong to me, I thought but how come that this very stagnated and repressed system fell apart and in a relatively peaceful way in the late 80’s and early 90’s. So that was another reason that drove me to look into particularly, in that particular period.

Holly Sommers: And Egle, you’ve done a lot of research and work on the creation of institutions, as you mentioned before, the institutions which bridged the East-West divide during the Cold War, especially on the formation of IIASA, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Could you tell us a bit more about IIASA and specifically the motivation behind its creation?

Egle Rindzeviciute: I was extremely excited when I stumbled into this very interesting institution that perhaps not very many people have heard about, the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, also known as IIASA. IIASA is based in Luxembourg, and it was established in 1972 by a cluster of state socialist and liberal democratic countries. So the leading initiator was the United States and obviously the second largest partner was the Soviet Union, but this institution was conceived as multilateral. The IIASA was special because it focused on policy science, on the science and art of governance, and that’s something that really intrigued me as a sociologist of knowledge and as a historian. So how come both communist and capitalist regimes could be planned, could be governed, could be managed, according to the same principles, somehow, it felt like something was really, really interesting there. So the institute was initiated by the US, it was part of a very large foreign policy orientation initiated by Lyndon B. Johnson, who was looking at bridge building with both East and West Europe to increase US presence, peaceful US presence on the continent. And so he reached out to some of the leading scientists, in what was at that time one of the most fashionable and new research fields, which was decision science, management sciences, something which was called systems analysis at that time. So there was a lot of hope that there will be this targeted scientific expertise that will help diffuse or solve social, economic, and environmental issues. And it was thought that maybe this could form a non-political agenda. It was also interesting that these administrative governmental approaches were considered as being non political. What’s quite amazing is that the Soviet leaders and Soviet scientists embraced this proposal, with open hands. And one of the reasons why they did that was that they also were facing those very complex problems that required very advanced scientific expertise. But also the Soviet side’s hope was to have a more direct access to Western technology, especially computer technology, because that’s what was used to create new forms of scientific expertise. So that was, one can say, maybe not an explicit aim, but you find it in the archives, they hoped to use IIASA for technology transfer, which was limited because of the Cold War. But finally, it was also the motivation of international prestige. So the Soviet Union wanted to appear as a leading scientific power and it felt that this was the right institutional platform to make that sort of presence.

Holly Sommers: And I wondered, could you tell us a bit about the role that science had in perhaps influencing Cold War strategy? I’m thinking especially of the role of scientists in convincing policymakers of the theory of a nuclear winter, and the critical scientific evidence used in dissuading both the US and the Soviet Union from using nuclear weapons, and in the process of disarmament more broadly.

Egle Rindzeviciute: Yes, absolutely. So you mentioned the nuclear winter study, and it’s really such an important moment in both the history of nuclear weapons and in the history of climate science and the understanding of global climate change, because the two really came together through this piece of research. So the very idea that a nuclear war could have global environmental impacts was developed by two very prominent climate scientists, atmospheric physicist Paul Crutzen, who perhaps many would know as the father of the concept of Anthropocene, and John Birks, who were approached by the Swedish journal Ambio in 1982. And Crutzen and Birks were asked would it be possible to simulate with computers, with global circulation climate models, what would be the environmental impact if there were to be a global all out nuclear war? And so they did, and they found that there could be a possible strong impact of global cooling, because so many powerful nuclear explosions, which have lots of particles up into the stratosphere, creating a cloud, leading to temperatures dropping 20, or even more degrees, so basically, almost the whole northern hemisphere would become uninhabitable. So 1982, 1983 and 1984 were the key years when the Soviet and Western scholars collaborated; they ran independent modeling exercises of those environmental impacts, and they all found different degrees but quite noticeable and quite significant, of atmospheric cooling that would change the whole global climate, so the oceans would cool, whole ecological systems would collapse and even a small and limited nuclear war was shown to have irreversible and extremely damaging environmental effects. And it just coincided that the main results of a study came out in 1985, and the leader of a Soviet group, Nikita Moiseyev was actually appointed as one of the advisors to Mikhael Gorbachev who started not only the reforms of the Soviet economy, but he also initiated nuclear disarmament. And in his memoirs, Gorbachev is attributing his policy towards disarmament to the nuclear winter study, that it inspired him to do so.

Holly Sommers: Another example of scientific research bridging the East-West divide during the Cold War was the International Geophysical Year in 1957, organized by the International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Science Council’s predecessor organization. The Geophysical Year was a vast multinational effort that led to many discoveries, such as the mid-oceanic ridges, which confirmed the theory of continental drift. And a renewed focus on scientific cooperation in the Antarctic during the Geophysical Year also led to the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, to which all major countries are now signatories, and which restricts activities in the Antarctic to peaceful purposes. Egle, do you think that these continued, these sustained efforts, of science and scientists to continue collaborating internationally regardless of the political context, do you think that was instrumental in helping to bring the end of the Cold War? 

Egle Rindzeviciute: I think, yes, absolutely, indeed, and I would say that they were instrumental in ending the Cold War in a peaceful manner, which is really, really important. And I think that’s another thing why science diplomacy is so important, because it’s not just about the overall outcome, it’s also about the process and the way in which that outcome is achieved and its consequences, and that cannot be underestimated. So one of the reasons why those very large scientific collaboration schemes were key for that was precisely because they were enhancing mutual understanding. So what’s really striking, when you look at those scientific collaboration schemes during the Cold War is just how determined the scientists from all sides were to maintain peace, and to somehow secure the future to prevent world war three, that genuinely felt objective for all of them. When thinking about the Soviet Bloc countries, of course also experiencing the ways in which democracy works and in which science itself, as a professional institution functions in the West, was also very important. So of course, it added additional motivation for those actors to push for reform at home. And that was a really really important kind of experience, to encounter and get different models. But obviously, this extremely repressed, ideologically distorted way of running scientific research in the Soviet bloc was a failure and it was felt as such by the scientists. I think that experiencing also a lack of animosity and kind of projecting both societies into the future, in an aligned way, is also something that feeds into that peaceful process. So when things eventually get transformed, reformed, or fall apart, like in the Soviet Union, all of that social kind of infrastructure, one can say, of expectations, of future versions, I think that’s something that reduces the possibility of conflict

Holly Sommers: Egle, the world is living with COVID, with international conflict and climate change, and the potential for deep and lasting geostrategic divisions has a significant impact not only on geostrategic matters, but on the critical agendas of the global commons, including sustainability. What do you think are the main lessons from the international scientific collaboration during the Cold War, which can maybe be applied to today’s geopolitical crises and tensions?

Egle Rindzeviciute: The main lesson probably would be that such international collaboration has to be properly funded. It’s very expensive to get the right people to commit to international collaborative schemes for a long period of time and a long period of time is necessary to develop both personal connections, but also the quality of data that is to be gathered. Another lesson, perhaps with which IIASA struggled with really throughout those two decades was selecting the right individuals to engage in the collaboration. As everyone knows, there are scientists dedicated to research and advancement of knowledge, but then there are kind of career scientific diplomats one can say, and there are people who are convenient and who are kind of inserted in such programs by this ‘diplomacy track one’ world and they are all important, but when you are talking about a generation of genuinely new knowledge, and advancing that, working against further fragmentation, it is really important to engage with those kinds of scientists who are really best positioned, who are talented, and also those who are dedicated to work for public good. And partially why IIASA succeeded in so many respects was that they were able to get precisely those scientists, and archival documents actually really show how much effort was put into securing that. So that the collaboration is not just a window dressing, but there is something substantive to it. And also the internationalism of those schemes, so that they are multilateral, and that they engage scholars from all different contexts is also really important because this internationalist component is something that keeps truthfulness of knowledge in check. Having genuinely international teams also helps to reduce bias. And it can help to reduce accusation, unfounded accusations that certain data can be biased when politicians from some countries might find it inconvenient.

Holly Sommers: You mentioned it briefly earlier, but just to return, the Cold War was such a key period of history in the use of soft power projection, science diplomacy and international science cooperation. Would you say that in many ways the Cold War period was the birth of science diplomacy? And if so, what were the reasons for that?

Egle Rindzeviciute: Well science was always entangled with politics, what’s new with the Cold War, rather I would even use the ‘post war period’, is this understanding that you can’t make policy decisions without scientific expertise. I think that’s something that really propelled science into a more substantive position vis a vis diplomacy. So if, before that, science was more like the user of diplomacy, so to speak, or made, like a tool of it, although when one looks at the history of nation building, of course, it’s much more complicated than that, and loss of scientific expertise was used to argue the establishment of new nation states. But after World War Two, it became just very, very complex, and because diplomacy was about energy, was about the environment, population growth, and scientists, of course, were made part of the diplomacy process.

Holly Sommers: After hearing just how instrumental science diplomacy was during the Cold War period, we turn now to another example from contemporary history, and explore the role of science and scientific organizations during Apartheid. 

Our second guest today is Dr. Saths Cooper, Saths is president of the Pan-African Psychology Union and a close associate of the late Steve Biko. Saths played leadership roles in the anti-Apartheid struggle in the late 1960s, as well as the advent of democracy in South Africa from the early 1990s. Banned, house-arrested and jailed for nine years, spending five years in the same Robben Island cell block as Nelson Mandela, he was declared a victim of gross human rights violations by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is a graduate of the universities of South Africa, Witwatersrand and Boston, where he obtained his PhD in clinical and community psychology as a Fulbright fellow. Saths was a member of the ISC’s governing board and CFRS, the Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science. 

Holly Sommers: Apartheid, which means ‘apartness’ in the Afrikaans language was a legislative system that represented an epoch of sustained oppressive and segregationist policies against Black South Africans, ensuring a very different lived experience for its citizens. Dr. Cooper, can you tell us what life was like during this era?

Saths Cooper: Well it was quite different to what it is now, there was complete segregation, according to how you were classified. And that applied from residential, where you lived, where you schooled, what recreation, sports activities you could be part of, even the shopping you did, had to be, in particular places, if you went into the city, sometimes certain places were off limits to you. In most rural or smaller towns, there would be a side entrance from which you entered or exited. And if it was a restaurant, or a place that you bought food from, they would serve you from a little hatch. So it was complete racial isolation, and one went to school, in a place reserved for whatever race group you were classified in.

Holly Sommers: When we speak of crisis, we tend to focus on situations in cases where crisis strikes quite unexpectedly or suddenly. However, Apartheid was a long-term crisis during which many suffered under an ongoing system of repression. I wonder what was the impact of the racist, the authoritarian regime on an individual scientists such as yourself? Did it perhaps motivate your field of work or inspire it at all?

Saths Cooper: Well, for me, it was a little different as well, because I went into University College reserved for my race group. And I was expelled in my second year from that university but I’d already started doing psychology, I’d never intended to go into psychology. When I got expelled I started doing law, and then long story short I was charged and arrested with Steve Biko, the current president Cyril Ramaphosa, and a whole range of people, and eventually charged and I was the first accused in this case. And after that, I decided I’m not going to do law, so I stopped doing law. But interestingly when I was sentenced to Robben Island, I and my fellow accused were denied studies. So even Mandela was studying and our group, because we’re all university students, were denied study, this group was denied study privileges. And I decided I’m going to continue with psychology in the last two years, I was able to finish my first degree with three majors, psychology, philosophy and English. And I realized that I needed to have a career. So that career was psychology and probably my experiences made me choose that career. However, psychology was restricted, it was restricted to Whites. If you were Black, you were allowed in but under certain conditions. I pursued psychology when I came out of Robben Island, did a postgraduate degree at Fitz University, and even there to be chosen into the clinical training program was an exception. I ended up finishing a PhD in psychology, and then went back home, taught psychology, but again, under restricted conditions, because Apartheid was at its height, even though it was 1990, the changes were beginning to happen, Nelson Mandela was released, and the trajectory of a democratic South Africa began. But many of our professions were still under that limitation if you like. So practising or teaching psychology, or researching has huge impacts on how one does it because the system did not permit it, even if you engaged with subjects who were not White, it was a problem, but if it was White, it was more of a problem. So those kinds of things which I think for most people, anywhere in the world will look quite bizarre, were formative for me and despite that I persisted in psychology and went on, ending up where I did end up becoming president of the International Union for Psychological Science, and so on.

Holly Sommers: Could you tell us about how Apartheid actually impacted upon the scientific community and the research that was happening in South Africa?

Saths Cooper: Look, a lot of the research was racially based to underpin the Apartheid system. So you see that now in closed systems, or systems that pretend to be open. But ultimately, it is the government, it is the military, it is the people who protect, or pretend to protect the sovereignty and security of that country, shaping how we research things. So, many scientists, particularly in so-called democratic Northern countries, don’t appreciate that the research you choose to do often ends up being part of a government agenda; sometimes good, sometimes benign, but sometimes malevolent, and science can be used for good, but there’s also science used for bad, that which destroys people, the chemical weapons, the kinds of destruction created in times of conflict, the kinds of surveillance systems used to ensure that certain groups of people are trapped, all of that are products of science and innovation, if you like, technology, but they can play malevolent roles, and ours is to ensure that that doesn’t happen. And coming from a system where I’ve been acutely aware of those kinds of restrictions, you still get, even in democracy here and elsewhere, the issue that people are not equal, that people are somehow superior, or inferior, and that we cannot contribute in the same way to the same problem solving. It so happens that our biology is accidental, and where we live is accidental, because being a scientist, being an intellectual, can be very dangerous in many contexts. And even in the context that is happening now in Central Europe, with the war in Ukraine, it can be dangerous to express a view that goes against the current narratives.

Holly Sommers: And I just wanted to move slightly on to the academic boycott during Apartheid, which was a significant element of the international anti-Apartheid struggle. I wonder, to what extent do you believe that the academic boycott was an effective political strategy to bring about the end of Apartheid?

Saths Cooper: Well, look, sanctions as a whole tended to work in South Africa’s case, because in the late 1980s, de Klerk when he was president realized that he had ascended to a state that was bankrupt, literally and figuratively, and that the whole world regarded Apartheid as that crime against humanity that the United Nations General Assembly found. I was fully for the sanctions and for boycotts; looking back on it, you know, and I’m not a religious person, but it says in the Bible, when I was a child I spake as a child, I’ve got to look back and think, yes, it did work up to a point, but is it the most effective tool to use? And I can say, without a doubt, now, that the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to boycott a group of scientists, or a particular territory or jurisdiction, because of what their political leadership does, not because of what those scientists are doing, is principally wrong. So to boycott, let me use a very real example, so to boycott Russian scientists, because of what the Kremlin does, is wrong. One needs to keep doors open, to engage with those scientists, to show them that the rest of the world is still engaging with them, because you don’t want people to feel isolated, to feel that they are being looked at as a group or as an individual even and being excluded. And we know there are many scientists who don’t support that regime in what it does, but equally in any other context we should keep the doors open for communication. If we don’t communicate with even the people we disagree with, then what hope is there for us?

Holly Sommers: I wonder if you could maybe just elaborate on how the South African scientific community worked to re-establish international scientific cooperation post-Apartheid and post-boycott?

Saths Cooper: Well, it happened because those of us who were part of being excluded played that role, not those who benefited, not those whom ICSU and other bodies tended to engage with, it was the rest of us who were on the other side; and we opened the doors, we did not carry any vengefulness, any hurt that, you know, so and so was working on the other side, we actually moved beyond that, we actually tended to ignore them, because they needed to be part of what we were doing, we were agenda-setting. So there’s no area right now, in the country’s intellectual growth, from scientific through to other areas, whether it’s legal, whether it’s diplomacy, that we don’t have an opening created that everyone is taking full advantage of. And indeed, former oppressors, people on the other side, have benefited from that, I don’t think we hold any grudges about that, it is as it should be. However, I think some of them have not been big enough to acknowledge some of the changes that we created for them. And thankfully, the younger generation, our students, the emerging scientists, don’t have to deal with that, because they are looked at as citizens, equal, with full humanity and dignity, and they can play in any space, the world, literally is their oyster.

Holly Sommers: And just for our final question, I wondered, what key lessons can we learn, do you think, from the situation of science under Apartheid, and its consequent transformation, for science in crisis today?

Saths Cooper: We live in a fast moving and fast changing society. So what we have been used to, may not constantly be there. And how we treat the worst off amongst us, underpins our own claim to being fully human, to being affirmative in what we do. Because there but for the grace of that particular government go I, governments can change. We should be thinking about how do we treat others if they were to face these kinds of issues, because it just takes a nanosecond for things to change, and our own situation becomes precarious, as it will.

Holly Sommers: At the end of our conversations, we asked both our guests to share a parting thought of what inspires them as they look to the future.

Egle Rindzeviciute: So I think this is where scientific diplomacy is also so important because it’s deeply human, it’s not just about science, it’s about scientists. And of course, scientists are quite privileged, enjoy a very privileged position in society, they are educated, they are quite used to traveling, their skills and knowledge are quite transferable, but they are still people, and they get traumatized by the whole situation. So supporting scientists from Ukraine, but also supporting those scientists who speak out against Russia, and who fled Russia, who voted with their feet, and those who stayed but work to do something against the aggressive Kremlin regime, I think supporting those individuals is probably the best short term strategy for science diplomacy, and there is a lot of art going on right now, which is really inspiring.

Saths Cooper: Restrictions on human beings are some things that shouldn’t be happening. There shouldn’t be a let, on what one chooses to do with one’s career, and there shouldn’t be restrictions by governments. And that’s why I think the ISC, CFRS and other important standing committees are trying to equalize that abnormality where it exists right now in conditions of war, in conditions of sanctions, in conditions of totalitarian and other regimes. So all of those kinds of issues, I think should not be there. Because all of us are human beings and we should be treated equally, we should treat others equally as we expect ourselves to be treated.

Holly Sommers: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Science in Times of Crisis. In the next episode of our series, we’ll turn to present day crises and explore how national interests can impact on the capabilities of collaborative science, the scientific community and society. We’ll be discussing the COVID-19 and AIDS pandemics with world leading epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim, and Brazil’s tumultuous science-policy relationship with Professor Mercedes Bustamante of Brasilia University, who has contributed to vital multilateral conversations and committees on ecosystems, land use and climate change.

The opinions, conclusions and recommendations in this podcast are those of the guests themselves and not necessarily those of the International Science Council.

Find out more about the ISC’s work on freedom and responsibility in science

Freedoms and Responsibilities in Science

The right to share in and to benefit from advances in science and technology is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as is the right to engage in scientific enquiry, to pursue and communicate knowledge, and to associate freely in such activities.

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