Geert Somsen wins HERA grant for collaborative research project

The European Research Area in the Humanities has awarded 1 million Euros to the research project ‘The Scientific Conference: A Social, Cultural, and Political History’. The project has the UM collaborate with Birkbeck University London, Uppsala Universitet, and the Centre Alexandre Koyré (CNRS) in Paris. FASoS will receive a PhD position and research time for Geert Somsen. Thomas Mougey is the named candidate for a three year postdoc in Paris.

The project was awarded for HERA’s theme ‘Public Spaces: Culture and Integration in Europe’. It will examine international conferences in science and medicine as (quasi-)public spaces throughout the twentieth century. Even though conferences are standard features of scientific life today, little is known about their history and precise functions – FASoS is one of the few places where these topics have been studied. The HERA project aims to build on this work by putting the spotlight fully on the scientific conference as a phenomenon. Sub-projects will consider the dimensions of conference locale (focusing on scientific meetings in the wings of the Paris Universal Exhibitions), conference culture (the rituals of toasts, keynotes, excursions, and lady programs), geopolitics (in medical conferences under UN auspices), and openness vs. exclusivity (in the famous Nobel Symposia). The project involves many meetings itself, and is planned to produce articles, books, an edited volume, and a co-authored monograph by the four Principal Investigators. Geert Somsen instigated the proposal, but the Project Leader is prof. dr. Sven Widmalm of Uppsala Universitet.

The project also involves five Associate Partners, who have expressed great enthusiasm for its topic. These are: the Lorentz Centre in Leiden (which is itself dedicated to organising various forms of scientific meetings), the Science Museum London (home to notorious historic conferences), the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (ibid.), the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm (site of the Nobel Symposia), and the Science History Institute in Philadelphia (holder of large conference archive collections).

The project also reflects on current conference practices, which are very much in flux. Aims are to produce a policy paper, op-eds in scientific journals, a walking-tour past historic conference sites, and one or more public symposia (Conferences on Conferences). The artist Mariana Deball will act as a participant-observer and aims to create sets of “conference materials” of non-existing – yet deceptively verisimilar – scientific meetings.

The team is very happy to have come through the tight selection process. It started its much hoped-for collaboration with a “skype toast” on Friday afternoon.

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