Blog posts

Report – Science at the Crossroads

December 9, 2022

[Editor’s note: this blog post is by Candida F. Sánchez Burmester, who was an intern with the Managing Scarcity project while completing her master’s degree, and who is continuing to collaborate on some projects with Odinn Melsted. In the meantime, she now has a PhD position with the NanoBubbles project. Here is another summary of the same workshop by Federico Boem (a postdoc in the NanoBubbles project).]

The conference Science at the Crossroads: Intersections between academic research and journalism on energy, environment, and correcting the scientific record took place on November 2-4, 2022, at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris. It was co-organized by prof. dr. Cyrus Mody and Dr. Brigitte Van Tiggelen, Director for International Affairs at the Science History Institute and Head of the Institute’s European Office (hence the hosting at Maison de la Chimie). In addition to support from the Science History Institute the event was sponsored by the NWO Vici project ‘Managing Scarcity and Sustainability: The Oil Industry, Environmentalism, and Alternative Energy in the Age of Scarcity’ and the ERC synergy project ‘NanoBubbles: how, when and why does science fail to correct itself?’.

The aim of the three-day long conference was to foster exchange between academics and journalists who are working on similar issues. The conference program was divided into three overarching topics. On the first day the sessions focused on ‘Histories of Oil, Energy and Environment’ and were mostly relating to the Managing Scarcity project. On the third day the discussions were centred around ‘Reporting and Correcting Flaws in Science’, which mainly related to the NanoBubbles project. The sessions on the second day addressed overlaps between these two domains and projects, focusing on ‘Debate, Denialism and the Media’.

One theme that came up in several discussions throughout the three days was methods, both in conducting and communicating research. In some cases academics and journalists agreed on a method and exchanged experiences, in other cases differences were noticed and discussed. Many historians of science and investigative journalists shared a common interest in archives of individuals or companies related to the fossil fuel industry. The sources in these archives allowed both academics and journalists to analyse what kind of knowledge existed in the oil industry at a certain point in time and what kind of decisions were made based on this knowledge. Yet, the methods differed when it came to contacting individuals in person. Journalists seemed to be inclined to try various ways and loopholes to get in touch with people, while academics seemed to be mostly bound to more formal procedures.

In terms of communication, most speakers agreed that the craft of story telling is key to sharing results and bringing a message across. It was interesting to observe that the speakers themselves employed this method in their talks, yet, in different ways. Some speakers draw on past events and social groups to create a story line, while others used future scenarios as their starting point. While some speakers were clearly outlining their stories from the beginning of their talk, others were gradually developing a story. In some talks the story was not only a tool of communicated but also the object of analysis, for example, when studying apocalyptic narratives related to climate change. The boundaries between framework, tools and object of analysis got even more blurred when one speaker explained that they are seeing history less as a discipline and more as a tool that enables them to write stories about climate change that people care about.

The discussions also focused on how every story foregrounds some actors, events and topics and excludes others. Based on this view, many speakers criticized grant narratives for silencing various specific perspectives and voices. Throughout the three days, suggestions were made of how to avoid grand narratives by consciously trying to change perspectives and paying attention to the specific and the overlooked. Some speakers illustrated this attention to the specific and neglected in their work, for example, by writing stories from the perspective of an isotope or pesticides; by engaging with material created by an ignored activist group in the 1970s that challenged academic power structures; by analysing the work and reasoning of climate denialists and conspiracy thinkers, or as one speaker suggested by avoiding the generic ‘we’ altogether and making one’s own standpoint as explicit as possible.

Another overarching theme running through the discussions was hyped research results. Journalists and academics alike analysed common strategies of dominant actors to actively puff up certain results, while creating ignorance toward work that questioned these results. For example, some speakers gave insights into the strategy adopted by prominent figures in big oil companies to counter the idea of anthropogenic climate change. These companies often funded well-known scientists, asked them to publicly speak out against anthropogenic climate change and used the scientists’ claims to create a campaign against governmental regulations that would enforce environmental policies.

It is interesting that this strategy seemed to be common, not only in the oil or tobacco business but also in other industries. Based on some discussions that continued after the conference, I started wondering whether similar strategies might have been employed by dominant actors in other domains, such as nanobiology. Could the strategies used by oil actors be a helpful tool to understand how certain groups, topics and biomedical products in nanobiology were hyped, while existing counter-evidence was ignored? Was this ignorance also created, and if yes, what were the underlying mechanisms for creating this ignorance? As these questions might illustrate, the discussions at this conference helped me to think of connections, not only between journalistic and academic research but also between fields that are normally not compared but can have valuable insights for each other. Besides analysing the strategies of creating hype and ignorance, it was also discussed how hype could be countered. One speaker suggested that the antidote to hype is plurality. One dominant and exaggerated view can often only exist by neglecting or silencing many small and diverse views. This argument relates back to the call to take different perspectives, hear different voices, and consider different – sometimes contradictory – results. This conference was exactly that: it was an invitation to leave one’s comfort zone, as some speakers mentioned explicitly, and consider other viewpoints and methods to tackle similar issues from different perspectives. It was an invitation to consciously move to the crossroads and explore possibilities that open up through connection points.

– Candida F. Sánchez Burmester

Archival research in United States – Michiel

October 26, 2022

In 1927, Paul Darwin Foote embarked on a new journey in his career. Before he had been working at the U.S. Bureau of Standards after getting a degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Physics at the University of Minnesota where he had taught classes on radiation theory for fellow younger staff members like John Torrance Tate and Arthur Compton. At the Bureau of Standards, Foote became famous because of his studies into the excitation and ionization potentials of simple molecules and the photo-ionization of alkali vapours, studies that would prove important experimental contributions to the quantum theory of spectra. After publishing the well-received Origins of Spectra (1922), Foote became the director of his own section on Radium, X-Rays and Atomic Structure. After five years and seventy publications however, Foote decided to leave government service and accepted the position of Senior Industrial Fellow on a new fellowship in oil production technology established by the Gulf Oil Corporation at the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in 1927. In his new job, Foote’s primary task was to establish a new research direction on the application of physics to the discovery of oil fields and the production of crude oil from these fields. Foote would quickly fulfil this task by creating a rapidly growing Geophysical Division. This geophysical division expanded quickly and, when it grew too big for the Mellon Institute, transferred as a new research department to the laboratory building of Gulf Oil in the beginning of the 1930s. In 1933, the division became the Gulf Research & Development Corporation, a full-fledged subsidiary of Gulf Oil, and Foote became its Director of Research and Executive Vice-President of the Gulf Refining Company, providing him with a seat in the board of directors of the Gulf Oil Corporation.[1]

Now, almost 100 years later, I studied some fragile documents in front of me. They were signed by Paul Darwin Foote. I was sitting at a table on the sixth floor of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Detre Library and Archives. Pittsburgh, now a hip city with intimidating office towers of consulting firms and apartment buildings, was for decades an epicentre of the American industry that would leave a big mark on the development of the post-war nuclear industry. Both the original electrical power company Westinghouse Electric Corporation, with investments in just about every American nuclear project imaginable, and the oil company Gulf Oil Corporation, until the late 1970s one of the largest oil companies in the world with in addition its own nuclear power program and many investments in uranium mining projects, were headquartered in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh also was the place where Foote went to work at the Mellon Institute before moving on to found the Gulf Research & Development Corporation. In the documents I was studying, Foote discussed his expectations for Gulf Oil’s research directions in the 1930s. History came alive in front of me.

In my research within the project “Managing Scarcity and Sustainability: The Oil Industry, Environmentalism, and Alternative Energy in the Age of Scarcity,” I focus on the mutual influence and entanglement between the oil sector and the early nuclear industry. In doing so, I look specifically at the people and technologies that spilled over from one sector to the other, in order to say something about the large-scale and long-term involvement from the oil sector in the development of nuclear energy. Geoscientists, such as Paul Darwin Foote, play an important role in this story because they are telling examples of a generation of scientists with a background in early atomic physics who then introduced the scientific geosciences, both geophysics and geochemistry, to the oil industry. These scientists thereby created an environment from which the next generation of oil geoscientists, sometimes supported and preceded by the same scientists who introduced the scientific geosciences to the oil industry in the 1920s and 1930s, were recruited to set up the first nuclear industrial projects in the Manhattan Project, the first uranium mining projects, and the establishment of the first nuclear power plants.

Thanks to the American Institute of Physics, I was able to travel through the East Coast of the United States last September and October as a Robert H.G. Helleman Graduate Research Fellow to research these scientists in the archives. Geoscientists, like Foote, but also natural physicists and policy makers with careers that led through both the oil and nuclear industries. In early September, I began my visit in Washington, D.C., by staying at the archive center of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. There I immersed myself in the film and photograph collections of the American Petroleum Institute and researched the development of the neutron well logging technique, a measurement method for radioactivity that can be used to find both uranium and oil, by the later infamous nuclear spy Bruno Pontecorvo. In addition, I spent many days in the archives of the Library of Congress. There are many collections of policymakers and scientists who played a major role in the development of the American Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.), and sometimes had close involvement with the oil industry as consultants. For example, physicist Glenn T. Seaborg, chairman of the A.E.C. from 1961 to 1971, was also a consultant to the Standard Oil Company and Sun Oil in the 1970s.

The rest of my stay in D.C., I spent on the beautiful campuses of Carnegie Earth & Planets Laboratory, and Georgetown University. At the Carnegie Science Archives, near the site of one of the first times uranium was split on American soil near Niels Bohr in 1939, I researched why and how a geophysical research campus from the 1930s onward, led by physicist Merle Antony Tuve, invested in its own nuclear research center. At Georgetown University, I studied archives that focused more on the long history of the oil industry. For example, I studied the archives of oil reporter Bernard J. Picchi who was a journalist researching the history of various international oil companies, and the ARAMCO history project. I also looked at the archives of Baroness Jackson, Barbara Ward, who in the 1970s maintained an extensive network focused on themes of environmentalism, resource scarcity and conservation, with many connections to prominent actors within the oil industry such as Robert O. Anderson and Maurice Strong.

After visiting D.C., I travelled through a warm autumn spell for two weeks to research the archives of Amherst College and Cornell University. At Amherst, my research included the archives of geologist George Bain, who during World War II as an assistant to former Shell geologist Paul Guarín shaped the U.S. search for uranium for the Manhattan Project and later served in an advisory role to the A.E.C. and various oil companies as a professor at Amherst College. At Cornell University, I focused in part on the archival collection of physicist Hans Bethe, famous for his role in developing the atomic and hydrogen bomb and later as an advisor to the A.E.C. Less well known, however, is his long-standing role as a consultant to Exxon Nuclear in the 1970s in their search for techniques to enrich uranium through lasers. At Cornell University, I also had the privilege of presenting my research and the Managing Scarcity project to the Science Studies Research Group. At the invitation of Vishal Nyayapathi, we discussed the various spillovers between the nuclear and oil industries and Gulf Oil’s role in a large-scale international uranium cartel in the 1970s.

This role of Gulf Oil also brought me to my last stop for archival research in Pittsburgh. As described earlier, Pittsburgh was home to both Westinghouse and Gulf Oil, the archives of which I studied both at the Detre Library and Archives. The second part of the Pittsburgh stay, however, I spent time in the archives of Carnegie Mellon University where I researched the collections of several geologists and physicists working at this university. While there I also found many interesting connections between the nuclear and oil industries, by chance I also found an unexpected gem there: “The Saga of Snoogie the Dog” by geologist Theodor Wasson. Wasson had taken the time to provide his own family dog with a saga and archive it. Sum historical research in this way also suddenly brings an unexpected smile to your face, and provides a point of reflection. Like Snoogie, over the past few weeks I have used my sleuth to pick through the many archives, met many people who have been immensely welcoming and at times incredibly helpful to me, and had many adventures. With all that I have been able to research here, with thanks again to the American Institute of Physics, I have gained enough baggage to take on the next adventure: writing all the articles and the final dissertation of my PhD project.I want to express my thanks to all the people who made possible this memorable research stay in the United States. First of all the American Institute of Physics for generously granting me this possibility to become a Robert H.C. Helleman Graduate Research Fellow, Arthur Deammrich for wanting to become my U.S. advisor, and Cyrus Mody, Vincent Lagendijk and David Baneke for recommending me for this fellowship. Also, I want to thank Vishal Nyayapathi and the Science Studies Research Group at Cornell University for the great discussion, input and opportunity to present my research. At last, I want to thank everyone helping me out at all the time at the different archives. Without you, this trip would not have become this success it turned out to be.

[1] National Academy of Sciences. 1975. John Torrence Tate. Biographical Memoirs 47. Pp. 464; Astin, A.V. 1971. Paul Darwin Foote: March 27, 1888-August 2, 1971. Biographical Memoirs Vol. 50. Pp. 178-180.

– Michiel Bron

Apartment buildings in Pittsburgh. Photo by Michiel Bron.
I was just in time to see the new display case of the globe showing all measurements of Carnegie’s world magnetic survey at the Carnegie Earth & Planets Laboratory. Photo by Michiel Bron.
Cornell University Campus. Photo by Michiel Bron.
Warm fall day in Amherst. Photo by Michiel Bron.
Sample of sand of Trinity Bomb Test and the favorite Geiger counter of Roger B. Satton at Carnegie Mellon University Physics Museum. Photo by Michiel Bron.
“The Saga of Snoogie the Dog” by Theodor Wasson. Carnegie Mellon University Archives. Theodor Wasson Papers. Box 1, Folder 11.

Managing Scarcity road show: US & Utrecht

October 12, 2022

Project members have been traveling a lot lately and will continue to do so for much of the fall. Jelena and Michiel have both been on archival trips to the US: Jelena to Arizona and Michigan, and Michiel to the Washington, DC area, Amherst, Ithaca, and Pittsburgh. More on what they found there later. Next week, the whole team, including Ernst Homburg (chair of our board) will go to Utrecht to meet with Joost Dankers, Keetie Sluyterman, Marten Boon, and some of the UU energy, business, and environmental historians. Exciting chance to learn more about each other’s projects and get advice on sources, methods, interpretations, etc. Then in November we head to Paris (along with former intern, now NanoBubbles PhD Candida Sanchez Burmester) for a workshop with journalists and academics whose research converges on topics relating to climate, energy, and research integrity. Much more on that workshop soon!

– Cyrus Mody

Welcome to the Managing Scarcity blog!

October 12, 2022

This is the inaugural post of the Managing Scarcity blog. Visit this site often for news about our NWO-funded project on the history of the oil industry, alternative energy, and the resource scarcity debate of the 1970s.

– Cyrus Mody