Transnational Science in Times of Crisis: Refugee Scientists in the Late 20th and Early 21st Century

My next major project, Transnational Science in times of Crisis: Refugee Scientists in the Late 20th and Early 21st Century, will further examine the inequalities of epistemic authority laid bare in my earlier work, Uneven Fields. This historical and ethnographic project will look at organizations that since World War II have sought to place scientists fleeing war and persecution in host institutions abroad, such as the Council for At Risk Academics (CARE), and the New York based Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars.

The history of Jewish scholars, such as Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who escaped the Nazis and fled to the UK or US is relatively well known. Not so well documented is the fact that at least one of the organizations that helped them escape have continued to work with scholars in danger up to the present day—albeit with less funding and little support from governments and the general public.

Organizations like CARE seek to both save individual lives and preserve the integrity of at-risk academic communities abroad until they can be reinstated. However, it is not clear how successfully such rescue projects can maintain academic communities in exile, particularly given the already existing epistemic inequalities between international colleagues. The example of Chile—or the reality that faced many Jewish academics brought to the US and UK in the 1930s and ‘40s—suggests that the short- and long-term legacy of academic rescue is more complicated.

To what extent can an ‘academic community’ be saved, even if key individuals are removed from immediate danger? As time passes, how do rescued individuals cope with both their own trauma, and the process of assimilation in their host institutions? When decisions about who to save are based on the evaluation of a candidate’s scholarly worth, how might the disparities in epistemic authority documented in my earlier work take on even more urgent stakes?

Demonstrators and mourners line the streets during Victor Jara’s funeral in Santiago, Chile. Dec 5, 2009. (Photo: M. Leighton)

This project will be both archival and ethnographic, beginning with a month’s research in Spring 2018 on the archives of the ‘Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars,’ an organization that helped Jewish scholars fleeing persecution in Europe find positions in US universities, at the New York Public Library, sponsored by a NYPL Short Term Research Fellowship.

Over several phases I will explore: 1) the Chilean scientific community before, during, and after the Pinochet dictatorship, to understand CARE-sponsored refugees’ attempts to integrate into host-universities in Europe and then later return to Chile; 2) Mexico’s inter-generational effort to integrate first refugee scientists and medics from the Spanish Civil War and later from South American dictatorships; and 3) in the contemporary period, the relationships between Middle Eastern scientists displaced by the current conflicts in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq and their colleagues in host European/North American institutions.