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From Radioactive Fallout to Environmental Critique : : Ecology and the Politics of Cold War Science


This work explores the question of the place of science in society by focusing on two cases in which ecology as a science entered into very different kinds of political projects in the cold war period. The first case hinges on the usefulness of ecology to the Atomic Energy Commission's effort to manage radioactive fallout as a problem that was both epistemic and political in nature. In this alliance with the cold war state, ecology benefited from an unprecedented level of external funding as well as access to experimental technology such as radioisotopes and Geiger counters. As a result ecology was introduced to the world of 'big science,' and radiation ecology emerged as a new specialty. Along with access to funding and technology, however, the state was often also interested in asserting a level of control over the research agendas of ecologists, and ecologists devised ways of asserting the autonomy of their discipline in order to maintain control over their research. The second case centers on the relationship between ecology and environmentalism as a social movement. With the environmental movement came a large public audience interested in what ecologists had to say about matters of politics and ethics. While many ecologists held this interest at arms length, others saw in it the possibility for a new place for science in society. For these ecologists, science should be useful to the problems of society. Like the tension between different forms of environmentalism, however, ecologists differed on how science should be useful. For many, this usefulness meant providing expert advice to political leaders, while for others, it meant entering into a radical oppositional relationship with the place of technology in cold war culture. In both of these cases, ecologists challenged norms of value neutrality associated with the organization of academic labor into highly specialized disciplines in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. In doing so, they confronted challenges to their professional autonomy but also experienced opportunities to redefine both themselves as scientists and the place of science in society

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