Science with a Human Face

Activity of the Czechoslovak Scientists František Šorm and Otto Wichterle during the Cold War
Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1729

By Riikka Nisonen-Trnka
July 2012
Tampere University Press
ISBN: 9789514488016
250 pages
$87.50 Paper original

This research analyses the activities of prominent scientists in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. The research highlights the active role of individual scientists and investigates their participation in national and international scientific communities as well as their manifold survival strategies and room for manoeuvre. The role of natural scientists in society is illustrated by case studies of two chemists, František Šorm – the President of the Academy of the Czechoslovak Sciences – and Otto Wichterle –the inventor of the soft contact lens. The individual scientists recognised the dependence of their research on world science. They had to engage in constant negotiations with the state, which in turn attempted to limit this necessity because of its own political and ideological dependency on the Soviet Union. As the case studies exemplify, individuals with sufficient authority, scientific capacity and access to the Party structures could, however, use their bargaining powers to influence science policy. At the level of the natural sciences the Communist Party was dependent on the expertise of scientists and had to consult them on issues that were relevant among others for solving larger economic questions. The strategies of the two scientists to navigate in their professional lives do not always fit the stereotypical dichotomy of “communist” and ”non-communist” but are far more nuanced. The study argues that the amount of the freedom granted to natural scientists varied in time and was a consequence of many factors.

One of the historical events influencing the scientists' amount of freedom was the Czechoslovak invasion in August 1968. It had dramatic consequences for Czechoslovak society for years to come. It forced the case study scientists to give up their highly ambitious professional careers. The world-class scientists became persona non gratae and were followed by the State Security Police. In this research, the August 1968 occupation of the country by the Warsaw pact forces and its aftermath presents itself as a historical watershed.

The study is divided into three parts. The first part offers a historical background with a particular emphasis on the period of the Nazi occupation and the subsequent period of socialism until 1960. From the era of relative autarky and restricted contacts with the outside world in the 1950s, Czechoslovakia went further than other countries of the socialist bloc in its aspiration to improve Western cooperation. International cooperation was one of the priorities of Czechoslovak natural scientists. When the opportunity was given, scientists published in international journals, participated in conferences, organised them, and were involved in international scientific organisations. The second part covers the gradual liberalisation of the 1960s and the events of the Prague Spring in 1968. Czechoslovakia gradually acknowledged the necessity to cooperate with Western universities and scientific communities. Moreover, problems in the intra-bloc cooperation worked as a catalyst for further Western cooperation. Through participation in these scientific communities scientists gained Western recognition. In order to maintain its international reputation Czechoslovakia had to acknowledge the meaning of those organisations. The third part of this study investigates the consequences of the occupation and the era of so-called normalisation until the collapse of communism in 1989. By the end of the 1960s – from the point of view of the Soviet Union – Czechoslovakia had crossed the line of what was permitted. The invasion and its aftermath were an example of how politics forcefully interfered in the realm of science and influenced the life of individual scientists.

The research relies on empirical and critical qualitative analysis of sources. The research uses social and political history approaches by setting the case study examples into the wider social and political context of the time. It thus looks at Czechoslovak society through the prism of academia. The research focuses on cooperation, interactions and attempts to avoid divisions into polar categorisations. Instead of opting exclusively for either a macro or micro level perspective, three levels are used in the analysis: a micro level (individual level), a middle level (the Academy of Sciences) and a macro level (the state and international level). The case studies of prominent chemists exemplify all three levels as well the interactions between the respective levels. Macro level source material used in this study consist mainly of the documents of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Security Police. At the middle level this study uses material from the archives of the Academy of Sciences such as reports on science policies and foreign exchanges, documents of chemical institutes, the patent department and travel reports of scientists. At the micro level, correspondence, biographies, autobiographies and interviews are the most important sources.

In this study, the innovation of the soft contact lens represents a high-level “Eastern” achievement in science and technology. The study shows how the liberalisation process of Czechoslovak society created conditions for technology transfers from East to West as happened with the soft contact lens. The transfer required both government support and an opening up towards the West. Without these conditions the transfer of the lens would have not been realised, but Otto Wichterle was someone who rose to the challenge. The licence for the soft contact lens was sold to the USA in 1965 and after that it revolutionised the contact lens industry worldwide.

Hence, in this study the natural sciences are used as an example of a phenomenon of penetration of the Iron Curtain from East to West. The focus is on forms of cooperation without direct relation to Cold War competition in armaments production. These forms of scientific cooperation therefore rather supported further and more efficient contacts and connected the two societal systems. In Czechoslovakia, the desire to succeed in the worldwide “revolution” of science took more radical form in the late 1960s than elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Concepts like the Scientific and Technological Revolution and the integration of world science began to appear in the official rhetoric on scientific issues from the mid-1960s onwards. It seems that Czechoslovakia grasped the opportunity offered by the notion of the Scientific and Technological Revolution.

As a result of the Warsaw Pact invasion and the following normalisation, these ideas supporting academic freedom were shelved for two decades. However, at the level of individual scientists, these ideas which had been allowed to be expressed openly in the late 1960s survived – symbolised by the election of Otto Wichterle as the President of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences after the Velvet Revolution. After 1989 Czechoslovakia began to rapidly re-establish academic contacts with Western scientific communities. At least at the level of freedom of movement, the ideas and hopes of the Prague Spring reformers of science were finally fulfilled.

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