The Scientific Conference

(Photo: UN Archives, UNRRA, Heidelberg University Germany [1946])

A Social, Cultural, and Political History. A collaborative research project funded by HERA’s fourth joint research programme, “Public Spaces: Culture and Integration in Europe”


International conferences are standard features of scientific life today. Since their emergence, in the second half of the nineteenth century, some 170 000 of them are estimated to have taken place. Still the reasons for this rise, and the functions that conferences have fulfilled in scientific practice, have rarely been studied.

In a new joint research project, "The Scientific Conference: A Social, Cultural, and Political History" (SciConf), a European team of scholars will study conferences, not as a background for other, ‘real’ action, but as a phenomenon to be grasped in itself. What happened at scientific conferences? How have they exchanged knowledge and shaped expertise? What forms of sociability have developed in these meetings, what rituals have been performed? How have scientific conferences embodied social hierarchies and international relations? How have they informed policies on relevant subjects? The project will look at conferences as “public spaces” and address these questions through that lens.

Case Studies

  • Charlotte Bigg: "Feasts of Progress: Scientific Conferences at Universal and International Exhibitions, 1889-1958."
  • Jessica Reinisch: "Laboratories of Cooperation: Scientific and Medical Experts at the Conferences of International Organisations, 1936-1963."
  • Geert Somsen: "Convention Conventions. Rituals of Participation in Regular Chemistry Conferences, 1910-1960."
  • Sven Widmalm: "Scientific Summits: The Nobel Symposia during the Cold War."


Associate Partners

  • Science Museum, London, UK
  • Royal Observatory, Greenwich, UK
  • Lorentz Center, Leiden, Netherlands
  • Science History Institute, Philadelphia, USA
  • Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden