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Christoffer Leber joins the Vossius Center for three months in October 2021 as a Research Fellow with the project 'Science Observed: The Emergence of Science Studies during the Cold War'.

About the project

The 1970s not only marked a new phase of relaxation in the Cold War (the so-called détente era), they also were a time of socio-political crisis in Europe and the US: The anti-Vietnam and environmental movements criticized the military-industrial complex at American universities, and a new generation of leftwing, strongly politicized scientists opened a broad discussion about the ethical and social implications of nuclear power, genetic engineering, and sociobiology. These politically engaged actors and organizations paved the way for a new interdisciplinary field called “Science Studies”. However, not only the political but also the scientific landscape was changing during that time: In the life sciences, new technologies such as recombinant DNA fueled a debate about potential hazards of genetically modified organisms to human health and the environment.

Taking these political and scientific developments into account my project examines how STS scholars responded to the life sciences which turned into a highly competitive, commercialized field in the 1970/80s. The growing influence of commercial interests within the life science community, I argue, motivated STS scholars to develop a critical agenda: Unlike common notions of science being “neutral”, or “objective”, STS scholars pointed to the social dynamics, contingencies, and economic interests involved in knowledge production. In other words, they opened the “black box” of science.

My project pursues two goals: First, I want to identify different phases in the epistemic and institutional development of STS within the broader context of Cold War life sciences. My second aim is to explore the ways in which the STS community observed, examined and criticized the life sciences and in particular genetic engineering. STS scholars were not only concerned with practices of knowledge production and the growing influence of the biotech industry but also with the changing public image of the life sciences. Focusing on the history of modern Science Studies my project sheds new light on the long-neglected history of the humanities and social sciences in the Cold War period.

About the researcher

Christoffer Leber is postdoctoral researcher in history of science at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich (LMU). His postdoc project “Science observed” investigates the history of modern Science Studies in the context of the scientific, social and political changes of the 1970s and 80s. The project is part of the DFG research group “Cooperation and Competition in the Sciences” (Prof. Kärin Nickelsen).

Christoffer Leber studied Modern History and German Literature in Munich and Madrid and received his MA in 2014. In 2019, he completed his PhD in history of science at LMU after research stays at UC Berkeley and the Charles University Prague. In his PhD thesis he examined concepts of science, religion and secularity in the German Monist and Freethought movements around 1900. His thesis “Arbeit am Welträtsel” won the Wilhelm Ostwald Prize in 2019 and was published last year with Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.