History Professor Zuoyue Wang has received a $236,000 National Science Foundation grant to research the impact of American-educated Chinese scientists in the United States and in China during the Cold War. The three-year grant, which began in September, enables Wang to conduct interviews with Chinese scientists who studied in the United States and either remained for their professional careers or returned to China, as well as examining historical documents.
An in-depth study of the experiences of the scientists and their contributions to the United States and China is key to understanding scientific enterprise in modern China and in America, better informing U.S. national and international science policy, as well our account of transnational history, Wang says.
“It’s important to understand that China is a competitor and a collaborator in science,” Wang says. “To understand American science, it’s important to realize that it was not just influenced by the Europeans but also by the Chinese, and vice versa.”
Transnational history, a concept gaining increasing recognition in recent years, highlights historical events, people and ideas that cross national boundaries. American scientific progress during the Cold War was not isolated, but was influenced by the 5,000 Chinese students, scholars and researchers who came to the United States before the Communist takeover of the Chinese mainland in 1949.
“We used to study U.S. history or Chinese history. That’s too limiting,” Wang says. “National borders don’t define our experiences. History is not all national.”
Over the summer, Wang traveled to Beijing, where he interviewed four Chinese scientists who had returned to China from the United States in the 1950s. In December, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for more interviews and also to examine immigration records from the 1930-50s housed at the National Archives. At George Washington University, Wang looked at archives of the U.S. Committee on Scholarly Communication with China that played a key role in promoting scientific exchange between the two countries.
In a related article recently published in “Isis,” the journal of the History of Science Society, Wang argues that the study of Cold War science should not be limited to the experiences of the Americans and the Soviets. U.S.-trained Chinese scientists played a significant a role in what he calls “the Americanization of international science” and “the transnationalization of the American scientific community.”
“The rich international and ethnic diversity of the American scientific community both encouraged a synergistic fusion of scientific styles due to the interactions of immigrant and native scientists,” he writes, “and helped further the process of Americanization as these scientists played influential roles in the science and education policy of their countries of origin.”
Wang believes that the grant project will not only lead to scholarly publications but also enrich his teaching on campus, especially his two popular general education courses, History of American Science and Technology (HST 408) and Modern Science in World History (HST 423). He also employs student assistants for his project; currently Richard Liu, a history major and the former ASI president, who is fluent in Chinese, helps Wang transcribe and conduct data analysis.