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In the Chinese Academy of Sciences

November 16, 2013

From the beginning of this academic year, I am a visiting scholar in the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute for the History of Natural Sciences in Beijing. Although I originally arrived in Beijing merely for family reasons, not really for academic purposes, the institute has been extremely kind to me, inviting me as a guest researcher despite my near-total lack of knowledge in the field Chinese history of science and technology, and with only rudimentary Chinese language skills.

The institute probably constitutes the largest academic environment of its kind in the world, with a hundred or so active researchers. Ironically, however, it is by far the smallest institute in the Academy of Science’s cluster in Zhongguancun in northwestern Beijing – being outnumbered by most measures by a range of other institutes in fields such as mathematics and physics. It is a great place to be and an ideal starting point for exploring the Chinese academic environment and traditions in the history of science and technology.

Subjects researched at the institute include seemingly everything, ranging from developments dating back thousands of years to burning present-day science and technology policy issues. Its emphasis is, unsurprisingly, on China’s own, rich history, but there is also a dynamic research group studying Western developments. There is a great interest both on East-West comparative aspects and on technology transfer between East and West. To my surprise several researchers even have an explicit interest in China’s relations with my own country, Sweden. Unfortunately, however, Western scholars rarely get to know about research results generated in Beijing, since the institute’s researchers publish their findings almost exclusively in Chinese. This obviously prevents Western-Chinese interaction in the history of science and technology from attaining the dynamics that it deserves.

Some time ago I was also given the opportunity to present some of my own research at the institute’s seminar, and it struck me how valuable it is have to think through the relevance and importance of one’s own findings on European history of technology to a Chinese academic audience! I have the feeling that my time in China will influence my overall thinking in more ways than I initially had expected.

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