2009 Hixon Forum for Responsive Science and Engineering

The 2009 Hixon-Riggs Forum on Science, Technology and Society, which took place at HMC Feb. 27 and 28, focused on science and technology in the making of modern China.

Between China’s humiliating defeats at the hands of Japan and western powers at the turn of the 20th century, and the high-tech spectacle marking the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the country has undergone dramatic change.

Drawing together an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars (pictured below) from North America and China and from the history of science and China studies, the forum marked an important milestone in the historical study of science and technology in modern China as it explored the national and transnational contexts for such developments. 

It also fulfilled the mission of the Hixon Forum in linking science, technology, public policy and ethical issues for the HMC and the broader community.

Among the key outcomes of the conference was the enrichment of our knowledge about the pivotal roles played by science and technology in modern Chinese history as well as a new recognition of the transnational dimensions of modern science in China and elsewhere in the world.

Papers on such diverse topics as Chinese geology as a site of nation-building and transnational negotiations, scientific contributions of missionary universities, Sino-U.S. and Sino-Soviet scientific exchanges, and Chinese-American scientists all connected transnational interactions and internal developments.

Papers on the social and political status of Chinese scientists under Mao, on military/civilian dual use technologies, on China’s efforts to build a talent pool, and on its nanotechnology policy all highlighted the critical role of the state in scientific and technological development.

Popular science also emerged as an important theme as papers explored mass mobilization in earthquake predictions and in insect control.

Enthusiastic discussions at the conference of these topics have stimulated further research.

Interdisciplinary cross-fertilization marked all activities at the forum, which included presentations of papers by historians of science and political scientists working in the field of science and technology in modern China, commentaries by China scholars and specialists on international relations, science and technology studies, U.S. history, and Russian history, and active participation in discussions by attendees drawing from even more fields and from the community.

Commentaries by the prominent China scholars R. Bin Wong and Kenneth Pomeranz, for example, provided valuable reminders about the continuity between the late imperial, Republican and the People’s Republic of China eras. The juxtaposition of historical and current developments also helped to reveal otherwise hidden connections. Finally, numerous breaks and receptions allowed HMC students and community members to interact informally with conference participants.

All forum participants valued the opportunity for scholarly discussions that were at once concentrated, interdisciplinary, and broadly-based and many expressed the hope of continuing the discussion in a similar form in the future. Especially heartening were the enthusiastic reactions by HMC students (“interesting and extremely accessible to me” according to one) and community members. Peter S. Yao, a Chinese American engineer and former mayor of Claremont, for example, participated in the conference in its entirety and thanked the HMC for organizing the conference which “answered many questions I had posed for myself over the years.”

The conference was organized under the auspices of the Hixon Forum for Responsive Science and Engineering at Harvey Mudd College, and was co-sponsored by HMC’s Department of Humanities, Social Sciences and The Arts; the Intercollegiate Program for the Study of Science, Technology, and Society at the Claremont Colleges; the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College; the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA; the Historical Society for Twentieth Century China; and individual members of the Chinese-American community.