Defining research priorities to solve the « ozone hole » crisis
How and why do connections between the scientific and the political worlds develop? In which historical context and institutional setup do they evolve? The issue of the depletion of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which emerged as early as the 1970s, is a valuable example of their evolution. In France, the programme launched to support stratospheric research illustrates the way public authorities’ expectations shaped research priorities and sharpened scientists ‘appreciation of the political uses of their work.
Since Merton’s pioneering book about « science, technology and society in 17th century England », most of the sociology of science has developed from the study of the links existing between scientific and political stakeholders. It has, in turn, fuelled the growth of science studies, and has contributed to erase the image of the impenetrable « Ivory Tower » in which scientists used to be depicted. Over the last decades, the « environmental crisis » – the discovery of the adverse effects of human activities on the « Earth system » – has accelerated this questioning; research has since then generalised the idea of a connection, even of a « combination » between science and politics, and of a « co-construction » of their respective knowledge and competences, for better or for worse.
Since these connections are now being taken for granted, empirical investigations are necessary to specify the forms and conditions along which these relationships may develop. The case of the « crisis of the ozone layer » suits our purpose: it is one of the landmarks in the history of this cooperation, with political actors and scientists coming together to forbid ozone-depleting substances – chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) responsible for the « hole » in the stratospheric ozone layer. The process which led to the Montreal Protocol, in 1987, is now well-known. But the benefits gained by science studies from this episode mostly rely on the study of the North American case. Besides, the research carried out focuses on the international consensus, which made it possible to quickly move from scientific results to political decisions. But the previous period, when uncertainties and international tensions still prevailed, has not been much studied.
The support granted to research work on stratospheric pollution, at the turn of the 1980s, and more particularly through the DGRST (General Delegation of Scientific and Technical Research) specific funding programme, show how French scientists and political actors interacted. The exchanges recorded between scientists and research managers, as well as the documents kept at the national Archives, demonstrate how the DGRST representatives and « senior researchers » in the labs geared French research towards meeting the onset of the « ozone layer crisis ».
International tensions about stratospheric pollution
The 1970s witnessed significant demonstrations for the « protection of the environment ». The growing grassroot mobilisation (particularly after the first « Earth Day » of 22 April 1970) was also accompanied by new institutional setups (the United Nations Conference on the Environment in 1972, for instance). The pollution-related risks engineered by human activities and their global impact altered the international relations between science and politics. The depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer by CFCs, revealed by the chemists Rowland and Molina in 1974, is an example of what contributed to these reconfigurations.
In this particular case, the regulatory determination of the United States contrasted with the sceptical caution of French authorities, who feared some negative impact on the chemical industry. They interpreted the north American momentum not so much as reflecting their environmental concern but as triggered by commercial ambitions. Hence, the negotiation of international agreements about CFC emissions spurred the French government to increase their support to its scientists to avoid being left with the expertise of the North American researchers alone. All the more so as the controversial issue concerning the environmental impact of the Concorde which involved scientific concerns, strategic independence and economic interests, had just opposed France and the United States– which controversy French researchers brought to a close by lifting all suspicions against the flagship of French civil aeronautics.
The support given to stratospheric research in France in the 1970s was thus associated to national sovereignty issues. But this support cannot be envisaged outside the international framework of the project for intergovernmental regulations then currently under discussion and because of the global phenomena at stake. But the cooperative character of the interdisciplinary field of atmospheric science (Edwards, 2010) enabled French researchers to fit in international networks and programmes, as well as in expert groups dedicated to CFC pollution.
The DGRST’s contribution to stratospheric science
In the years 1960-1970, the DGRST (Directorate General of Scientific and Technical Research) was then a state agency at the core of the national research institutions. It embodied the modernisation project launched by the Gaullist power and contributed to the development of incipient research fields or to the coordination of the fields then scattered among various bodies. The agency was instrumental in quickly releasing substantial funding by setting up « concerted actions » (Duclert, 2006), it was also in charge of connecting French research with the best world programmes.
The concerted action (AC) on the « Physical-chemical properties of the stratosphere » was set up in 1976 and funded research projects until 1981. Its committee was in charge of examining calls for tenders and selecting projects; it brought together between twelve and sixteen laboratory directors from universities or research institutions (CNRS, CNES, ONERA, national Meteorology). The DGRST was represented by a scientific specialist, a project manager and a secretary. Its mission was to bolster stratospheric research which involved only a few French researchers at that time. It was also expected to act as a coordinator to reduce dispersal among different institutions and disciplines. The AC (concerted action) concentrated on interdisciplinary synergies, instrumentation, and support to international mobility (in foreign laboratories or in measurement campaigns from planes or from stratospheric balloons).
The committee was a place of exchange to keep up with the latest in the scientific field and with its perspectives, to discuss issues or to decide which instruments best use in the short term. In 1978, for instance, they decided to invest the whole current funding to improve the chemical substances sensors spread out in the atmosphere; or in 1980 they encouraged cooperation with specialists in satellite data. In that regard, even if French research was supported by the context of international scientific cooperation, it also benefited from national strategic choices.
A catalyst for scientific and political exchange
The creation of the AC on « the physical-chemical properties of the stratosphere » was presented as a means to encourage new of avenues for research. The initiative opened up a new context for French researchers after they had succeeded in putting an end to a period devoted to neutralize the US criticism about the environmental impact of the Concorde (to a great extent, under the supervision of the COVOS [Committee for the study of the consequences of stratospheric flights]). Nevertheless, this redistribution of roles also took place in a specific context of political expectations in connection with the opening of an international dialogue about CFC.
Moreover, the DGRST representatives were clear that the creation of the AC also aimed at setting up a group of experts that could prove useful to the French government. Various directorates from the Secretary of State in charge of Transport, from the Ministries of the Economy, Environment and Foreign Affairs followed the progress of its activities. Some of their members turned to AC experts for help with some of their speeches dealing with possible regulations of CFC production – which they were expected to deliver to an assembly of European representatives for instance, or in the context of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
In that configuration, the DGRST scientific specialist had a specific role: he facilitated the exchange between scientists and government representatives which could not be reduced to occasional expert reports. He often questioned the former in the name of the latter, he could also sometimes suggest some other avenues for research he viewed as relevant to CFCs and to the decisions to be made. His comments reminded researchers of the economic and political issues attached to the results of their work.
The AC on the « Physical-chemical properties of the stratosphere » provides a clear picture of the relationships which were built in « light green France » (to use Michel Bess’ expression), « between science and politics », or between « knowledge and power » in the 1970s. The weight of the international political guidelines clearly shows the extent to which the dynamics of a specialized discipline may depend on the socio-historical context. The way the scientific world depended on political stakeholders is obvious in this case. And yet, at the same time, it shows how a specialized community can take advantage of unprecedented means to gain some influence over peers and political decision-makers.
It also underlines the significant role granted to the DGRST at the very moment when the environmental concern was materializing at both the national and international institutional levels. The AC committee on the « Physical-chemical properties of the stratosphere », hosted by the DGRST by the late 1970s, was home to specialized and controlled collective work, a place where « social needs » were discussed and absorbed, a place also shaped by a twofold fear: panic at the « global risk » derived from CFC damage on the ozone layer and concern that the « voice of France » could be stifled among all the nations in search of environmental harmony..
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Cécile Crespy et Morgan Jouvenet (2022, 26 septembre). Defining research priorities to solve the « ozone hole » crisis. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 28 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/u9lk