Image for the news item 'Chinese Connections: Sir Gordon Sutherland and science in China' on 15 Sep 2020
Sir Gordon Sutherland by E. Leigh

Francis Newman is a recent Emmanuel graduate who has just completed an MPhil in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine. His research, for which he won the McConnell Prize from his Department, focusses on cross-cultural interactions between scientists and scientific traditions, especially between Britain, China, and India. Here he tells us about the work of  former Emmanuel master Sir Gordon Sutherland.

On 4th October 1962, Sir Gordon Sutherland – a distinguished British physicist who was shortly to become Master of Emmanuel College – delivered a lecture to a 300-strong crowd at the Physics Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. In his report to the Royal Society, which had arranged the visit, he recalled that “the room was packed to capacity and people were standing out into the corridors.” He was impressed with “numerous and intelligent” questions, and praised his audience as “the best to which I have ever lectured.”

Sutherland – at the time director of the UK’s National Physics Laboratory – was in Beijing as a member of the first British scientific delegation that the Royal Society sent to the People’s Republic of China after its formation in 1949. Coming amidst deep-running Cold War tensions, and while the PRC was emerging from the famine and economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward, he and his fellow delegates were impressed and surprised by what they saw of Chinese science. Sutherland reported that the Chinese had selected particular fields of research to concentrate on “with great care so that their limited effort can be used to the best advantage…. In these chosen areas it seemed to me that they had virtually caught up with the West but had not yet made any significant new advances. I shall be surprised if they do not begin to make important original contributions within the next 5 years.”

With these positive impressions, Sutherland and the Royal Society began an exchange programme whereby young Chinese researchers – at approximately postdoc level – would be placed in British research institutes for periods of a year or two. Between 1964 and 1966, thirty-three such scientists and engineers came to Britain. Several of them were invited to the National Physics Laboratory by Sutherland; many others came to Cambridge. There were high hopes for such international scientific cooperation, and how it might help diplomatic relations between the two sides of the so-called ‘Bamboo Curtain’. Now at Emmanuel, Sutherland signed up to be Treasurer of the new Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU), which had just been established by two other Cambridge academics, Joseph Needham and Joan Robinson.

Ultimately, however, political suspicions ran deep. The British government believed that some of the researchers were spying; the Chinese authorities were outraged when the Royal Society asked several of them to return home, citing “academic and temperamental incompatibilities” rather than the real security reasons. Then the Cultural Revolution took hold in China, and the remaining researchers abruptly departed home, leaving British scientists both disappointed and, in some cases, angry. Sutherland resigned from SACU, suspicious of what he saw as left-wing involvement in the organisation. There would be no further scientific relations between the two countries for several years.

But this window of relative calm in the turbulent relations between Britain and China is important to study. The story of Sutherland’s visit is not merely one of scientists acting as unofficial diplomats. It hints towards how ideologies of science – and especially value judgements of what counts as ‘good’ or valid science – can shape international co-operation. Today, as elements in the West blame China for the spread of COVID-19, and suspicion over the Chinese government’s involvement in organisations like Huawei runs rife, it’s important to remember the formative years of Western scientific relations with the PRC, and to try to understand how and why such suspicions came about – and how they came to play a more public role. Sutherland’s interest in China is a pivotal part of that story.

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