Huygens-Descartes Lecture 2019 by Audra Wolfe: Science, Freedom, and the Cold War: A Political History of Apolitical Science (Utrecht, 21 February 2019)

Why do so many U.S. scientists continue to lean on the language of apolitical science, even as political leaders display less and less interest in scientists’ claims to expertise, or even the existence of facts? In a new book, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science, historian Audra J. Wolfe suggests the answer lies in Cold war propaganda.

From the late 1940s through the late 1960s, the US foreign policy establishment saw a particular way of thinking about scientific freedom as essential to winning the global Cold War. Throughout this period, the engines of US propaganda amplified, circulated, and, in some cases, produced a vision of science, American style, that highlighted scientists’ independence from outside interference and government control. Working (both overly and covertly, wittingly and unwittingly) with governmental and private organizations, U.S. scientists tried to come to terms with the meanings of “scientific freedom” and “U.S. ideology.” More often than not, they ended up defining scientific values as the opposite of Communist science. Science, in this view, was apolitical.

The Cold War ended long ago, but the language of science and freedom continues to shape public debates over the relationship between science and politics in the United States.

Audra J. Wolfe

Audra J. Wolfe, Ph.D.

Audra J. Wolfe, Ph.D., is the author of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science (2018) and Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America (2013). A Philadelphia-based writer and editor, her work has appeared in the Washington Post,, Slate, and the popular podcast American History Tellers, as well as more scholarly venues. Additional information is available on Wolfe’s website, She tweets @ColdWarScience.

Descartes-Huygens Lecture

The Descartes-Huygens Lecture is organized annually to give a wider audience access to current trends and new insights in the history of science. It features a leading member of the international history of science community. The event is organized alternately by the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Amsterdam) and the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science (Utrecht).

Date and venue

  • February 21, 2019
  • Marnixzaal, Utrechts Centrum voor de Kunsten
  • Domplein 4, 3512 JC Utrecht


  • 15:30 – 16:00 hrs Reception with coffee and tea Marnixzaal UCK
  • 16:00 – 17:00 hrs 11th Huygens-Descartes Lecture
  • 17:00 – 18:00 hrs Drinks in Foyer UCK