Big Science for a Small Country. The Early History of SCK•CEN 1952-1991.


Van Paemel Geert, (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KULeuven)),

SCK•CEN Mentor

Coeck Michèle,, +32 (0)14 33 21 80

Expert group

Centre for Education and Knowledge Management

Short project description

The creation of SCK•CEN constitutes a major turning point in the history of science in Belgium. The new institution embodied the ambition of the Belgian government to make the most of Belgium’s uranium resources and to mark a place for itself in the international forum of nuclear science. As a government controlled research center, generously funded and endowed with  large infrastructure facilities, it easily fitted the definition of so-called Big Science, as it had become popular in many countries in the aftermath of the Second World War. Yet, after only a few decades, the concept of Big Science had become the target of criticism, both in academic circles, as in political and public debates. Big Science brought scientific research dangerously near to political issues, which made it vulnerable to the changing tides of public trust in political institutions. As the era of ‘technocratic utopianism’ waned, Big Science institutions needed to adapt to a more diversified context of research programs and industrial clients.

The early history of SCK•CEN provides an unique opportunity to investigate the congruence of political and scientific objectives in the rebuilding of Belgium  during the Cold War. It addresses a range of topics from attitudes towards nuclear energy, to issues of science policy and international collaboration. It also serves to picture the role of Belgian physicists in the development of nuclear science and charts the influence of in particular American science on Belgian research. It finally mirrors the public attitudes of the Belgian people towards nuclear energy in the early phases of the Atomic Age.

The research project is part of the activities to celebrate the 70th anniversary of SCK•CEN.


The minimum diploma level of the candidate needs to be Master’s degree in history or in social sciences. Knowledge of French (and if possible Dutch) is needed to work on the archives. The candidate needs to have a background in contemporary history and preferably be acquainted with the history of modern physics and the history of Belgium.


  • Galison, Peter (1994) Big Science: The Growth of Large Scale Research.
  • Krige, John (2006) American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe
  • Westwick, Peter J. (2003) The National Labs. Science in an American System 1947-1974.

The minimum diploma level of the candidate needs to be

Master of sciences

The candidate needs to have a background in

Physics , History, or Political and Social Sciences

Estimated duration

4 years
Before applying, please consult the guidelines for application for PhD.