Research question

Dealing with environmental problems in just ways is one of the most pressing and crucial challenges today. To address the myriad challenges of environmental governance a complete history of the construction of the global environment is vital if we are to fully understand the shortfalls and potentialities of environmental policy today. The environmental history of the second half of the 20th century remains incomplete, particularly with regards to the environment-development nexus, where growing ecological awareness, focused on protecting the planet, interacted with policy-making, persistent on allowing development based on extreme resource exploitation. Based on newly opened archive resources and empirical case research, this project will shed light on this gap in environmental history, focusing on the role of scientists both as influencers of policy and as activists and including a gender dimension. This historical approach will then be applied to understand current issues in the environment-development nexus, particularly as regards the perception of scientists in local opposition to development projects in the Global South.

The team is structured in four units, which will work together along the three main dimensions described above (the nexus science, development, and the environment; the connections between scientists and advocacy; the gender dimension of environmental history). Each unit will have a special focus.

Unit 1 — Science & Dams Development in Africa

The University of Trento research unit focuses on the environmental consequences of dam construction in Africa, looking particularly at three aspects. First, it investigates the role of international and local scientific communities in orienting decision-making processes in favour or against dam construction, looking at how scientists contributed to the creation and to the development of remedies to environmental damage deriving from the construction of dams. Secondly, it looks at how scientists and scientific knowledge involved in the construction of dams are perceived amongst local community groups and NGOs, and to what extent they were involved in environmental activism. Thirdly, it explores the relations between state actors of selected African countries and development experts involved in these projects, focusing particularly on the relationship between local governments and scientific consultants working for development agencies, and between the international and local expert communities. The research team will also analyze how changing paradigms in the development discourse affected development policies, and to what extent dam removal in the US worked as a model for campaigns in Africa.

The project will focus on Ethiopia as a case study, but it will also incorporate case studies from other specific dams on the African continent (particularly, Kariba, Akosombo, Tarbela, Salto Grande, GERD).

Unit 2 — "Atomic Spaghetti": Nuclear Energy, Agriculture, Development

The University of Genoa unit will explore the application of atomic energy in agriculture, along with its scientific, economic and environmental impact, in Italy and the Mediterranean region, between the end of the 1950s and the end of the 1970s. The research will focus in particular on the mutagenesis programme in agriculture implemented by the Italian Atomic Energy Commission (CNRN-CNEN-ENEA), starting from 1956, through the establishment of a specific technological and experimental system: the so-called “gamma field”, a piece of cleared agricultural land with a radioisotope of cobalt 60 at the center. The cobalt 60 would emit constant radiation, primarily gamma rays, which would bombard the specimens planted in concentric circles around the source, inducing genetic mutations.

The CNEN gamma field went into operation in May 1960 at the Casaccia Laboratory, about twenty miles north of Rome, with a radiation device that had been made available by the US Government for the Atoms-for-Peace programme. Among the many research projects of the Casaccia Laboratory, the durum wheat programme, strictly connected with the industrial production of Italian pasta, was particularly relevant. The extensive durum wheat mutation breeding work resulted in fact in the obtention of eleven registered varieties. Six of them stem from the direct use of induced mutants, the rest being the result of cross breeding. Among the varieties released to farmers, “Creso” became the leading Italian variety with the highest percentage of durum certified and distributed seed.

After the first wave of enthusiasm connected with the launch of the US President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” programme, mutation breeding continued to receive strong support in the mid-1960s and later. This support came most notably through a joint program on nuclear techniques in food and agriculture established in 1964 between two United Nations agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The FAO/IAEA program conducted conferences, coordinated research, and promoted awareness of mutation methods and new varieties produced through them, among other activities. The organization quickly established itself as the foremost institutional base for mutation breeding worldwide.

Combining the population-explosion rhetoric of environmentalists and the humanitarian ethos of FAO, the IAEA scientists turned their specific research field – radiation-induced mutation breeding – into a critical component in the narrative of the Green Revolution. The support of IAEA, and of many other national atomic energy agencies, transformed mutation breeding from an uncertain set of technologies into an international activity with significant institutional support and extensive intellectual engagement across national borders.

In this perspective, the University of Genoa research unit will analyse, first, how the durum wheat trials in Italy and the Mediterranean region were adopted and implemented as a “success story” in order to promote the diffusion of mutation plant breeding technologies in the developing countries; and, second, how this “success story” mirrored a profound tension between FAO and IAEA with regard to different, and conflicting, visions of the modernization process in developing countries: while the FAO considered nuclear technology as one among several potential measures to improve agriculture and food production via technological innovation, IAEA saw the improvement and promotion of nuclear technology as its principal goal.

Unit 3 — Women Scientists

Unit 3 is hosted at the University of Trieste and looks at the unexplored international network of women scientists from the late 1960s onwards, as established and related to governmental, research and international institutions, to movements for women's rights and for the protection of the environment, human health, and sustainable development. This unit studies women scientists who focused on both their scientific work and their public activities on the impact of nuclear energy on the environment in a sustainable development perspective. As a consequence, it involves various levels of analysis. Elisabetta Vezzosi analyzes women scientists' relations with the UN environmental agenda and Women's Rights agenda (UN Archives). Ph.D. students will participate at the first stage of the research: Ilaria Zamburlini will research the link between women scientists' agencies and European Community policies with a specific focus on the human rights framework; Federico Chiaricati will conduct a preliminary exploration of archival sources on women scientists at the FAO. The research on the FAO experience will then be continued by a post-doc researcher paid by the project. A further researcher (Post-doctoral level) will investigate women scientists' activism and its impact on different anti-nuclear movements, with particular attention to East-Central Europe (IAEA and IRB archives).

Unit 4 — The Chornobyl Accident as a Historical Caesura

The Naples research unit will focus on the 1986 accident at the Chornobyl’ Nuclear Power Plant as a turning point for both the history of international cooperation and the development of the civic/political engagement of scientists on a local/national, as well as on an inter-/trans-national level. On the one hand, the unit will study the political and social consequences of the accident. It will examine how national and international agencies managed the emergency that followed the accident, and the reactions of the population on a micro-historical level, reconstructing the story of the moving of the population of the city of Polis’ke to Kyiv’s new district Troeshchyna and to Brovary. Furthermore, it will explore the consequence the Chornobyl’ accident had on the emergence of an environmental and eco-nationalist movement in Soviet Ukraine, though an analysis of the events that led to the foundation of the Party of Greens of Ukraine. On the other hand, the unit will examine scientists’ involvement and activism in the aftermath of the Chornobyl’ accident. It will study the consequences the accident had on scientists’ political and civic engagement in the context of the late Cold War, and on their research concerning environmental issues and renewable forms of energy. The unit will focus on several institutions that were particularly relevant, namely the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), the Energia Nucleare ed Energie Alternative (ENEA) (today Agenzia nazionale per le nuove tecnologie, l'energia e lo sviluppo economico sostenibile), and associations of scientists involved in promoting human rights.

Our Team


Sara Lorenzini Sara Lorenzini Principal investigator Head of research unit
member's photo Louisa Rosemary Parks Research unit member
member's photo Michele Alacevich Research unit member
member's photo Umberto Tulli Research unit member
member's photo Sara de Simone Research unit member
Fernanda Marchiol Fernanda Marchiol Research unit member


member's photo Francesco Cassata Head of research unit


member's photo Elisabetta Vezzosi Head of research unit
member's photo Federico Chiaricati Research unit member
member's photo Carla Konta Research unit member


member's photo Simone Attilio Bellezza Head of research unit
Elisabetta Bini Elisabetta Bini Research unit member


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As part of the PRIN 2017 Inventing the Global Environment, the research unit of the University of Trento has convened the panel "Between Science and Politics: Environmental Knowledge Production in the Construction of Contemporary Dams" at the First Conference of the Italian Society of Environmental History (SiSAM), which took place at the University of Catania between 22 and 24 September 2022. During the panel, Francesco Magno presented his research on "Socialist "cooperation" on the Danube. The troubled construction of the Turnu Magurele-Nicopole hydropower station", Sara de Simone presented on "The politics of scientific knowledge production on the environment: the case of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia", while Umberto Tulli discussed the removal of large dams in the US through his presentation "From the "Big Dam Era" to the Environmental Revolution. Large Dams-building and removal in American History".

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On 23 April 2021, the monograph Uomini e animali. Breve storia di una relazione complicata (Il Mulino 2021) was presented as part of the course of contemporary history at the Department of Social Sciences of the University of Naples Federico II.

Professor Guazzaloca (University of Bologna) answered the questions of prof. Simone A. Bellezza and the students of the course tracing the main features of the evolution of the relationship between humans and animals throughout modern and contemporary history: as this research shows, this relationship has been and still remains very complex since it involves the definition of who are the subjects who enjoy rights, how the exploitation of animals has contributed to the scientific, technological and economic development of human civilizations, and how animals have influenced personal and social relationships, changing their nature and significance over time.

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Elisabetta Vezzosi and Elisabetta Bini co-edited a volume entitled Scienziati e guerra fredda. Tra collaborazione e diritti umani (Scientists and the Cold War: Between Collaboration and Human Rights; Viella 2020). This book, thanks to the analysis of almost entirely unpublished documentation, discovers and presents completely original case studies. The volume reconstructs the forms of scientific internationalism that emerged during the Second World War between researchers from the Western Bloc, the Eastern Bloc and the Third World, focusing on the ability of scientists to create networks and transnational institutions capable of overcoming the division into opposing blocs and the hierarchies between the North and the South of the world. The essays show if and when scientists were able to question the political divisions of that period and their efforts in promoting the defense of human rights globally.

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Francesco Cassata published an article in “Italia Contemporanea” no. 294 (December 2020) entitled Campo Gamma. Energia nucelare, Guerra fredda e circolazione transnazionale dei saperi scientifici in Italia (1955-1960) (Gamma Field. Atomic Energy, Cold War and transnational circulation of scientific knowledge in Italy, 1955-1960). The article focuses on the mutagenesis programme in agriculture implemented by the Italia Atomic Energy Commission, starting from 1955, through the establishment of a specific technological and experimental system: the so-called “gamma field”, a piece of agricultural land with a radioisotope of Cobalt-60 at the center. The Italian gamma field went into operation in January 1960 at the Casaccia Laboratory, about twenty miles north of Rome, with a radiation device made available by the US Government for the Atoms for Peace.

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On 27 November 2020 the kick-off meeting of the PRIN 2017 Inventing the Global environment: Science, Politics, Advocacy and the Environment-Development Nexus in the Cold-War and Beyond took place. In addition to the researchers involved in the project, a group of international experts from different fields also took part in the conference: Guido Zolezzi (University of Trento), Yacob Arsano and Gino Cocchiaro (Natural Justice), Francesco Tomaiuolo (Webuild spa), Fabrizio Pisacane (ENEA), Anna Meldolesi, Luigi Cattivelli (CREA), Simona Cerrato (SISSA Medialab), Volodymyr Tykhyy (National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine), Emily Channel-Justice (Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute), Fabio Pistella (former director of ENEA). The project will last three years and includes the participation of numerous external guests, from industry, non-governmental organizations, journalism and research institutions, and shows the strong possible link between historical research and the non-academic world.


As part of PRIN 2017 Inventing the Global Environment the University of Trento has convened an international workshop on the topic "Dam Scientists: exploring the role of hard sciences in framing e environmental impact of dams" that will take place in Trento on 17-18 April 2023. The call for papers can be downloaded here.

As part of PRIN 2017 Inventing the Global Environment the Departments of Social Sciences and of Humanities of the University of Naples Federico II, the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and the Department of History of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy are pleased to announce an open call for papers for the conference Chernobyl as a Historical Caesura: Environment, Politics, and Science to be held in Naples on 5-6 December 2022. The call can be downloaded here.

4 October 2021 - Simone Attilio Bellezza, member of Research Unit 4, has arrived in Kyiv, where he will be visiting scholar at the Department of History of the National University of Kyiv Mohyla University. Simone Bellezza is working at the history of the environmental movement in Ukraine and his primary tasks will be to interview Yuri Shcherbak. Bellezza will also seek forther collaboration with the Department of History and other Ukrainian historian studying the history of the Chernobyl accident and its consequences. Bellezza will remain in Kyiv until 25th of October.

2 October 2021 – Elisabetta Bini, member of Research Unit 4, has reached Munich, where she will be visiting scholar at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society of the Ludwig-Maximillians-Universität Munchen. Elisabetta Bini is now working at a history of the nuclear energy policies during the Cold War and during her stay at the Rachel Carson Center she will present the results of her research to receive the necessary feedback to complete her new book. Bini will stay in Munich until 31st of October.


unit 1

Dipartimento di
Lettere e Filosofia
Università degli Studi
di Trento
Via Tommaso Gar 14 38122, Trento (TN), Italy +39.0461.283797

unit 2

Dipartimento di Antichità,
Filosofia e Storia
Università degli Studi
di Genova
Via Balbi 6 16126, Genova (GE), Italy

unit 3

Dipartimento di
Studi Umanistici
Università degli Studi
di Trieste
Via Lazzaretto Vecchio 8 34123, Trieste (TS), Italy +39.040.5587778

unit 4

Dipartimento di
Scienze Sociali
Università degli Studi
di Napoli Federico II
Vico Monte della Pietà 1 80138, Napoli (NA), Italy +39.081.2535882