Free Radicals

A Radical Science Movement Rises Again

by Alexis Takahashi

A digital illustration of an SftP protest. People hold several signs including ‘Science for People Not Profit’, ‘Fight Pollution at Work’, and “Physicists Say Stop Atomic Bomb’. Artwork by Alexa Fishman.

Science for the People returns to fight the Trump regime.

March 31, 2017


To most people, science and social justice have as much to do with one another as beets and bowling. With so few even acknowledging the political nature of science, let alone nerding out to obscure ideas like strong objectivity or the military-academic-industrial complex, it was easy to feel all alone in the world. Worse, having no historical reference for what a progressive science movement could look like made organizing in this space feel a lot like stumbling around in the dark. Or at least that’s how I felt before I stumbled across Science for the People.

Science for the People (SftP) was the leftist science movement of my dreams. From 1969 to 1989, SftP served as the radical conscience of science, mobilizing thousands of scientists, science teachers, and activists across the country. Who was SftP? What could be learned from SftP in terms of how we organize today? I wanted to find out everything I could about my organizing ancestors.

Science gets its own movement

“The war, the war, the war.” Sigrid Schmalzer, a historian of science at University of Massachusetts Amherst and editor of the forthcoming book, Science for the People: Documents from America’s Radical Scientists, credits the anti-war movement as the primary catalyst for the SftP movement. In 1969, Charlie Schwartz asked the American Physical Society (APS) to take a stand against the Vietnam War. Schwartz, a physicist from Berkeley felt troubled by the role of physicists in the creation of the Atomic Bomb during World War II, and the subsequent complicity of science in Vietnam. After APS denied his request, he decided to form a resistance group called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (SESPA) that quickly attracted hundreds of scientists, forming a loose network of semi-autonomous chapters across the country. “I’m not sure that absent the Vietnam War there would’ve been that same kind of energy that was needed to produce that kind of a movement, where enough people were angry enough and motivated enough to take the time out of doing whatever it was that they were supposed to be doing for tenure or promotion and devote themselves to this project that wasn’t going to do anything for them professionally.”

The most prominent work of SESPA was the ‘Science for the People’ magazine, which ultimately became the new name of the organization. The group tapped Herb Fox to spearhead the magazine. Fox, having a rather unconventional background for a physicist, brought a strong Marxist analysis to the publication. “I joined the Communist Party when I was 16, I was expelled when I was 19, and I’m very proud of both of those.” In Fox’s view, the issues plaguing science are grounded in broader systems of economic power, rather than the moral choices of individuals. “The reason that we have more science against the people than science for the people is not because of bad scientists actually. There are a few. But it’s because of the system. How come the Department of War, which has been renamed the Department of Defense, why are they the primary funders of technical research?”

Over the course of its two-decade tenure, the magazine tackled a diversity of issues: investigative reports on JASON, the elite group of government researchers who advise the Department of Defense; explorations of radical science education; and critiques the use of genetic engineering amongst many others. As Schmalzer noted, “the magazine provided this really consistent venue for the voices of scientists and engineers and doctors and teachers and others involved in the STEM field to articulate a perspective on their work that is just not covered by the mainstream.”

The Fight Against Sociobiology

Aside from the magazine, SftP took on an array of work ranging from fighting corporate agriculture in the Global South to providing technical assistance to ally organizations such as the Black Panthers and the Clamshell Alliance. But the issue SftP is probably most well known for was in the field of genetics.

“I’m a geneticist so that’s driven me to want to be critical of genetic arguments that are made for things like racism .” Jon Beckwith is a bacterial geneticist at Harvard, most famous for having isolated the first bacterial gene in 1969. Although most scientists would have simply celebrated their finding in private, Beckwith immediately called a press conference to warn the public about the potential dangers of genetic engineering. Seeing the political implications of his work, he joined SftP soon after. When he was given an award by the American Society of Microbiology a year later, he used this platform to publicly donate the cash award to a Black Panthers defense fund.

“Saying people’s genes are the source of everything including things like intelligence was exactly what underlied the eugenics movement historically.” When Beckwith saw the headlines praising E. O. Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, he sensed history repeating itself. The theory of sociobiology argued that social behavior was the result of evolution, and provided biological explanations for such things as rape and male dominance over women.

Concerned that sociobiology was the new eugenics, Beckwith organized other prominent scientific voices such as Richard Levins, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Lewontin, and together they undertook a systematic critique sociobiology. Publishing several articles, presenting educational workshops, and speaking at scientific panels, the SftP Sociobiology group leveraged their scientific expertise to debunk many of Wilson’s racist and sexist claims. Other academics joined the chorus of criticism, and eventually sociobiology went from being scientific fact to ‘controversial idea’.

A New Day for SftP

In 1989, SftP collapsed in the midst of organizational financial problems and a cultural wave of conservatism. Since then, there has never been another significant, organized leftist movement in science. But under Trump’s anti-science regime, Schmalzer thinks that this might change. “Is this one of those moments again where people are angry enough and politicized enough where scientists are kind of shaken from what they’re usually doing?”

Ben Allen thinks so. “Science for the people is just as relevant, if not even more so today than it was in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.” Allen is a biologist based out of Knoxville, Tennessee, and an organizer of the SftP revitalization movement. The revitalization effort, which grew out of the 2014 Science for the People conference, has seen their numbers skyrocket since the election. “Lately it’s been just exploding with people with interest in joining us, and particularly in relation to the March for Science”. The fledgling group is undertaking several projects, including organizing around the March for Science, planning a science solidarity trip to Cuba, and reviving the magazine for the modern day.

Fox offered up his own ideas for new ways that scientists can become involved in grassroots movements. “Under our system the meaning of labor saving devices is increased profits for the 1%, and a number of our fellow citizens go out of work. And that’s not fair. So this is an issue I think could be used to connect grassroots hard felt anger with the work of science and has the chance in the long run of people beginning to understand that there’s a basic systemic problem here.”

Ultimately, the questions posed in the founding documents for SftP forty years ago are ones that scientists must still grapple with today:

“Why are we scientists? For whose benefit do we work? What is the full measure of our moral and social responsibility?”


 

 

Alexis Takahashi is a writer, activist, farmer, and ramen connoisseur. You can follow her at @atak91