Atlas Obscura is organizing trips! Join us on an adventure »
Today Only: 50% off Atlas Obscura books and calendars at Barnes & Noble »

Why a Radical 1970s Science Group Is More Relevant Than Ever

A second life for an organization of scientists who questioned how their work was being used.

An early symbol used by Science for the People.
An early symbol used by Science for the People. Science for the People

In December 1971, a man left a major scientific conference in handcuffs, having thrown a tomato at former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. It hit the front of the podium from which he was speaking, but “I could have hit him between the eyes if I wanted to,” the produce-slinger told The New York Times.

Along with the tomato came paper airplanes printed with Vietnamese flags and shouted jeers—that Humphrey supported the war, that he was boring. Led by Science for the People, an organization of radical scientists, the protesters wanted to jolt the often apolitical scientific establishment into recognizing the ways that powerful institutions use science for ideological ends. The year before, the group had tried to give Edward Teller, whose work was crucial to the creation of the hydrogen bomb, a “Dr. Strangelove Award.”

As cheeky as the group’s protests could be, the FBI took Science for the People seriously, tracking and reporting on their activities. As far as the Bureau could ascertain, Science for the People was not directly responsible for the tomato-thrower, but the group was picketing labs dedicated to war research and asking scientists to pledge not to work on military projects. Since they would “do anything to break down the offensive/defensive capability of the United States,” as one FBI report put it, the agency saw them as a real threat.

“Science for the People came out very strongly in saying that science is not politically neutral,” says Sigrid Schmalzer, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “They had a critique of the entire system.”

Protesters at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1969.
Protesters at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1969. Paul Connell/The Boston Globe/ Getty Images

Though Science for the People represented “the most important radical science movement in U.S. history,” write Schmalzer and her coeditors in the forthcoming book Science for the People, close to 50 years later, the group has been largely forgotten and “almost completely overlooked by historians of U.S. social movements.” But in the past few years, a new generation of scientists have been working to revive the group. In February, veterans of Science for the People and new enthusiasts will meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to reestablish it as a national organization.

“There are still questions about the priorities of science. Who’s paying for what research, and what are they trying to get out of it?” says Ben Allen, a biologist in Tennessee and one of the leaders of the new effort. “We’re asking scientists to think deeper about why things are the way they are, who’s in power, and why science goes the way it does under this system.”

Science for the People began in the political upheaval of the 1960s, when scientists started reevaluating the relationship between their work and government power. “I wrote this letter to the editor of Physics Today saying how we physicists should pay attention to the Vietnam War, we are involved, we ought to discuss it at least,” University of California, Berkeley physicist Charles Schwartz told the American Institute of Physics, in an oral history interview in 1995. The letter was rejected, and soon Schwartz, along with other colleagues, was organizing to create a radical caucus of the American Physical Society, which publishes Physics Today.

In short order, groups in Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Boston, and other progressive strongholds started working under the same banner. In 1970 they began publishing a magazine of their own, Science for the People, which was also used as their most common name. (Some members also used Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, or SESPA.) Covers of early issues of the magazine showed a raised red fist, with a white hand holding a beaker in front of it.

Scientists, Science for the People argued, could no longer maintain a posture of objectivity. Their research, however purely intellectual in conception, was being coopted for political and corporate ends. “In many ways discovery and application, scientific research and engineering, can no longer be distinguished from each other,” they wrote.

“They had a quite distinctive approach,” says Kelly Moore of Loyola University-Chicago, author of Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945–1975. After World War II, scientists were often seen as servants of the nation, who provided facts and technologies for use by other institutions. Scientists who objected to weapon-making, it was thought, could simply refuse to participate. “Science for the People was not interested in this ongoing story that the scientist was merely a technician that someone else used,” says Moore. “They were asking about production of knowledge, capitalism, profit, and racism. They were not assuming that scientists were neutral actors. They assumed scientists were deeply implicated.”

An early magazine cover, 1971.
An early magazine cover, 1971. Science for the People

In practice, this meant that the members started reconsidering how they should direct their scientific energy and expertise. An ecology lab might turn its focus from theory to agricultural production, or physicists and engineers might expose a secretive group of academics who consulted with the Pentagon on weapons used in Vietnam. Activists involved in Science for the People also worked with social movements, channeling their expertise into activism, such as providing farm workers with information about the dangers of pesticides.

The magazine included writing about the dangers of militarism, environmental destruction, and sociobiological theories that connected human behavior, race, gender, and genetics—a form of biological determinism that brought eugenics to mind. Contributors also considered the problems of sexism and racism within science. A 1982 issue, for example, included a “Feminist Critique of Scientific Objectivity.

Science for the People wasn’t the only group created around this time to link science and politics, but its scientists had politics further to the left than the Union of Concerned Scientists, formed in 1969, and other groups. Some these groups operated by providing information to the public and advising the government; Science for the People was focused on how knowledge is produced and why.

The group’s writing was often grounded in Marxist analysis of power, capitalism, and class interests. “In the context of contemporary of American corporate capitalism … [science] largely contributes to the exploitation and oppression of most of the people both in this country and abroad,” members wrote in a 1970 essay, “Toward a Science for the People” (which the journal Science refused to publish, over the objections of some reviewers). The group was far enough to the left that representatives were invited to travel to China, Vietnam, and Nicaragua, but not far enough to the left for some members, who were more committed to revolutionary politics and eventually split off.

Throughout the 1970s direct action—an even more unusual political strategy for scientists—was also part of the group’s work. Besides disrupting American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meetings, members took part in a “research stoppage” protesting the anti-ballistic missile system and led pickets outside New York’s Riverside Research Institute, which was involved in weapons development, according to the editors of the Science for the People book. Members of Science for the People supported and participated in direct actions led by others, too.

These direct actions weren’t violent. As one “Call to Action” published in the magazine put it, one of the key purposes of disrupting the AAAS meetings was “to bring the concerned and well intentioned scientists there over to a more radical perspective” and to “bring to light the basic political issues involved in the present practice of science.” They wanted other scientists to consider the baseline assumptions of the scientific community more closely—as any good scientist should.

Science for the People at 2017's March for Science.
Science for the People at 2017’s March for Science. John Vandermeer/Science for the People Ann Arbor

By the 1980s, the group was no longer as involved in direct action as it had been when Humphrey faced down that tomato, and for most of the decade publishing the magazine became the group’s main focus. Science for the People finally dissolved in 1990, but the work it started never totally disappeared. Other, issue-specific organizations had spun off, such as the New World Agricultural and Ecology Group and the Council for Responsible Genetics. Even in the 2010s, there is still a listserv connecting people interested in the ideas and values Science for the People had defined.

Schmalzer, the UMass Amherst historian, first learned about the group through China: Science Walks on Two Legs, a book about members’ visit to China. “It was a really inspiring vision—even for those of us who have more expertise in China and some historical distance—that science should serve the people, and that militarism creates science that doesn’t do that,” she says. In 2014, she convened a conference that she originally imagined would be a few old-timers gathered around a table to tell stories, but that quickly grew to a three-day event.

Since then, younger scientists have begun starting new chapters of Science for the People across the country. “I think a lot of people saw the power in this historical body of thought, the books and magazines that were produced, and the spirit of that slogan, ‘Science for the People,’” says Allen. “It’s powerful and connects with people quickly.”

After all, the passions of Science for the People in the 1970s and ’80s remain relevant—and perhaps even more visible—today. Scientists still depend on the military for funding, sexism is still a problem in scientific departments, and corporations and their desires still dictate the work and survival even of academic scientists.

“I looked at the mission statement in the old magazine and thought, ‘I could still sign on today,’” says Katherine Yih, a biologist who was involved in the original group and is planning to attend the convention next month.

Scientists have often been reluctant to step away from their positions as objective experts to become activists. But the core idea of Science for the People—that science and politics cannot be divided—is a less radical notion than it was in the 1970s. Today, with the strength of climate denial in American politics and growing nuclear tension, it has a new resonance. A new generation of scientists is now wondering how they can use their training to keep the world whole.