Science

A Radical ’70s-Era Group Is Relaunching to Help Scientists Get Political Under Trump

It’s called Science for the People, and its awareness of how science fits into policy and politics is deeply necessary in 2018.

An assortment of Science For the People covers from the 1970s.
Science for the People

Advocates of science are in a bad place right now. Some days, in this Second Year of Trump, scientism—a blanket defense of science as a virtuous and almost holy exercise of objectivity and rationality—feels like the only natural response to the rising darkness. But, tempting as it might be, cheerleading for capital-S “Science” can’t be the answer. Science—as historians of science and practitioners of science and technology studies readily argue—is not an objective refuge; it’s shaped by politics just like any other human endeavor. How can we acknowledge that fact while still arguing for science’s authority and value?

From 1969 through 1989, the group Science for the People tried to do just that. Its members took “science has a politics” as a philosophical starting point and then used that understanding to push for radical change. Early on, the group protested weapons labs. Members worked with the Black Panther Party, helping with their free health clinics, and with the Young Lords Organization, assisting them in offering free lead-poisoning testing services. They sent equipment to Vietnamese scientists and helped Midwestern farmworkers identify signs of pesticide poisoning. They publicly combatted advocates of socio-biology. The group also ran a Science for the People magazine during this time, and its back issues are a treasure trove of conversation between left-wing scientists about the relationship of their work to capitalism, racism, sexism, and imperialism.

And now, at this desperate time, Science for the People is back, as an activist organization and a magazine—this time, published online, with a possible print revival in its future. The new magazine’s first issue is on geoengineering, and the organization has working groups focusing on topics like militarism, labor, and nuclear disarmament. A delegation went to Puerto Rico recently to work on agriculture and energy; the group has been helping tech workers who want to convince their companies to cancel contracts with ICE. Members I spoke with reported that the group is largely comprised of a younger generation of scientists and engineers, working in academia and the private sector, complemented by smaller numbers of science-curious progressives and the old guard who had worked with the group in its first incarnation. The question is whether and how the group’s philosophy, which embraces the possibilities of science while critiquing the way it’s directed and funded, could animate a new generation of socially committed scientist-activists.

Reading about the work the first Science for the People once did, from our vantage in 2018, can be heartbreaking. In the short documentary produced by the group to announce its relaunch, Fern MacDougal, a graduate student in conservation ecology, described the experience of talking to SftP’s original members before the new generation decided to go ahead and begin again: “My immediate reaction was one of intense loss.” MacDougal didn’t elaborate, but for me, all the abundant hopefulness of the original Science for the People’s work is what’s so sad. In some areas—climate, reproductive justice—our situation has become even more perilous now than it was then. Biological determinism has a stubborn way of cropping up again and again in public discourse—a phenomenon that Katherine Yih, a biologist and epidemiologist who was in the Science for the People chapter in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the late 1970s and is working with the group again in 2018, calls “old wine in new bottles.”

Then there’s the sad reality that the very basic 20th-century concept that science is helpful in public life because it helps us make evidence-based decisions is increasingly threatened under Trump. “It feels as though we’re fighting like heck to defend what would have been ridiculous to think we had to defend, back in those old days,” Yih said. “It was just so obvious that science has that capability to improve the quality of life for people, even if it was often being used for militaristic purposes and so forth. But the notion that we had to defend science against our government was just—it wouldn’t have been imaginable, I think.”

The late-’60s origin story of the group also illustrates how comparatively challenged new left-wing groups are today at organizing—even with the structural advantage of the internet. “Science for the People grew out of the left at a historic height, and position of influence,” Christopher Dols, a civil engineer and the organization’s elected publisher, said. The original group, he pointed out, had the advantage of a natural wellspring: the radical caucuses in several scientific professional associations, born from a general public climate of activism and building on decades of intergenerational debate between scientists over the ethics of participation in weapons research.

In 2018, on the other hand, the group doesn’t have the same kind of natural constituency. If scientists were publicly mulling international politics during the Cold War, their present-day counterparts are writing letters to the New York Times making painfully basic arguments for their political relevance. Dols added that young scientists today may feel that there are more obstacles inherent in taking the risks of political activism. Academic precarity is very real for early-career researchers, as are the threats of government surveillance or the potential loss of funding from corporate sources.

But even with all of these challenges ahead of it, the group feels like something totally fresh and vital. For nonscientists who are STEM-friendly and progressive-curious, the updated magazine represents a departure in science communication—a way of writing about science and social problems that doesn’t just assume that more knowledge about what science is doing is all we need. Sigrid Schmalzer, Daniel Chard, and Alyssa Botelho, editors of a collection of documents from the original movement (key pieces from the magazine, pamphlets by members, the FBI’s report on the group), describe the distinction between the first SftP’s approach to public communication and the way other scientific advocacy groups saw it: “While SftP members promoted science education, they did not see public ignorance as the primary constraint on science’s capacity to fully benefit humanity.” In other words, ignorance was not an individual’s “fault,” a gap to be filled up by knowledge. “Rather,” Schmalzer and her co-editors continued, “they critiqued the power structures … that benefited from public ignorance and impeded the production, circulation, and application of socially beneficial scientific knowledge.”

And for the scientist-activists in the group, the idea that science has a politics has become a focus of study. Although I will admit to some despair at the prospect of trying to rally people to support science without leaning on the rah-rah rhetoric of scientism, Christopher Dols thinks the philosophical question of science’s relationship to politics is actually “the best organizing opportunity” when approaching potential members who are scientists. “Many people are actually infinitely liberated by the idea that, yeah, OK, I can be political,” Dols said. “The conflation of scientific neutrality into political neutrality of the scientist as a citizen is actually a trick by mainstream liberal ideology that we’re helping people break with. And those who break join us, and often join us quite enthusiastically, and they are our target core audience and our base.” In 2018, nobody’s work is politically neutral; the more scientists who see that, the better.