Science for the People

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This article is about Science for the People, the political organization. For the radio show and podcast, see Science for the People (podcast).

Science for the People is a left-wing organization that emerged from the antiwar culture of the United States in the 1970s. There have been various attempts to revive the group in different forms, including one effort in 2002 and another that has emerged since 2014.

The original group was composed of professors, students, workers, and other concerned citizens who sought to end potential oppression brought on by pseudoscience, or by what it considered the misuse of science. Science for the People generated much controversy in the 1970s for the radical tactics of some of its members. Herb Fox, one of its founding members, wrote:

I was a founder in 1969-70 of Science for the People. It originated in the coming together of the then one-year-old Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (SESPA) and a group of Harvard and MIT students who had been invited to participate in a session of the AAAS annual meeting. SESPA itself was formed in the aftermath of a struggle in the American Physical Society led by Charlie Schwartz and Martin Perl and others to get the APS to take a stand against the Vietnam war. SftP's disruptive tactics at the AAAS meeting and at many scientific meetings thereafter increased its exposure and the participation of the younger and more militant among scientists and science students. The first issue of Science for the People (1970) was produced and edited by me with a comrade who is now my wife. Subsequent issues were produced by ever changing editorial collectives. Over its first few years differing views arose on what SftP should be. One group wanted Science for the People to assume a supportive role in the class struggle with special attention to the issues of science. Another group wanted to work towards 'A Science for the People.' Most wanted to be the voice of critical consciousness from within the scientific community exposing science against the people and the dangers of the misuse of science. The struggle was painful and disruptive and not carried on with great clarity. Eventually those who were more interested in third world and workers struggles etc. than in science itself left the organization. Over the ensuing years the organization became primarily identified with its magazine which became an outlet for critical discussion of the misuse of science. In the process it became identified with well-known critical academic scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.[1]


E. O. Wilson, a biologist and entomology professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University wrote that "the political objections forcefully made by the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People in particular took me by surprise." Wilson stated:

I had been blindsided by the attack. Having expected some frontal fire from social scientists on primarily evidential grounds, I had received instead a political enfilade from the flank. A few observers were surprised that I was surprised. John Maynard Smith, a senior British evolutionary biologist and former Marxist, said that he disliked the last chapter of Sociobiology himself and "it was also absolutely obvious to me--I cannot believe Wilson didn't know--that this was going to provoke great hostility from American Marxists, and Marxists everywhere." But it was true that I didn't know. I was unprepared perhaps because, as Maynard Smith further observed, I am an American rather than a European. In 1975 I was a political naive: I knew almost nothing about Marxism as either a political belief or a mode of analysis; I had paid little attention to the dynamism of the activist Left, and I had never heard of Science for the People. I was not an intellectual in the European or New York/Cambridge sense. ... After the Sociobiology Study Group exposed me as a counterrevolutionary adventurist, and as they intensified their attacks in articles and teach-ins, other radical activists in the Boston area, including the violence-prone International Committee against Racism, conducted a campaign of leaflets and teach-ins of their own to oppose human sociobiology. As this activity spread through the winter and spring of 1975-76, I grew fearful that it might reach a level embarrassing to my family and the university. I briefly considered offers of professorships from three universities--in case, their representatives said, I wished to leave the physical center of the controversy. But the pressure was tolerable, since I was a senior professor with tenure, with a reputation based on other discoveries, and in any case could not bear to leave Harvard's ant collection, the world's largest and best. For a few days a protester in Harvard Square used a bullhorn to call for my dismissal. Two students from the University of Michigan invaded my class on evolutionary biology one day to shout slogans and deliver antisociobiology monologues. I withdrew from department meetings for a year to avoid embarrassment arising from my notoriety, especially with key members of Science for the People present at these meetings. In 1979 I was doused with water by a group of protestors at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, possibly the only incident in recent history that a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, for the expression of an idea. In 1982 I went to the Science Center at Harvard University under police escort to deliver a public lecture, because of the gathering of a crowd of protestors around the entrance, angered because of the title of my talk: "The coevolution of biology and culture.[2]

2002 revival

In 2002, a group formed using the same name and promoting the same general views. It described its mission as follows:

Science for the People is a website and journal written by working scientists for scientists. At a workshop on science in Florence on November 8th, 2002, a few of us decided to start a magazine for Working Scientists active in the Anti Capitalist Movement, as part of the European Social Forum. The magazine will publish our experiences in popularising science in the European mainstream media, whilst at the same time attempting to give our contributions a political dimension. The purpose is to claim 'Science for the People'. Original articles written by ourselves and published will be republished in the magazine so each of us may learn from the experience of the others.[3]

Although the newer group is organizationally unrelated to the 1970s group, the new group received a message of approval from Herb Fox, one of the founders of the original group.[1]

2014-: SftP at MIT

Since Fall 2014, an effort has been underway to revive Science for the People at MIT (SftP-MIT). Inspired by the original 1970s-1980s group, as well as MIT's tradition of campus activism, SftP-MIT aims to explore MIT’s larger social purpose, determine how well it is fulfilling that purpose, and work towards a research community that is more diverse, ethically informed, socially engaged, and democratic. Inspired by the historical SftP group's view that science and technology aren't always neutral, SftP-MIT aims to explore the interaction between the science, technology and society. In particular, SftP-MIT provides a forum for a critical discussion of the social, political and ethical consequences of science and technology, through a seminar series and reading groups. In Spring 2015, the group organized a forum featuring Noam Chomsky and Subrata Ghoshroy, called “Science at MIT: From the Cold War to the Climate Crisis”,[4] which drew broad interest from the MIT community.

Notable members

See also


External links