Science for the People—A Ten Year Retrospective

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Science for the People—A Ten Year Retrospective

by Kathy Greeley & Sue Tafler

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 1, January/February 1979, p. 18–25

Several months ago, when we were first asked to write a brief history of SftP, we accepted without realizing just how difficult that task might be. SftP had done so many different things, it had involved so many different people with differing political opinions at different times and different places, that we could have written a book. It was only after we began to organize the material we collected that we realized the history of SftP could not be understood as a simple linear chronology. Rather it is an intricate web of people, issues, politics and activities. What gave this history coherence was the conception of the role of science and technology in our society that has evolved within SftP over the past ten Years.

The economic affluence of post-World War II America sparked a boom in science and technology, and it became clear that these elements would play an increasing role in our lives. The question was what kind of role would that be, who would have control over it, and who would it benefit. SftP was the only organization that began to develop a radical critique of science and technology. SftP came to understand that science, although grounded in objective, material realities, is nonetheless neither “neutral” nor “value-free”. The way science is used – the kinds of questions asked, the kinds of research funded, the application of scientific theories – is determined by those controlling the pursestrings and values of each society. In our society, science serves the class interests, both materially and ideologically, of a small elite group that values profit over people and private property over human well-being. The elite mystique of wisdom and infallibility built up around science and scientists – and the widely held and deliberately fostered belief that only such experts can know what is best for society – effectively serves to obscure the class nature of the practice of science.

Many factors contributed to a general political awakening in the 1960’s. It was the Vietnam War though, that really catalyzed the birth of SftP. In January 1969, a caucus of dissident physicists introduced an antiwar resolution at the American Physical Society convention. At the same time, a group of industrial-based engineers began meeting in Boston. In March, 1969, scientists and students joined together to force MIT to stop all war-related research on campus. That same year, a California group, Scientists for Social and Political Action (SSPA, later changed to SESPA with the E for Engineers), began publishing a national newsletter. This created a communication network among individuals, caucuses and study groups across the country. From this, a movement was born whose slogan became “Science for the People”.

The early activities of this new organization naturally focused on the Vietnam War and weapons research. SESPA members participated in the November, 1969 antiwar march. SESPA members also marched and distributed leaflets against the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM). Berkeley SESPA circulated a pledge at various scientific meetings stating: 

I will not participate in war research on weapons production. I further pledge to counsel my students and urge my colleagues to do the same. 

In 1972, the Berkeley chapter published the leaflet “Science Against the People”, an expose of the Jason project, a symbiosis between the university and the military complex. Jason helped develop the automated battlefield and in general cultivated academics as advisors to the Department of Defense. SESPA also supported Karl Armstrong during his trial for the unintended fatality in the bombing of the Army Math Research Center (AMRC) in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Madison chapter published the booklet “The AMRC Papers” demanding the closing of the Center. 

While the truths about the war sparked moral outrage among many, some people began to see it as part of a growing pattern of U.S. imperialism. These people realized that the end of the war did not mean the end of U.S. involvement in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or even other Asian nations. Nor would it signal the end of the exploitation of blacks and other minorities, women or working people in this country. The people in SftP wanted to build a movement that would fight sexism, racism and elitism around the world, and specifically within the scientific community.


In December, 1969, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) invited some young scientists and graduate students to talk about their research at their annual conference in Boston. Instead, this Boston group decided to hold a symposium entitled “The Sorry State of Science”. The title itself started a series of confrontations with the AAAS. Attendance at the AAAS brought together these symposium planners, SESPA, and others, vitalizing and enlarging the membership of SESPA in Boston.

The AAAS is the largest and most diverse association of people involved in science and science-related work. While the AAAS represents a bastion of establishment ideology that seeks technological solutions for social and political problems, it was a useful political arena and a place to meet other sympathetic scientists. SftP has attended nearly every AAAS convention since 1969. Reorganization of the AAAS itself has been one immediate goal of SftP. Efforts to democratize the structure in order to eliminate the intimidating, elitist nature of sessions have ranged from meetings with AAAS officials to open the conference to the public, to rearranging chairs into circles to encourage more discussion. At the 1970 Chicago convention, resolutions were presented which opposed the use of scientific work for political repression, called for support for leftist scientists and academics fired for being outspoken, and demanded an end to discrimination against women scientists. Eight resolutions toward “Equality for Women in Science” were prepared by a caucus of SESPA women. SftP continued to participate in caucuses of women scientists and at the 1972 American Chemical Society meeting, two SESPA women dressed in lab coats and draped in chains got up and read a statement about the problems of women scientists.

SftP also went to the AAAS meetings to expose particularly reactionary research. Critiques were distributed at these targeted sessions and members insistently pointed out the political nature of the work. Needless to say, SftP was not welcomed with open arms by the AAAS officials nor by certain participants. In 1971, one SESPA member was attacked with a knitting needle by the wife of Garret Hardin (the population theorist) when Hardin’s speech was interrupted. At that same meeting, Daniel Moynihan cancelled his talk to avoid a confrontation. At the Washington meeting in 1972, when some SESPA people tried to set up a literature table, the AAAS called in the police to arrest them. They were later released as the police felt SftP did have the right to distribute literature and were not creating a nuisance.

SftP’s strategy at AAAS conferences included organizing alternative sessions, although it was not until 1976 that they were officially recognized. These workshops were organized to encourage questions and discussion, to raise political awareness, and to develop the concept of a People’s Science. These sessions were enormously successful, often drawing larger participation than the traditional ones. A paper was distributed at the 1970 AAAS that discussed the connection between applied and “pure” research, the interest of government and corporations in research results, and the consequences of so-called “neutral” research. It tried to begin the development of the idea of what would be a true “science for the people.”

People’s Science

As the organization grew, so did its scope of activities. In Boston, SftP tried to implement people’s science through the Technical Assistance Project (TAP) in cooperation with the Black Panthers and other local groups. The idea behind TAP was to demystify technology by teaching people basic technical skills, like working on automobiles, sound systems, chemical analyses and self-defense. mechanisms. This was the beginning of returning control to the people. Unfortunately, the project was never really successful for a number of reasons, including the fact that TAP members ended up doing all the work themselves instead of teaching others.

Another people’s science project was motivated by the desire to contribute scientific services to national liberation struggles. SftP meetings in the summer of 1971 led to the creation of the Science for Vietnam project. Science for Vietnam had chapters in several cities and cooperated with similar movements in Europe by sending textbooks and technical information to North Vietnam.

Another aspect of developing a science to serve the people was demystifying science and explaining it so people could understand how science affected them. SftP’s early interest in science teaching brought it to vocal attendance at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conferences in 1971, 1972 and subsequent years. Issues raised at the NSTA included the role of science education and tracking in society, and the “hidden curriculum” of social myths being conveyed in science textbooks. A small group in Boston began to meet in conjunction with SESPA to develop alternative curricula and resources for high schools. Veterans of several NSTA conferences, they began staging their own one-day conferences for local teachers. The March 1973 and December 1974 conferences included workshops on teaching political issues in science classes and creating science and society courses. The April 1977 conference entitled “Inequality and Schools” attempted to respond to the Boston school busing crisis. Science Teaching Groups doing similar work have since sprung up in several other chapters as well.

IQ, Genetics, and Biological Determinism

SftP has applied its analysis to many issues in science and technology: energy and the environment, occupational health, imperialism in the Third World, the plight of scientific workers as well as professionals and science teaching. But the organization has played a particularly important role in the genetics and IQ controversy. Genetics research is the Establishment’s latest hope for a technical panacea for society’s ills. On the other hand, biological determinism has a long history of trying to find “scientific proof of the inferiority of women, blacks and working class people. Since 1971, with the outpourings of Herrnstein, Jensen, and others claiming racial bases of intelligence, SftP has led the fight against this latest attempt to justify racism and the status quo. SftP made sure the IQ issue was not ignored at the International Genetics Congress in 1973.

Another use of biological determinism was appearing in the form of assertions that XYY males were genetically predisposed to criminally aggressive behavior. The Genetic Engineering Group of the Boston chapter took action to discredit these assertions and succeeded in stopping Harvard University research with newborn XYY males in the winter of 1974. In 1975, the Genetic Engineering Group moved from the XYY research issue to a public campaign against the dangers of Recombinant DNA research. They spoke out within the scientific community which was wrestling with the creation of guidelines for research funded by the National Institute of Health. This SftP group (now the Recombinant DNA group) also testified at the Cambridge, MA city council hearings in 1976 on the need for public control of potentially dangerous biological research. The Science for the People chapters in Amherst, MA and St. Louis, MO were also active in bringing the Recombinant DNA issue to the attention of their city councils.

Biological determinism again reared its ugly head with the publication and popularization of a massive book by Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Biological Synthesis. Groups opposed to sociobiology started meeting within the Boston, San Francisco and Ann Arbor chapters of Science for the People. In the fall of 1975 the Ann Arbor chapter sponsored a conference at the University of Michigan on biological determinism. The various speakers attacked this new ideology, disguised as an objective scientific theory, for being merely a rationalization of the bourgeois status quo. The conference speeches were gathered into a book, Biology as a Social Weapon (Burgess Publishing Co., 1977). Science for the People groups continued to work at discrediting sociobiology, both as bad science and as reactionary ideology, sponsoring public forums at Stony Brook and Boston in 1977, and a. symposium at the February 1978 AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C.

China Trip

One of the notable events in SftP history was the visit in 1973 of ten SftP members to the People’s Republic of China. China had been the focus of considerable study in SftP because of the Chinese commitment to developing a nonelitist science that would serve the interests of the people. The SftP delegation was one of the first to travel to China from the U.S. after the Cultural Revolution. They visited research institutes, universities, factories, agricultural communes, and even a mental hospital. They discussed social and political issues – who decides what kind of research is pursued, how these decisions are made and how they are implemented. Upon returning from China, the ten authored a book called China: Science Walks on Two Legs, that described their experiences and gave many examples of People’s Science actually being practiced. A second delegation has recently returned from the PRC. The focus of their trip was agriculture, and food production and distribution.

Current Directions

SftP has been fairly successful working within professional academic circles. However, 1977 marked a move, spurred on by the women’s caucus, towards activities rooted more in the surrounding communities and less university oriented. More effort has gone into working in coalitions with groups like INFACT, Mobilization for Survival, and United Farmworkers, as well as local groups. Various chapters have offered workshops and forums in places like food co-ops and public libraries, and some are developing resources for people to use who need information but do not have scientific expertise.

The Magazine

Science for the People magazine is nearly as old as the organization itself. In 1970, with the eighth issue of the SESPA newsletter, people in Boston decided to change the format of the newsletter to that of a “news-magazine” that would include articles of increased depth and analysis. The new format, it was hoped, would appeal to nonmembers and attract new people to the group while continuing to act as a forum for discussion of organizational activities. Early issues included articles about scientific and technical workers organizing, critiques of establishment science and exposes of the abuses of science and technology.

This more extensive format required more time and organization than the old newsletter. Rotating collectives of 4-6 people took on the responsibility for production of one whole issue from start to finish. This structure ensured that people would learn a wide range of skills (typesetting, layout, etc.) while demystifying the production process and avoiding dependency on or control by any one person or group. Of course, there were varying degrees of commitment to putting out the magazine. Some people worked tremendously hard on one issue, burned out and were never seen again. And although volunteers worked on production on an ad hoc basis, it was because of a handful of dedicated members that the magazine always came out.

As the magazine grew in size and circulation, it became increasingly evident that a group of people holding full time jobs could not produce a quality magazine in their spare time without significant help. In 1973, a Magazine Coordination Committee (MC2) was set up, and a paid position of magazine coordinator was created to aid the committee in establishing stability and continuity in the magazine and in organizing production.

Although the editorial collectives seemed to be a good idea they proved to have many drawbacks in actual practice. Too much time and energy went into recruiting each new collective, while wholesale replacement of magazine personnel was thought to prevent political and stylistic continuity. Moreover, new labor and energy often had to be recurited from outside the organization, and many members objected to the national voice of the organization being determined by new people with little familiarity with its history and goals. For these and sundry other reasons, late in 1974 three separate committees with slowly rotating memberships – editorial, production, and distribution – were set up. This structure has proven more successful than the collectives: full participation in the work of the magazine is far less demanding, there is more continuity issue to issue, people on a committee are able to develop stronger working relationships, and there is more of a chance to plan ahead for future issues.

The magazine has been a crucial activity of the organization as it has tied together the various chapters and isolated individuals scattered throughout the country and has been the primary tool of outreach for the movement as well. It has been the general feeling, however, that it is important for chapters outside Boston to become more involved in magazine work. But the logistics of this have never been worked out satisfactorily. The Stony Brook chapter did produce two issues of the magazine (in 1974) and a number of individuals outside Boston contribute editorial work, but the magazine has predominantly been an activity of the Boston Chapter.

Over the years, the content and style of the magazine have changed considerably along with the production process. During the early ’70’s, many articles naturally targeted war-related research. The language was confrontational, often rhetorical, and the appeal was mainly to people who already shared our political perspective. In the last few years, there has been a real effort to speak to a broader audience. While we still maintain a radical analysis, we now try to avoid articles that are overly technical or steeped in political jargon. We are also more concerned to show how the scientific issues to which we address ourselves relate to the conditions and struggles of the nonscientific working population. Feminism has also come to play an important role in the magazine, both in the number of articles that specifically concern women and in the expression of a feminist point of view around a variety of issues.

Organizational Structure

Science for the People is organized as a loose federation of chapters. Each chapter is autonomous in that its activities are determined by the needs and interests of the members. Many chapters are divided into groups that focus on specific issues like energy, nutrition, genetic engineering, etc. But, because there is no mechanism for discussion and decision-making, the organization as a whole has not actually taken a position on any of these issues.

Regional conferences have played an important role in binding together and overcoming isolation of chapters. They were originally called in order to define our politics more clearly and to develop a wider organizational base with an eye towards organizing on a national level. The conferences (Eastern – 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978; Western – 1973, 1978; Midwestern – 1974, 1977, 1978) have built a stronger network of communications between the chapters and have hosted some important discussions around activities and problems of SftP and the magazine. While the changes have been slow, over the years there has been some progress made towards more coordinated actions, and a national conference has been planned for March, 1979.

The establishment of a Science for the People office in Boston has been an important factor in stabilizing the organization. It has functioned more as a central clearinghouse for information than as a national headquarters, however, and has provided a fixed location for production of the magazine. Initially, the “center” was located in donated space in a house owned by one of the members. Office work was done on a volunteer basis. In 1972, after considerable debate about having any “paid workers” and about job description, the membership decided to have a “compensated” office coordinator to organize and teach people about office tasks, define problems and weaknesses, and work with the steering committee (representatives from each activity group plus at-large members). In 1974, the office was moved to rented commercial space and then again in 1976 to its current, more centrally accessible and somewhat larger space.

The office, the magazine and the two part-time staff people (the second being the magazine coordinator, first hired in 1973) have provided the organization a center and a focus. The fact that this activity – and thus much control over the organization as well – is located in Boston has created a considerable imbalance of power among chapters. While people have tried to be sensitive to this, and numerous schemes and resolutions have been proposed to involve other chapters more directly in magazine work and organizational decision-making, it is only recently, with the number, size and strength of other chapters growing, that there is serious (and welcome) challenge to the “Bostocentricity” of the organization.

Politics of Science for the People

At certain points in our history the issue of establishing a definite political identity dominated our time and energy, but for the most part our politics have remained unformalized and implicit in our actions. To some people viewing us we seemed to avoid politics all together, and yet to others we have seemed overly political.

Since we were founded as a “non-organization” with no constraints on membership, our members have spanned the left spectrum and have included Marxist-Leninists progressive-liberals, anarchists, democratic socialists and many others. With a few significant exceptions, Science for the People has tried to be an organization in which most left-progressive people would feel comfortable.

However, some of us have felt dissatisfied with our amorphous political image. Shouldn’t we have a political program both to present to prospective members and to specify our own priorities? One attempt to establish principles of unity was made in 1974-1976 by a group of members who came to be called the Unity Caucus. The Unity Caucus proposed a draft of ciples of unity based on an anti-imperialist and leadership-by-the-working-class analysis. Other members of Science for the People reacted very negatively to the struggle for adoption of these principles, feeling pushed and fearing that any set of strict principles would be used to limit membership and to exclude long-time members from the organization. Also, the concept of working class leadership raised questions about the role professionals should play. Some resistance to the principles of unity came from the academic background of many of our members who were personally uncomfortable with the self-criticism implicit in the principles and who wanted to avoid any group definitions. Many people opposed the way the Unity Caucus put forth their politics, their insensitivity and inability to relate them to the particulars of SftP. Some members felt that the Unity Caucus’ belief in their own position being the best and only way to define Science for the People would lead to cleavage rather than unity. It is important to note that the Unity Caucus included some strongly committed and influential founding members of the organization. When the Unity Caucus failed in their struggle, they left the organization.

The experience of Science for the People with the Unity Caucus led to an unfortunate backlash against virtually any political discussion from which the organization is only now starting to recover. Reacting to the feeling of being pushed to define a definite political line, members in post-Unity Caucus days have been wary of any sense of the “right way.” In this political vacuum, many of us have backed off from sharing our experiences and political views and from defining our organization explicitly even as anticapitalist or prosocialist.As the organization grows larger and other chapters besides Boston grow stronger, however, there is more and more interest in developing a national decision-making structure or at least a stronger network. Increasingly over the years some members have felt the need for the organization at least to develop a more detailed and coherent analysis of science and to define our goals and strategies for reaching them more explicitly. At the same time, we want an organization which allows for the expression and discussion of different points of view. That there is room in SftP for people to differ has been one of the strengths of the organization.

If the growth of a national organization is to continue, some important questions must be raised about our goals and strategies. We do not expect many of these questions to be resolved: maintaining a consciousness of the issues has been an important process for the organization. Through evaluation and self-criticism, we hope to learn from our past experiences and increase the effectiveness of our work.

One question is who should be in Science for the People? In the popular media we are usually portrayed as a small group of professional academic scientists. While some of our members are indeed academics, SftP has a broader base which includes students, high school teachers, health workers, industrial scientists, and many people who work outside science are all part of the group. But, SftP, although committed to supporting women, Third World and working-class struggles, has remained predominantly a white, college-educated, professional organization. This to some degree reflects the class composition of the science world, but it also reflects just how little impact our work in SftP has had on the nonscientific public.

We have supported many progressive struggles such as those of the United Farmworkers, the J.P. Stevens textile workers and the unionizing efforts of technical and medical workers, but with varying amounts of energy and attention and without any systematic approach. We have also looked within the communities we live in to find what are the issues which we want to support, but we have not been integrated into our neighborhoods as a place community people often come to or look to for help

To whom are we addressing ourselves? Who is our audience and constituency? We have consistently and successfully targeted the scientific worker, but we are also concerned with talking to other workers in the contexts of their workplace and their communities. This task has, to date, received comparatively little of our energies, however, and has been met with a corresponding degree of success.

How should our political viewpont be reflected in our organizational structure? SftP has long been committed to working as a collective or group of collectives with no one member vested with more power than any other. Decisions are made democratically, and almost always by consensus. There are no officers, no directors, no bosses. Working this way entails controversy and struggle. It can be time consuming and frustrating. But it is also a crucial aspect of developing mutual respect for one another, commitment and responsibility to the organization, and generally raising the level of political understanding.

Problems of sexism, racism and elitism have emerged repeatedly in our work as well as in the internal process of the organization. Self-proclaimed radicals can still be elitist, sexist and racist and act in ways that discourage participation of non-whites, women or people without college degrees. We realize that changing this takes time and continual struggle – especially for many of us who come from backgrounds (particularly academic) that foster such attitudes and encourage an isolated, individualistic workstyle. But in order to change society, we must transform ourselves in the process.

Progress has been made, especially in the area of sexism. In the early years, women had to struggle to be heard on this issue. Some women left the organization to devote their energies to fighting sexism elsewhere. More recently, other women have succeeded, through the support of women’s caucuses, in making the organization take seriously the whole issue of personal process. It has become clear that workstyle, tone of meetings, and such have been barriers to effective political action in many radical organizations. It is therefore essential to change the ways of interacting that we bring into the organization from the outside society by concerted and consistent evaluation and criticism of our own process.

Impact of SftP

It is difficult to assess the importance or impact of SftP. It will probably never be clear, for example, what our effect was in the anti-Vietnam war movement. Even our role in the separation of Department of Defense research labs from universities such as MIT is of unknown significance, in light of the continuation of the same research in now independent military research labs.

In the scientific community, our critique of “bad science” has produced controversy and made other people more critical. The AAAS itself has become more open to political issues – a change for the good and one for which SftP deserves much credit. The AAAS will pass resolutions now which ten years ago it would not even discuss. Our effect is also clearly seen in the form letter now received by all organizers of AAAS symposia which spells out how to handle disrupters!

We have tried to show that no one issue in science exists in isolation. Unlike other groups who have fought the IQ and genetics issue, for example, SftP did so not on an issue-by-issue basis but from a general critique of science under capitalism. The same may be said of our work against sociobiology, which has been an important factor in the discrediting of this “discipline” among many scientists. At the same time, it must be noted that school curricula and college texts have started to include sociobiology as the “accepted wisdom” even as academics are backing off.

Science for the People has also had an important impact on its own members. One significant reason for our survival is clearly that the organization has been rewarding enough to some members for them to persist in putting great effort into its continuity. Over and over long-time members have told us such things as “involvement in Science for the People has balanced my professional work” or that “my activity group kept my mind working so I am not just following the typical career path”. We have been told that SftP has offered a chance to “develop a new life style and to work according to my politics”.

Of course, SftP has been far more than a comfortable support group for its members. In its activities and publications it has served as a forum for the development of a radical critique of science and its applications. This is an important task in a world in which the role of science is enormous and becomes larger every year. But SftP has, at the same time, come to appreciate the vital importance of internal process and the application of its political theory to its own practice.

Most organizations that originated during the Anti-War years have long since come and gone. SftP has not only survived, but has grown, in part because it was based on an understanding of the crucial role of science in supporting that war and the imperialist system generally. Obviously, neither imperialism nor the science and technology used to maintain it ended with the victory of the Vietnamese. But the key strength of SftP may be that it has not only offered a credible analysis, but has also provided alienated scientists, technical workers and others a framework in which to take action on scientific issues as they effect our jobs, our schools, and our communities.

Kathy Greeley and Sue Tafler are long-term members of the Boston chapter of SftP. Sue has worked a lot with the Food & Nutrition and Science Teaching Groups since their inception. Kathy is a former Office Coordinator and former member of the Editorial Committee and Alternative Technology Group.

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