The First SftP National Conference, Spring 1979

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

The First SftP National Conference, Spring 1979

by Champaign-Urbana SftP

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 4, July/August 1979, p. 20–22 & 26

After ten years, Science for the People came together for our first international conference. Fifty individuals and chapter representatives from California, Texas, Illinois, Missouri, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Washington D. C., Massachusetts, Florida, and Montreal, Canada met in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the weekend of March 23-25. Preparations for the conference had been made at the Eastern, Mid- Western and Western regional conferences. (See the Jan./Feb. 1979 issue of SftP.) People came to the conference prepared to begin building Science for the People as a national organization. The regional conferences had discussed proposals for national decision-making bodies, democratic policy-making by the membership, decentralization of editorial control of SftP magazine, and common political principles for SftP.

With less than two full days of meetings, the conference agenda was very tight. We began early Saturday morning (8 A.M.!). After the inevitable procedural matters of final revisions in the agenda, and agreement on conference rules, we began with presentations on the history of Science for the People. Reports were given on the history of SftP activities in areas such as: Sociobiology, Science for Vietnam, the SftP trip to China, XYY research and AAAS actions. To set the stage for later discussions of political principles within SftP, a history and analysis of the 1974-1976 period within SftP, in which political caucuses debated SftP goals and strategies, was given. The plenary session then broke up into working groups, to begin drafting proposals on national decision-making, chapter-building, editorial reform, a new national flyer and principles of unity. 

After lunch. two sets of workshops open to the public. were scheduled. These workshops covered the broad range of SftP activities and interests: Occupational Health and Safety, Nuclear Energy and Disarmament, Politics of Pollution, Affirmative Action, Working with Unions, Health Care, Cuba, Sociobiology, Alternative Technology, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) support work. Workshops enabled members to exchange information on activities in different chapters, and to develop projects which could tie chapters closer together through joint work. 

The topics for discussion at various workshops were: 


Discussions focused on the problems of various proposals for a system of National Health Insurance, and the contradictions facing such programs operating within a profit oriented medical system. Attention was also drawn to the struggles to maintain existing health care facilities for poor, minority and working class families, against cutbacks such as Proposition 13 in California. and the threatened closure of Cook County hospital in Chicago. 

Occupational Health and Safety: 

After sharing personal experiences in the field, members talked about the role of SftP chapters in supporting regional Committees on Occupational Safety and Health, such as the ones in Chicago and Massachusetts (CACOSH and MassCOSH). A major concern was the role SftP should play in the movement to defend OSHA legislation from attacks by large corporations and weakening by the federal government. Many urged an expansion of educational work by SftP, in coalitions with unions and community groups. A network of SftP activists in the OSHA field was established. 


The original impetus for this group was to explore the possibility of an SftP trip to Cuba, similar to the two delegations which have visited China. However, most people agreed that planning for such a trip was premature. A group was formed to study the interaction of science, ideology and political economy in Cuba, and to try to establish close contact with individuals within Cuba. 

Politics of Pollution:

The major concern was how SftP’s involvement in various sectors of the environmental movement could be used to raise broader political issues such as: industrial “runaway shops” exporting environmental hazards (such as asbestos and pesticide production) to the Third World to avoid stricter U.S. standards, the defense of current standards against calls for reduced “bureaucracy” and decontrol from industry, and how to defend the jobs of workers threatened by “runaways” and cutbacks blamed on environmental controls. 

Affirmative Action: 

The Bakke case and its impact on minority and women’s access to education was discussed. Criticism of SftP’s lack of involvement in the Anti-Bakke coalitions was general. A comparison of experiences at various universities and federal agencies brought out the lack of significant gains in the participation of women and minorities in scientific/professional fields. The workshop drafted a conference resolution, calling on SftP to join the movement to overturn the Weber case, dealing with affirmative action in employment. The group will draft a current opinion piece for the magazine on this subject. 

Alternative Technology: 

Participants discussed their experiences in community-based alternative technology experiments. Chapters had worked on projects such as assisting minority neighborhoods develop alternative heating sources, and collective greenhouses. Major problems with alternative technology concerned maintaining collective control of technologies developed, against the threat of monopolization by government and industry. 

Nuclear Power and Disarmament: 

The interactions between nuclear power and weapons development were discussed. The need for SftP to bring a wider political perspective to the antinuclear movement was seen as central. Particularly important is an understanding of why nuclear disarmament has not been as strong an issue as the antinuclear power movement, and how this can be changed. 

The evening agenda was rearranged so that we could join a picket line in support of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). The Ann Arbor chapter of SftP has been active in supporting the FLOC strike against tomato growers and the food processing multinationals which dominate tomato growers and farm workers. The FLOC picket line at a local supermarket was part of a nationwide boycott against these multinationals, particularly Libby’s and Campbell’s.

A brief plenary session brought everyone up to date on progress in the working groups. This was also our first chance to evaluate how the conference was proceeding. A women’s caucus held prior to the plenary raised the discussion of how the structure of the plenary sessions tended to limit participation by women. 

Working groups then took the rest of the evening to produce the final proposals for discussion at the Sunday morning plenary. What follows, are the proposals in their final form as adopted by the conference. The proposal on national decision-making lays out the procedure for approval of these resolutions by the entire membership. 


This proposal concentrates on building new chapters of SftP, and publicizing SftP for general recruitment. St. Louis and Tallahassee chapters are taking on the responsibility for organizing material on starting a chapter and working in coalitions. The goal is to create organizer’s packets which can be sent to groups wishing to start a chapter. Hopefully, current chapters will be able to assist in starting chapters in nearby areas. A speakers bureau will be organized by the Stony Brook chapter. 

In terms of general SftP organizing and publicity, the conference passed a resolution that the 1980 AAAS meeting in San Francisco be a major focus for outreach and organizing. The proposal was amended to strongly urge chapters to also organize at conventions which attract less elite members of the scientific/professional strata, such as nurses (the American Public Health Association) and teachers (National Science Teachers Association). 


Currently, by default, national decisions are made within the Boston chapter, which is also responsible for editing and producing Science for the People magazine. To democratize these processes, while assuring real control by the membership was the major objective. 

The resolution passed calls for a National Coordinating Committee to be established, consisting of two members (one woman, one man) from each region. (Currently SftP is divided into a North-Eastern, Mid-Western and Western region). The national committee will have jurisdiction over administrative decisions, and will be responsible for submitting policy decisions to a vote of the membership. National Committee members will be selected by each region, within one month after the conference, and will serve for one year. (SftP expects to hold its next national conference by then, to review this structure.) 

The membership voting process will be a simple majority vote for passage of policy issues. The Internal Discussion Bulletin, which goes to all members of SftP, will be used to submit policy issues to a vote. At any time recalls can be launched against any national committee member (10% of the region) or any policy decision (10% of the national membership.) 

The National Committee shall be responsible for proposing the role of the next national convention. 


SftP has published a magazine consistently for ten years. At the first national convention a priority was given to developing a structure whereby all chapters of SftP would have equal editorial control over the magazine. While the proposal calls for three editorial collectives, corresponding to the three major regions of SftP chapters, the newness of most of the Western chapters makes it unlikely they will participate immediately. Hence the rest of the organization has a responsibility and committment to providing support to the Western chapters in developing their editorial capabilities. 

The proposal consists of three sections. The first deals with increasing distribution of the magazine, and raising funds for efforts in that direction. The second deals with guidelines for exchanging magazine subscription lists with other progressive publishers and organizations. The third deals with actual editorial reform. In detail its provisions are: 

-Each year, there will be three topical issues and three general issues, alternating. 

-Editorial collectives will be set up in each of the three regions. Articles will be sent to a central chapter in each region for distribution to editorial members for collective editing. 

-Each editorial collective shall be responsible for soliciting and editing approximately one-third of the articles in each general issue. 

-Each editorial collective shall be responsible for one topical issue per year. 

-Women shall be substantially represented on the Editorial collectives. 

-Editors shall not edit their own articles. 

-Boston shall coordinate the general issues during the transitional period. 

-The production committee in Boston shall retain its autonomy with respect to its current tasks (layout, length of magazine, cover design, etc.) 

-The editorial committees shall be financed from national funds. 

The goal is one year for the transitional period, although this is dependent upon activity in each region. 


The principles of unity working group had by far the most difficult task. Although some discussion had gone on at previous regionals, little firm consensus had been reached. Sharp disagreements arose as to what issues should be addressed in the principles of unity, and over strictness of language to avoid ambiguity. As this report was the final workshop report, we reached it rather late. Therefore sharp time limits had to be imposed on the discussion. This prevented a resolution of the differences at the conference. Further discussion had to be postponed to upcoming regional conferences. 

The working group produced four principles that they reached agreement on, along with a set of principles where varying formulations were offered, and a list of issues they considered important but didn’t have time to discuss. They reached agreement on the following statements. 

-Science is not neutral. In any society, scientists and science serve the particular social and economic interests of those in political power. 

-In North America, the development of science is for profit at the expense of the majority of the people. 

-We advocate science for the people, for science can serve the people only when they control it. 

-We urge people involved in science and technology to participate in and contribute to progressive economic, political and social movements. 

An open discussion followed. There was general support for each of the above draft principles when taken as an individual statement. However, there was strong reluctance to adopt this set of statements as a basis for principles of unity, because they were seen as seriously incomplete. The importance of dealing with issues such as sexism, racism, and anti-imperialism was discussed. Although no votes were taken to submit anything as a resolution, informal counts were taken to get the consensus of the conference. The present statement of principles (inside front cover of the magazine) was adopted as an interim position. One vote called to submit the entire discussion, and all documents of the working group to the internal discussion bulletin. Another vote amended principle 2 to read: 

“In the capitalist world, the development of science functions to: (1) increase the profits of corporations at the expense of the majority of people: (2) control and dominate various aspects of the lives of people, especially workers, women and minorities; (3) legitimize the existing political, economic and social structure of society.” 


In the time remaining after the principles of unity debate was cut short, the conference rushed to finish final administrative business. A third staff position was added to the national office in Boston. A brief criticism/self-criticism session focused on how to increase individual interactions between members (swamped by large plenary sessions and working groups), the advantages of large plenaries vs. smaller sessions in encouraging wider participation, and on institutionalizing procedures to widen participation, especially of women. 

The first international conference of Science for the People did not result in any drastic changes. Members from across the country were able to meet for the first time, and to begin to coordinate activities on a regional and national basis. We started a process of more sharply defining SftP’s analysis of the control of science within our society. By creating structures such as the National Coordinating Committee, and decentralizing editorial control of the magazine, we began to tie SftP more closely together as a national organization. 

But the problems within SftP are still with us. The women’s caucus perpetually brought up the obstacles preventing full participation of women within SftP. For future work on this problem, an informal session met on Sunday to discuss Women in Science and SftP. They suggested that SftP should include in the chapter-building materials suggestions for drawing women in and setting up structures that would encourage their staying. Future conferences should include workshops on women’s issues. SftP should support women-led issues such as the abortion struggle, SftP must continually institutionalize these and other structures to encourage full participation by all members, and pay continual attention to the dynamics of meetings. 

Two days were hardly enough to accomplish even half of what most of us wished for. Many members regretted the lack of time, particularly in discussion of political principles for SftP. Time was so filled with workshops, plenaries and working groups that little time was left for more individual discussions. 

But we now have the experience of a national conference successfully behind us. This next year can be devoted to putting these resolutions into practice. and expanding and improving on them for the next convention.

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