West Coast Regional Conference

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 sftp.publishing@gmail.com

West Coast Regional Conference

by West Coast Chapter Members

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 4, July/August 1979, p. 23–26

A very successful Western Regional Conference was held in San Francisco on Saturday, February 24, 1979. About 40 SftP members came together representing chapters from way down Los Angeles/Irvine way to the outer reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area. The preparation of an agenda and chapter reports well before the conference date allowed for a very productive, albeit exhausting, one-day meeting.

Saturday morning began with a brief theoretical presentation by the Bay Area study group on the political economy of science: an analysis of the nature of science in the U.S. together with some discussion of why science is this way, concluding with suggestions for what needs to be done — particularly by SftP. As examples of the political economy of science, short presentations followed on sociobiology, recombinant DNA and nuclear weapons presented by SftP members working locally on the issues. 

This theory and practice focusing on the political economy of science served as the launching point for morning workshops divided into four groups: (1) sociobiology, recombinant DNA, racism, sexism: (2) energy and alternative technology issues, nuclear weapons and power: (3) food and nutrition, agriculture, pest management: and (4) occupational health and safety, health care, medicine. 

Related issues were purposely grouped together to direct the discussion toward the most fundamental aspects pervading through all the issues. Workshops charted their own course, but all shared in the pursuit of three kinds of questions: (1) What common political elements pervade the science issues under discussion? (2) How should we direct our work on these issues to be most effective? What priorities should be set? (3) How can we work together on related issues? What is the work that needs to be done? 

Following lunch and summaries of the Issue Workshops (following), general discussion centered on questions of the national organization and chapter reports. Red, Blue and Green Organizational Workshops filled up the rest of the afternoon. Each workshop was responsible for discussion of national matters (organization, National Conference, magazine, IDB). Attention then divided to focus on (1) racism, sexism and elitism within SftP chapters, (2) chapter dynamics: methods, problems, etc., and (3) chapter membership: new, continuing, recruitment, outreach, etc. A report of these workshops will appear in the IDB. Several of the workshops spent time on the question of Principles of Unity and drafted resolutions for final plenary discussion and approval. 

One Principle of Unity was adopted: “Our central commitment is to combat the use of science and technology to support and perpetuate the governing capitalist elite. We all agree that the political economy is the most important aspect of any science issue and we agree with the stated goals in Science for the People magazine.” 

The concluding plenary voted on Conference resolutions to be taken to the National Conference. A general feeling of accomplishment pervaded the by then weary conference participants. Discussion continued on through Chinese dinner and further still to a wild dancing party that evening. 


The Problem: Sociobiology provides a genetic explanation for human social behavior and human social institutions. At the same time it sweeps aside the impact of culture and minimizes the complexities of human behavior. It is compatible with capitalist ideology and offers a pseudo-scientific rationale for maintaining the inequities which exist in a society explicitly committed to equal opportunity. While still being theoretically argued it has already been applied to a variety of social policy decisions — e.g., in criminal justice, economics and education. 

Isolation of Critical Issues: (1) Sociobiology presents itself as a quantitative scientific theory with the accouterments of respectability.(2) It has historical precedents. (3) It confuses genetic with biological explanations. (4) It validates only certain aspects of human social behaviors such as competition, aggression and individualism, while explaining the existence of other behaviors — such as cooperation and altruism —  as strategies to attain them. Thus it offers the potential solutions to current social contradictions. 

Plan of Action: We resolve to develop a broad educational campaign around these issues. Audiences should include high school students and teachers, academic researchers and meetings of professional societies, ourselves and SftP, museums and the general public. Vehicles by which this can be achieved include guerrilla theater, pamphlets, articles, comic books, television, video, radio, slides, tapes, endorsements for our literature from community groups. 


The Problem: We agreed that we need to break down the institutionalized and industrialized character of science. Yes, science needs to be decentralized; but politically and economically decentralized, not necessarily physically decentralized. At the same time it is clear that certain technologies are capable of being physically decentralized — e.g., solar, wind — while others are inherently centralized — e.g., nuclear, tidal and probably fusion. 

The manufacture and distribution of energy technologies are only the symptoms of the most important issue: the power structure. Even the money being spent on alternative energies — e.g., solar and fusion (alternative?) — goes to large energy oriented corporations and utilities to build capital intensive, centralized systems. While capital intensive, centralized systems are not necessarily inappropriate, the fundamental question is WHO CONTROLS? 

Plan of Action: It was clear the decision-making should be decentralized and involve working people more directly. To reach such a broad spectrum of working people, we realize the need to focus on those aspects of issues relating directly to people’s working lives — i.e., jobs … economics. This brought up the significant limitation of SftP as presently constituted with its limited class make-up (basically white “middle class”). It was resolved that we should therefore make connections with progressive union activity and connect with minority leaders. 

This workshop also endorsed items of an earlier presentation suggesting immediate tasks for SftP. (1) SftP should analyze and then demonstrate the political character of capitalist science and technology and how it is used in the production process and used as a tool of social control. (2) SftP should further develop links with scientific workers, labor, and other progressive groups, and consolidate relations among SftP members as a base for the organization. (3) SftP should consider among its activities the critical examination of existing socialist models in their use and organization of science. (4) SftP should further develop political analysis for individual and organizational focus. (5) SftP should work to develop socialist forms of work in laboratories/research units — a sense of socialist community in scientific workers, unionization of scientific workers, discussion of scientific problems with all concerned members of the community. 

Disagreement arose as to strategies in our work. Some believed it was sufficient to concentrate on the issues alone and that the politics would naturally be brought out. Others, however, emphasized that the politics behind all the issues needs to be explicitly put forth and emphasized with at least as much importance as the issues themselves. 


The Problem: The problem may be articulated in one of two ways, both of which are dominated by issues pertaining to the political economy of science: (1) the quality of our food and (2) the question of organic vs. ordinary food. No agreement was reached on the desirability of pursuing one or both of these courses, although it was agreed that the audience would remain more or less constant and would include: small farmers, food distributors, food processors, workers in agribusiness, consumers. The group has resolved to meet again in a week to develop its conference resolutions. 


The Problem: It was quickly brought out that U.S. doctors are inadequately prepared to handle occupational health problems — medical students rarely receive training in those problems unique to the workplace, and this prevails although the workplace is such a common aspect of everyone’s lives. 

Plan of Action: The idea of a “worker’s clinic” (or occupational medicine clinic) was discussed in which integrative, broad spectrum approaches and collective decision-making are utilized to deal with occupational problems. One example of such a clinic (just getting off the ground in San Francisco) uses teams composed of legal, medical, industrial hygiene and community workers to discuss problems from a variety of standpoints. It is recognized that solutions to occupational problems may lie in the legal, community or political realm, rather than solely the medical. 

Broader political issues around health care were then discussed along the lines of the excellent special ‘”Health Care” issue in the SftP magazine (Nov-Dec 1978, vol. 10:6). Discussion continued with emphasis on ways of connecting SftP with ongoing community health projects such as the worker’s clinic. 


National Magazine & Conference; Racism. Sexism, Elitism 

We began by discussing magazine work. We agreed that all members should subscribe and solicit subscriptions, and that chapters might handle local distribution. Increasing circulation can secure the organization’s financial position. 

In addition, the Western Region should participate more actively in the magazine. We should provide feedback on articles, perhaps setting aside meeting time specifically to discuss the magazine. We might also solicit articles, write them ourselves, and do some editing. Most ambitious would be to take on an issue as Ann Arbor has done for May. 

Speaking of Ann Arbor, we also talked about the National Conference. The issues of centralism vs. anarchy, and people’s fears of being manipulated based on previous bad experiences were raised. We drafted a resolution on the Conference’s decision-making process, which was submitted to and passed by the afternoon plenary. 

We then discussed the triple threat of racism, sexism, and elitism within SftP. Racism was related to the small number of minority scientists and their corresponding “thin spread” among community, professional, and other groups. We noted that women entered our chapters most easily together in groups and when issues especially pertinent to them were raised: it might be the same with minorities. Four elitisms were mentioned: classist, scientific (using academic rank or abstract claims to greater knowledgeability), political (condescending to those with less theoretical training), and organizational (the formation of cliques). 

We decided that these problems could be resolved by: working more in coalitions with minority, community, and women’s groups; using criticism/ self-criticism; being sensitive to new members; and trying to cut down on jargon, big words, and arcane acronyms. 


Chapter Dynamics, SftP Goals, Organization and The National Conference 

The following are the conclusions of our working group: 

(1) Science should be controlled by those it affects: we (in SftP) are in a position to show how this control has presently not been achieved by (a) identifying the myth of neutrality of scientists and science, and (b) pointing out the productive forces of society and hence its social relations. Another related observation made was: although higher degrees of training, education and status have traditionally set science workers off from “the working class”, the growth of technical processes routinely used in production is leading to their proletarianization. 

(2) The strength of SftP as an organization should be “diversity within unity”. 

(3) The National Conference should result not in dictates but should initiate a year-long grassroots process by which to arrive at guiding principles for SftP. 

(4) An important criticism of SftP chapters is that there is a tendency toward complacency and not to translate knowledge into political action. Further, that the character of a chapter’s group — i.e., the lifestyle of its members, sexual and ethnic make-up — affects the kind of people attracted and should be considered in outreach strategies. 


SftP Chapter Stability and Principles of Unity 

This group’s discussion focused first on problems of recruiting members and maintaining a chapter; thereafter the topic shifted explicitly to national Principles of Unity. 

There was discussion about the reasons why some chapters collapse after an apparently successful start. A primary problem seemed to be that many chapters’ activities depended on one member’s initiative or connections: and that when that member withdrew, everything fell apart. 

Questions were raised as to how chapter activities should relate to what kinds of members we want to attract. The point was made that we never could decide a priori on a specific “type” of membership, and that the main criterion for deciding on projects should remain their specific goals. 

It was stated that if SftP’s significance as an organization is to extend beyond whatever particular project a local chapter happens to be working on at a given moment, that then we must develop a set of guiding principles or concerns which provide an overall context for our specific activities; moreover, that such principles should be made explicit in our actions and discussion, so that we, prospective members, and also others whom we address can develop a sense of our direction, of our ultimate desires. This led into discussion of national principles of unity. 

Some participants proposed that the principles of unity should define our role in the struggle against monopoly capitalism, and should therefore include a commitment to develop a class analysis of SftP and its membership. The pointlessness of discussing “socialism” in the abstract was stressed. 

Other members warned against overly explicit resolutions: and also voiced concerns about using Marxist and other technical vocabulary, about the danger that these be interpreted as jargon, as well as the danger that these terms be unclear to both users and hearers — and thus in fact jargon. One person stated that he had found the whole debate in the l.D.B. about the pamphlet and the principles of unity very boring; he added that most useful education comes from specific actions at the local level. The same person recounted how his chapter fell apart partly because of a continuing theoretical argument between two of the members. 

The question was raised as to what criteria should be used to decide on activities in the absence of national principles of unity. In response, some people felt that anything that was educational, that involved or organized among the masses of people, and that opposed the existing power structure was worthy of SftP participation from a political standpoint. One person suggested attempting to specifically reach out to several types of people in order to create useful diversity within SftP. Someone also suggested that there actually was considerable unity of purpose within SftP, and that the divisive tendencies of theoretical debate obscured that fact. A response was that the degree of unity could not be ascertained without it being articulated; and furthermore, that the level of unity would therefore be severely limited if the use of appropriate analytical vocabulary were to be dispensed with. 

As to the character of the Principles of Unity, some stressed that their adoption should represent the beginning of continuing discussion and reexamination, and should not just be viewed as an obstacle that must be once surmounted. 

In that context, it was felt that the principles of unity should reflect the points we presently can agree on, but also a commitment to develop our understanding further. It was not felt that we should come across as “having all the answers”; the principles should rather arrive at questions we see as important. 

In general, some people were enthusiastic about developing principles of unity, and wanted to spur on the discussion in the upcoming national conference with specific suggestions. They were very concerned that the national conference should not only discuss the adoption of principles of unity, but actually go about adopting some. Other people remained with strong reservations about the whole process and its dynamics, and expressed a concern for maintaining the ideological diversity within SftP, and for preventing its isolation from the people we want to address.

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