A History of the AAA$: Or — You Been A Good Ole Wagon, But You Done Broke Down

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A History of the AAA$: Or — You Been A Good Ole Wagon, But You Done Broke Down

by Al Weinrub

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 2, No. 4, December 1970, p. 15 – 19

Philadelphia was the site, in September 1848, of the first meeting of the American Association for the Promotion of Science – or so it was called in the notice appearing in the American Journal of Science. The orgrumation, an outgrowth of the more limited Association of American Geologists and Naturalists, was intended by its founders to be a broad, national society of scientists which would encompass all fields of scientific endeavor. For at that time the scientific community was highly fragmented and dispersed, consisting of a few small elite societies on the one hand, and many independent researchers on the other. Moreover, the great interest in Geology during the first half of the 19th century, as indicated by the many state geological expeditions and studies then being conducted, resulted in an awareness of the advantage to be gained by bringing together experts in geology, chemistry, paleontology, physics, biology, and the like. Thus the interdisciplinary character of geological questions served as one stimulus for such an organization.

But of considerably more importance to scientists at that time was the need they felt to establish the social legitimacy of science, to win public recognition and support for their work (see opening quotation.) The day of the gentleman science to prosper it became paramount that its practitioners establish themselves on a firm professional level. That task required the formation of an organization of national scope, one which could speak not only in the name of science, but also on behalf of science. Thus the objects of the new Association as formulated in 1848 were:

… to promote intercourse between those who are cultivating science in different parts of the United States; to give a stronger and more general impulse, and a more systematic direction to scientific research in our country, and to procure for the labours of scientific men, increased facilities and a wider usefulness.

Except when interrupted by cholera or war, the Association met annually in different cities throughout the United States, predominantly in the East. The gatherings were held during the summer, when travel required the least hardship and when many outings and recreational activities could add to the pleasure and attraction of the meeting. After all, the membership of the AAA$ was small enough (originally 460, climbing to 2000 by 1900) so that the meeting could be quite enjoyable.

Herman Fairchild, writing in Science in 1924, observed that during the AAA$’s first half century, “the function of the Association as watchman and spokesman for American science was properly exercised, and the young society assumed its authority as representing organized science …. ” Its concerns were also directed inwardly, toward establishing standards of research and conduct. For example, Joseph Henry, the famous American physicist, was appointed in 1851 as a special committee of one(!) on “scientific ethics.”

But the Association was not without difficult problems. Scientific specialization, which began to develop in the latter part of the 19th century, resulted in the formation of increasing numbers of small technical societies, independent of the AAA$. These threatened to undermine the dominant position and hence the very existence of the Association. In response to these developments, the AAA$ invited these societies to participate in its annual meetings, whose date was changed to December for the convenience of these newly affiliated societies. In addition, the affiliates were given representation in the AAA$ Council (the policy making body of the AAA$.) As specialization has continued to become more specialized, these technical societies have continued to proliferate, until at present the number of AAA$ affiliates is close to 295, their representatives comprizing 80% of the approximately 560 council members.

With the successful assimilation of the technical societies, begun at the turn of the century, the AAA$ established itself as the uncontested spokesman for the American scientific community. In this capacity, it has expended much energy is creating and cultivating a favorable public image for science. It has struggled hard to attract increasing numbers of young people into research and to develop better educational programs for students. It has unceasingly proclaimed the great value of scientific research to society and stressed the necessity of long term financial support for continued technical advance. In short it has been, with unflagging zeal, the great champion of American science !

These activities are the trademarks not of a scientific organization, but of a political self-interest organization for science. The Association’s purpose has been to attain for the scientific community a maximum of growth and institutional stability. Its fervor in this regard has led (in 1957) to its taking the indiscriminate position, for example, of favoring any “revisions of Federal and state income tax laws as will provide greater incentives to contribute to education and science” (e.g. higher taxes,) and to its opposition (in 1965) to the Viet-Nam war on the basis that “science cannot fully flourish, and may be badly damaged, in a society which gives an increasing share of its resources to military purposes.” The resolutions of the AAA$ Council are political positions taken by its members on the basis of the limited consideration of what will do most for science.

This quality of the Association’s policy statements has led to some rather remarkable transformations in policy over the years. In 1934 the Council, reacting to events in Western Europe, voted a resolution which reads, in part:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science feels grave concern over persistant and threatening inroads upon intellectual freedom which have been made in recent times in many parts of the world.

Our liberties have been won through ages of struggle and enormous cost. If thses are lost or seriously impaired there can be no hope of continued progress in science, or justice in government, of international or domestic peace or even of lasting material well-being.

We regard the suppression of independent thought and of its free expression as a major crime against civilization itself. Yet oppression of this sort has been inflicted upon investigators, scholars, teachers and professional men in many ways, whether by government action, administrative coercion, or extra-legal violence. We feel it our duty to denounce all such actions as intolerable forms of tyranny …

However, twenty years later, when the Federal government had become the patron of science, it was not to the Association’s advantage to be so critical. In 1954, during the McCarthy era, the Council went on record as endorsing and recommending to all funding agencies the adoption of the National Science Foundation policy, according to which the NSF

… will not knowingly make or continue a grant to a person who is an avowed Communist or who has been established through judicial proceedings as being a Communist … Except in cases of persons thus excluded appraisals as to the worthiness of applicant; … are made … exclusively upon positive criteria of experience, scientific competence, and integrity of the applicant.

Apparently the intolerable had become more than tolerable. Thus the AAA$ has stooped to the lowest levels of political opportunism.

Of course, there is nothing new in the scientists’ use of most any expedient for obtaining research funds, and therefore it is not surprising that the AAA$ has bent over backwards to maintain congenial ties with the federal government. Surprise comes in comparing such unprincipled behavior to the high-flown declarations of the Association. In 1952, for example, the AAA$ drew up a new set of purposes — the ones which appear in every issue of Science magazine. The new objects of the Association are:

to further the work of scientists, to facilitate cooperation among them, to improve the effectiveness of science in the promotion of human welfare, and to increase public understanding and appreciation of the importance and promise of the methods of science in human progress.

In addition to its traditional commitment to the promotion of science, the AAA$ now appears to show great concern also for human welfare and human progress.

The change in the objects of the AAA$ reflected changes which had taken place during the century of the Association’s existence. Scientists by 1952 had won public recognition and support, largely due to their contributions to industry, government and war. As a result, many scientists occupied high ranking positions and enjoyed considerable prestige ·and respect. The National Science Foundation was soon to cater directly to scientists’ research needs. However, the development of the atomic bomb had introduced an element of doubt about the blessing of scientific. advance, and adverse reaction was developing to the unchecked growth of technology. It was to counter these currents and project the name of science that the AAA$ formulated new objectives. New times required new tactics, and the Association was prepared to enter the arena of social action. How succesful has it  been?

The record stands for itself. In 1955 an Interim Committee on the Social Aspects of Science was formed. In 1956 it gave its report, which stated in part, that “in marked contrast to other associations, scientific societies seldom consider the social and economic positions of their group.” The committee stressed “the pressing need that scientists concern themselves with social action,” and concluded that, “in this situation the AAA$ carries special responsibility.” Action. The committee was converted from an interim committee to an ad hoc one. In 1957 it reported again. In 1958 it was dissolved in favor of two new committees: Committee on Science in the Promotion of Human Welfare (CSPHW), and the Committee on Public Understanding of Science (CPUS). The first of these, CSPHW, issued its first report in 1960, stressing aga,in the urgency expressed in the 1956 report. Five years later in 1965 it issued its second report – “The Integrity of Science” on the erosion of scientific objectivity. In 1966 the CSPHW reported to Council. In 1967 the council accepted another report. In 1968 the CSPHW reported again, and in 1969 it presented another report. Action. The second Committee, CPUS, lay dormant until 1962 when it announced a planned series of educational TV programs which were shown in 1963. In 1965 CPUS reported to Council that it had been “relatively inactive” the past year. In 1966 the Council heard its report. CPUS reported again in 1967, and again in 1968. In 1969, there was no report at all. Action.

The 1969 council report of the CSPHW, given at last year’s Boston meeting, is illustrative of the Committee’s work. The report deals mainly with the two questions of non-classified Department of War supported research (on which it held a symposium) and reductions in federal support of scientific research. Both of these topics are surely of major importance to scientific researchers. But their relevance to the crucial questions concerning the threat posed to mankind by the misuse of science and technology is rivalled only by the relevance of Richard Nixon’s preoccupation with smut to the acute economic problems of American Capitalism. In fairness, it must be mentioned that the CSPHW report also proposed the setting up of five more new committees.

Further evidence of the effort being devoted to social action is furnished by the annual financial statement of the AAA$. In 1970, of a total expenditure of 5 million dollars, 15 thousand (0.03%) is reported for Public Understanding of Science and none (0.00%) is reported for Promotion of Human Welfare (or anything ressembling that.) It should be kept in mind, too, that over the past decade, the membership has doubled, and the budget has increased by a factor of 5. Thus there have been ample resources available for these projects.

During the same ten years, the cost of the annual meeting increased by an order of magnitude. While the AAA$ advertises “a desire to grapple with the great questions of our time,” what happens at the meeting is more like one of those phony wrestling matches on television. Scientists emphasize the need for more science and technology to solve the social problems created by the misuse of existing technology. They discuss how society must adjust to technological advance, without considering how and in what direction that advance takes place. They proclaim the neutrality of science at the vary time it is being funded and used by the military to attain political ends. Yet who is in the ring to wrestle these men of great understanding? No one! The image which comes through that smoke-filled auditorium is one of a concerned scientist, working hard to solve the problems of his times.

The record thus shows the failure of the AAA$ to develop any substantial program of social action. Rather, its energy has been consumed in enlarging the Association, in attemptinE to stimulate the growth of science, and in creating an imageof social concern favorable to the public. Thus its selfserving pronouncements must be carefully weighed against its long history of promotional activity. In 1969 for example, the AAA$ Board of Directors (the administrlltive body) announced bold “new” plans for thenext decade. These included an expansion of the Association’s membership and “a major increase in the scale and effectiveness of its work on the chief contemporary problems concerning the mutual relations of science, technology, and social change, including the uses of science and technology in the promotion of human welfare.” There seems to be no end to empty rhetoric.

It is important to realize at this point that the failure of the AAA$ to develop any meaningful program of social action lies in the direct conflict of such an undertaking with the basic interests and purposes of the Association, as presently constituted. The leadership of the 120,000 member organization, the Council and Board of Directors, consists of scientists whose important positions in industry, the university and government bind them to the dominant institutions in our society. They are the scientific elite- the consultants, the administrators, and the research directors. Their prestige and financial security depends upon the maintenance of present institutional forms. Moreover, the ability of the AAA$ to obtain recognition and support for research depends on the usefullness of science in rationalizing and strengthening the government and corporate enterprise. Thus, in every respect, from the composition of its leadership to the attainment of its promotional objectives. the AAA$ maintains a tremendous vested interest in the status quo.

But the essence of meaningful social action is the alteration of that status quo. For only by fundamental change in the social and economic structure of society can the misuse of science and technology be prevented. So long as control over technology rests in. the hands of corporate enterprise, and a government which functions on its behalf, scientific advance will be used to further corporate interests at the expense of the people. The technology of death, destruction, despoilation, waste, and mass manipulation will continue, for these are the devices by which the domination of the oppressive social institutions of society are maintained. Such institutions must be replaced by democratic ones in which science is applied to meeting the collective needs of the people, instead of being used for their subjugation. However, the material and political ties of the AAA$ leadership to the established social order and economic order insures that meaningful social action would undermine the Association’ s stance. Under these circumstances, it is extremely unlikely that significant action can be forthcoming.

In 1848 the AAA$ was formed to respond to definite needs felt by the scientific community. In 1970, however, the AAA$ is incapable of responding to the new needs of scientists living in a very different society. The Association’s Board of Directors is chosen by the Council, which, in turn, represents the affiliated societies. Thus the leadership does not represent the working scientist, and in fact has selfinterests, as described, which are very different from those of the scientific community at large. Thus the AAA$ does not address the important questions of job security or retraining for technically obsolete scientific workers. It can do nothing to alleviate the growing malaise of many scientists over the inevitable misuse of their work. At a time when technical personnel are in tremendous surplus, the AAA$ continues to encourage more people into science. Moreover, the activities of the Association are altogether irrelevant to the special problems of young scientists: overspecialized education, their subordination to research directors, the rat race of publish or perish, stultifying teaching experiences, and political impotence in the scientific heirarchy.

Thus, in addition to its failure to serve any valuable function to society, the AAA$ also fails to be of any significant value to· its own constituency, the scientific community. Nor can it be looked to as the source of progressive programs for social action- adopting the expedients of the present is hardly the way to a brighter future. The social action of scientists must be aimed rather at resisting the authoritarian, technocratic, elitist, and manipulative designs of the ruling classes in this country. It must be aimed at the demystification of science and scientific expertise and at providing an understanding of the social liabilities of a technology under domination of anti-social forces. It must be aimed at forging new instruments for the collective control of technology. It must be aimed at creating new forms of social organizations within which people can determine and respond to their common social needs. It must be aimed at forming the alliances which will transform a fragmented, competitive stratified, undemocratic order into a cooperative, egalitarian society. It must be aimed at creating a social and economic system which will set free the productive and creative capacities of all men and women, so they may join together to build a new world.



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