Peoples Science Projects for Vietnam

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Peoples Science Projects for Vietnam

By B.Z.

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 2, May 1971, p. 25-27

Science for the People activists in Chicago and racical faculty in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Chicago have begun a long-range effort to provide technical assistance to the people of Vietnam. A variety of projects are underway at this time, all of which were requested of scientific workers in the United States by their counterparts in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, and at the University of Hanoi. This direct scientific collaboration in problems of development and reconstruction will provide material aid for the Vietnamese and will reaffirm that the people of our two countries are not at war and that they wish to cooperate in working for the common goals of defeating U. S. imperialism and using science for the betterment of life, for liberation, and not” for oppression.

The Biology for Vietnam program began when Dick Levins, UC professor of biology, returned from a visit to Hanoi this January. He travelled to North Vietnam as the American delegate on a trip sponsored by the World Federation of Scientific Workers. There he met with many Vietnamese scientists and discussed the ways in which scientific workers in the United States could directly aid in solving the problems confronting their Vietnamese colleagues. After returning to Chicago, Levins, Dick Lewontin, also a UC professor in biology, and Claudia Carr, a UC graduate student in geography, began organizing the Biology for Vietnam projects.

The Work To Be Done

The most immediately pressing scientific problem in Vietnam at the present time is a medical one. For many years the U. S. Military has been dropping antipersonnel bombs on Vietnam. The most common form of this weapomy is the metal fragmentation device which strikes the ground, explodes, and sends hundreds or thousands of small, irregularly shaped metal splinters travelling at high velocity in all directions. These fragments, because of their small size, are absolutely ineffective in destroying buildings and weapons installations. They are, of course, very effective in destroying and injuring human beings. The widespread deployment of these bombs against civilian populations confirms that the U. S. Military strategy behind their use is one of terrorizing the people of Vietnam into submission.

The campaign of terror was stepped up appreciably May 1971 two years ago when the U. S. Air Force switched its antipersonnel bombs from metal fragmentation devices to plastic fragmentation devices. Once the plastic fragments become embedded in the flesh, they cannot be detected with conventional X-ray techniques, and they cannot be localized surgically because of the irregular trajectories they follow after penetrating the skin. Obviously terror is easier to induce if the possibility for removing these fragments is minimal or nonexistent, and if thousands of people survive with permanently implanted plastic fragments that cause chronic pain and organ dysfunction.

It is a testimony to the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese that the plight of these victims is the only significant military medical problem they have yet been unable to solve. They have asked people in the United States to develop the bioengineering techniques necessary to localize plastic fragments in human flesh and the surgical techniques necessary to remove them. One of the projects of the Biology for Vietnam program is to coordinate the various medical and engineering expertise that might be available around the country to help develop these techniques.

Another project requested by the Vietnamese entails researching the ecology of reforestation. With their characteristic concern for the future, the Vietnamese want to begin now to deal with the problems they will have to face after the war is over regarding the massive destruction of botanical life in their country. U. S. saturation bombing and defoliation have left tremendous areas of Vietnam deforested and pock-marked by bombcraters. The reclamation of this ground will be one of their major post-war economic problems. U.S. ecologists and soil scientists can help.

A related project has to do with the development of seed varieties resistant to herbicide contamination in the soil. With so much of their land poisoned by U.S. defoliating agents, agronomists must develop procedures for cleansing the soil or must try to bypass the contaminants by developing new crop strains. The former solution is possible, but it might require many years or decades to be effective since it involves the introduction of microorganisms into the soil and the eventual metabolization of the contaminants. Consequently, Vietnamese agronomists are becoming more interested in exploring the latter solution and believe that their colleagues in the U.S. can be of some assistance to them.

There are also projects being undertaken which require little or no technical expertise in biology. A great deal of bibliographic research on crop diseases is necessary for Vietnam because of the inability of researchers in that country to obtain access to Western professional journals. People in this country will collate the available research on a specific problem, such as the diseases of rice, and send a detailed report of their findings to Vietnam. There is also work to be done on collecting books and reprints of journal articles for use in basic science courses in Vietnamese universities. Rather than shipping such materials in a random fashion, the Vietnamese have requested that they be organized around specific courses or content areas and sent in such preassembled packages.

Some specific projects have been underway since early February and are already nearing completion. These include the following work- which is being performed by groups and individuals around the country: an investigation of the possibility of using ants for pest control; a study of the ecology of medicinal plants; research on the synthesis and use of olfactory insect sex attractants as a method of collecting and destroying agricultural pests; a collection of different varieties of agriculturally important plants for use by the Vietnamese in their breeding studies; and a collection of anecdotal information that might be relevant to large-scale agriculture, like the fact that marigolds planted at certain intervals are effective in repelling nematodes.

Wherever possible this work is being done openly to indicate that whatever Nixon & Co. in Washington are up to, scientific workers are not at war with the Vietnamese people. Where individuals cannot act openly, they are passing information and relevant hints along clandestinely.

Organizing the Solutions

People have already begun work on many of the projects outlined above and will undertake the remainder in the coming weeks. However, participation in none of the projects should be seen as limited to the Chicago area. Only the mobilization of a nation-wide effort on each of these projects can provide us with some measure of confidence that they will successfully be completed. At this time of widespread opposition to the Indochina War, there is a very real possibility that scientific workers, varying in political outlook from left liberal to revolutionary, can all be integrated into a common scientific and political program. The apparatus for coordinating such a nation-wide effort has been set up in Chicago through the offices of Dick Levins and Dick Lewontin, Dept. of Biology, and Claudia Carr, Dept. of Geography, University of Chicago, Chicago 60637. Anyone interested in cooperating should contact one of them in order to avoid duplicating the work of someone else and in order to find out what the current priorities are.

There are a variety of organizational forms appropriate for work on these projects. Levins and Lewontin themselves are teaching a joint course to biology graduate students, the purpose of which is to solve some of the problems suggested by these projects.

Groups independent of the university are forming in order to take on specific problems. Others have indicated a willingness to coordinate the efforts of scientific workers that will be working on the same project but in different cities, such as the technical people required for the plastic pellet work. Groups should be encouraged to form on specific university campuses, within professional associations, and in different regions, which can relate to and communicate directly with their equivalents in North Vietnam. Contacts can be established for such groupings, through the people in Chicago, with Vietnamese institutions like the Polytechnique School, the University of Hanoi, the College of Agriculture, the Society for the Propagation of Science and Technology, the Physics Institute of Vietnam, and Institute of Epidemiology and Hygiene, the Medical College, and others.

It is important to emphasize very strongly that people are needed for these projects whether or not they possess any technical expertise in the biological sciences. Much of the work requires only basic literacy skills, such as the bibliographic research, the collecting and packaging of books and articles for Vietnamese university courses, the collecting and dispersal of information from and to individuals working on the same project in different locations, and the recruitment of more and more people into the various projects. For example a group of people, predominantly from the social sciences, in the Chicago area have taken on the responsibility of publicizing the Biology for Vietnam program with the twin objectives of recruiting more people into the program and building anti-war consciousness and the anti-war movement in the United States.

The Political Impact

The most compelling reason for carrying out the Biology for Vietnam program is unquestionably to provide real material aid for the Vietnamese. However, a secondary reason, of significant importance, is the positive political effect the program can have within the American scientific community and the American population generally. Scientific workers with even vaguely anti-war politics are increasingly realizing that their work is either contributing to the power of a warmaking society or is irrelevant to curtailing that society’s war-making policies. A feeling that their professional lives and their political objectives are becoming irreconcilable is driving many scientific workers toward either an abandonment of their work or of their politics or both. A program like Biology for Vietnam could demonstrate to such people that there are many individuals besides themselves who are faced with this dilemma (the first preprequesite for overcoming alienation), and that something can be done to integrate their scientific skills with a movement for meaningful political change. The power of the program as an organizing tool is not limited to the recruitment of new workers into the movement. Many of us, already committed to the idea of Science for the People, and the analysis that flows from it, have a great deal to learn about the concrete expression of that idea and the development of the nonelitist, interdisciplinary, politically-oriented scientific practice that it demands.

Furthermore, the Biology for Vietnam program, if it can be publicized effectively, has the potential to contribute more than materially to the anti-war movement in the United States. The movement has recently been stressing the necessity for people in this country to dissociate themselves from the war effort in active and visible ways. The current campaign in support of the People’s Peace Treaty is an expression of this policy. If an important sector of the population, like scientific workers, begins to act this way, it can serve as a workers, model for workers in other areas, and at the same time help build a viable, functioning movement even more capable of increasing its influence and power. Enforcing our dissociation from the Indochina War by direct, public collaboration with the countries that the U.S. government defines as “enemy”, further isolates that government, and the ruling class behind it, from the people in whose name it claims to govern, and further undermines it legitimacy.

Physics for Vietnam

Dick Levins returned from North Vietnam with a few requests that pertained also to the physical sciences. A program to carry out these requests is currently being formulated in Chicago. Specifically, the Vietnamese are interested in obtaining information on integrated circuits and on computer technology, including actual computer programs. They would ultimately like to pair the computer at the University of Hanoi with a computer here in the States. They are also in need of specific items of equipment, like a mass spectrometer, and spare parts for equipment they already have. A detailed and lengthy list of these items has been obtained from a group in London that has been working on their procurement. It is hoped that surplus items can be located in physics departments and laboratories in this country. It might also be possible for people teaching physics in universities to assign the construction of one of the needed pieces of equipment as a class project with the announced intention of forwarding it when completed to the people of Vietnam. Anyone interested in helping to develop the Physics for Vietnam program should contact Bob Ivano or Larry Lambert of the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago, Chicago 60637.


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