Brother Hollis Writes from Kansas

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

Brother Hollis Writes from Kansas

by Steve Hollis

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 2, March 1972, p. 25 – 31


I’ve finally gotten around to writing you! This letter is to clear up a couple of technical problems, to communicate the progress of our group, and to raise some questions we’d like to see SESPA groups, and other people discuss in the magazine.

Some notes on the progress of our group. We met weekly all summer (5-8 of us) as a study & discussion group. By the end of the summer, we had pretty much come to collective agreement on the following points (as we presented them to some new people this fall):

  1. Science for the People—The purpose of science is to benefit people. This is an assumption we are all operating from.
  2. Science is a tool. The scientific method, when not applied superficially, is one of the best tools people have developed for solving problems. We believe it should be applied to the social world, as well as to the physical world. Science is not an end in itself. It cannot be separated from the uses to which it is put. Hence,
  3. Science is not neutral. It does not function in a vacuum. The development of science—it’s magnitude and direction—has been affected by the social reality within which it has developed. And science has transformed society as well. Science is political.
  4. Even basic research (“pure” science) is political. The knowledge gained thru it is eventually put to use, and the time lag between a basic scientific breakthrough and its application is getting smaller all the time.
  5. In America today, science is being misused in many obvious and scary ways—to oppress people rather than to benefit them. Also, science is not being used to benefit people in many ways that it could be.
  6. One of the reasons this last point is true is that the process by which decisions about the development and use of science are made in America is not a democratic one. A very small group of people—essentially Big Business, the military, and a few people at the top of the scientific hierarchy—have complete control over the direction of science.
  7. Modern science & technology has been mystified to where the vast majority of people are overawed by it and feel powerless in the face of it. This is not necessary, and it contributes heavily to the lack of democracy.
  8. The myth that science is neutral is built into the present system of science education, and this leads to the development of scientists (we use this term loosely to refer to all types of scientific and technical workers) who create or apply scientific knowledge and then fail to assume (or try to assume) responsibility for its use. This also means those who carry out the scientific work are in general denied freedom of choice in what to work on and are denied control over both the work process and the products of that work
  9. The composition of the American labor force is undergoing tremendous change. Highly-trained and skilled scientific and technical workers are becoming a much larger percentage of the workforce. This has several implications:
    a) Scientific workers are becoming more and more subject to the whims of the economic market place (and the whims of their bosses) in the same way that blue collar workers are–as exemplified by the present employment crisis.
    b) The myth of the scientist as a member of an intellectual elite is beginning to slowly break down. In the past, the “value” that intellectual work is “superior” to manual work has caused scientists to identify with the much smaller elite that really controls things in our country.
    c) Science and technology, and those who produce them, are playing a more integral role in the productive process in America. The work we do contributes to the creation of surplus value. This means our potential power to bring about social change has increased.
  10. Traditional and individual attempts to reform scientific activity or to disentangle oneself from its more malevolent and vicious applications have proven their inadequacy.

In the long run, we believe that two general approaches would be most effective in bringing about change. One is the development of “alternative” institutions and styles of work that begin to build a real “science for the people.” This is of course extremely difficult to do as almost everything about the present scientific and social systems of America work against this. The two main problems are:

(1) Having been trained by a system of science education that is geared towards an elitist science that is at the service of the corporations and military, how do we re-educate  ourselves to be able to do the kinds and styles of work that people really need? How do we demystify science both to the people we want to serve and to ourselves?

(2) The problem of resources—time, energy, money, equipment. How does people’s science get financed—for equipment and manpower? How do we find the time and energy to work at our “regular” jobs to support ourselves and then still be able to do people’s science on the side? Or, do we try to find “regular” jobs which, altho they are in the “establishment” are on scientific work that has progressive implications? Is this last approach possible? We’ve talked some about possible solutions to these problems, but have been able to do very little yet. One thing we are trying to begin to do is put our scientific skills to the use of movement groups. It is very important that this be done. So far these attempts have been pretty much limited to educational help as opposed to actually doing something—due to lack of resources. How can this be expanded? We’ve also fantasized some about the possible development of science collectives that would try to develop into self-supporting people’s science organizations. Let us hear ideas and actions other people have developed about people’s science.

The second major long-run approach we see as being most important could be called the radical unionization of scientific and technical workers—for that matter, of all workers. We don’t mean unions in the traditional sense at all, as we feel that trade unions in America have pretty much developed into merely being the labor relations arm of the corporations. Their function is primarily to discipline their members for the bosses. Rather, we mean the building of organizations of workers that can engage in collective struggle, both economically and politically, and not thru bargaining, with those in power to bring about radical social changes. This is probably more important than the development of People’s science—both on building of organizations of workers that can engage in collective struggle, both economically and politically, and not thru bargaining, with those in power to bring about radical social changes. This is probably more important than the development of people’s science, as it is thru such organizations that we can force the changes necessary to bring about people’s science—both on a small scale at first and in all of science eventually. At first, these organizations would vary widely, depending on conditions. There could be “unions” of white collar employees in a particular corporation or industry, groups that combined scientific and technical workers with some or all of the blue-collar workers in a corporation or industry, organizations of government employees, of teachers, of students. Or perhaps such “unions” could arise out of a radical transformation of some of the present “professional” societies. The power of such organizations lies in the fact that they can engage in direct struggle at the point of production—and such struggles should be for control—control of what work gets done, control of the work process, control over what happens to the “products” of the work. We would like to stimulate discussion and correspondence among radical scientific workers about these ideas. How do other people see things in terms of long-run strategies?

Now the question becomes how to bring about these long-run goals—how to do the necessary organizing? This is the area that most needs development and discussion. Probably most radical scientists would more or less agree on the analysis of the present situation presented above. And we can all probably agree on an overall picture of the kind of society and scientific structures we’d like to see. But we’ve only begun to figure out how to get from the way things are now to the way we’d like them to be.

This is why I really dug the letter you printed in Vol. III, No. 5 from the person who spoke at Pfizer, and Herb Fox’s reply. I’d like to see more. And we should go into the kinds of small, everyday detailed problems that come up in organizing work. So far Science for the People articles seem to do this better than most radical magazines, but a lot more discussion is needed. Don’t say: “We organized such and such kind of demonstration at so-and-so a place.” but “We organized a demonstration of this kind for these reasons by doing this and that, and we encountered these problems and tried to deal with them in those ways, and here’s what we learned for next time.” There also seems to be a slight tendency, very prevalent in the large movement, to go in for the glamourous “big-deal” activities as opposed to the kinds of day-to-day, long-term, local organizing work that is the basis of everything else. Let’s hear more about this kind of work. A lot of what we have to do initially is consciousness-raising among scientific people. We’ve come up with the following kinds of things we can all do:

  1. Each of us, individually and collectively, can begin immediately to take responsibility for the social consequences of our work, in whatever ways we can find to do so. This is the seed of larger direct struggles for control.
  2. We can begin to challenge our colleagues to do the same thing.
  3. We can raise questions of social control and social consequences of science at every opportunity—at the workplace, in the lab, in the classroom, in seminars and department meetings. Most discussions never touch on these fundamental social questions but merely on purely technical questions. We don’t have to accept this passively. Why are these technical matters under consideration in the first place?
  4. We can begin to explain and demystify science to our friends and other people, so that it can be brought within their understanding.
  5. We can study and educate ourselves on the political, economic, and other social functions of science. We have all gone thru a science education system which ignores these questions, and therefore, we have much to learn.

It is in this type of informal activity that we have been most successful to date—mainly because it’s about the only type we’ve been able to do. One of our people is a graduate student in medicinal chemistry. He did some reading on the drug industry during the summer and wanted to present some things about it to his department. It would of course be quite appropriate for a department of medicinal chemistry to discuss the functioning of the drug industry since the primary purpose of medicinal chemistry departments seems to be the training of researchers for that industry. The details of how this talk came about and what were its results are quite interesting. (This will not be an exact recording of the events, but will be a pretty good facsimile.)

The Kansas University medicinal chemistry department has weekly departmental meetings required for all grad. students and faculty. These meetings are normally concerned with discussions of research work and proposals, preparation for exam and problem sessions for the students, and the like. Before the first meeting this fall the department chairman asked R.C. if he’d like to talk briefly about our Science for the People group at the first or second meeting. R.C. asked if he could wait a couple of weeks in order to prepare, which was OK. The first meeting focused almost entirely on a discussion by the chairman of the employment crisis for PhD’s particularly in the drug industry—where “research is being cut back because pressure from consumer groups and the FDA has made the reaping of profits from the marketing of the products of our research less sure.” The suggestion was that medicinal chemists had no choice but to accept this situation (“Who are we to tell the drug people how to run their businesses?”) and to start “selling themselves” better to the drug companies—by studying harder, by diversifying into more than one area of speciality, by jumping on those research areas the drug firms label as “hot”, in short, by burying their faces deeper into the routine, by competing ruthlessly with each other for the positions available, and by begging the drug companies to have mercy on them.

R.C. of course decided he wanted to talk to his department about the industry they were supposed to be so hot on selling themselves to. So he spent a lot of time the next couple of weeks digging into government reports and other sources on the drug industry. The day before the third meeting he went to the chairman to ask that he be allowed to talk at the start of the meeting. He was told he’d have to go see Dr. X, who was coordinating the meetings. Dr. X said he’d have to OK it with Dr. Y who’s the professor in the department. So R.C. was off to the professor’s office, where he laid out the whole story and was told, “No, it is not appropriate to present one-sided political views at a meeting with required attendance.” R.C. countered: “But I’m not really going to get into politics. I merely want to pick up on some of the things the chairman said in the first meeting about the drug industry and continue our discussion.” He was told to go to the chairman and tell him the professor didn’t think it was appropriate, and to see what he said. So back to the chairman. The professor walked in right after R.C. and “the reason” came out. It seems that the department meetings are part of a program that is funded by N.I.H. and that several years ago the University of Wisconsin medicinal chemistry department had a similar program. The chairman at Wisconsin allowed some students to “complain about the way things are” at one of the meetings. N.I.H. found out and cut off funds. The chairman is now out in the northern part of Siberia never to be heard from again. So Kansas University can’t do a similar thing or “the next thing you know, there’ll be F.B.I. agents at our meetings.”

Finally, the professor suggested that R.C. could call a special department meeting with voluntary attendance for the next day, at which time he could present his views. So he did. (These are the kinds of hassles you run into when you just want to do a simple thing like talk with your colleagues about an issue that should be of obvious concern to them. It would be interesting to hear if other people have had similar experiences, and what way you’ve found to deal with them. Also, if anyone knows the details of the Wisconsin-N.I.H. episode, we’d like to hear them.)

About 20 people came to the talk, and although the discussion that ensued at that time was not too great, it appears that the fact that a graduate student raised some of the questions that R.C. talked about has stimulated some thought and discussion among the graduate students since that time. R.C. started off by explaining the hassles he had to go through to give the talk. There was little discussion of this—it seemed to be accepted as “the way things are.” He then said that he felt the reason most students had chosen to go into the field of medicinal chemistry was that they saw it as a way to contribute to the betterment of human health. He questioned whether this was also a concern of the drug industry, whether it was even a secondary concern or by-product of other concerns. In discussing the industry, he concentrated on its emphasis on sales and promotion (five times more money than is spent on research) and the negative effects this has on the physician’s ability to use drugs effectively in combating disease. In relation to this he went into some detail concerning the detrimental effects of the pushing of brand name drugs as opposed to generic drugs. He also touched on the problem of research going into unnecessary “me too” drugs as opposed to effort being put into solving real health problems.

The discussion afterward was dominated by the professor which is what kept it from going anywhere. He and another professor spent a lot of time “rebutting” various “fine points” of R.C.’s data, suggesting his information wasn’t up to date, or there were certain logical inconsistencies, or suggesting that he just didn’t know enough drug chemistry yet to be challenging these areas. It was the kind of intellectual bullshitting that academicians seem so fond of, and is something that is often hard to deal with. All I know to say is “Cut the bullshit and let’s get down to it,” but it’s a bit tricky knowing when is the right time and manner to do that. We don’t want to force people into rejecting what we’re saying or doing out of ego preservation. Rather, we want to make breakthroughs. One point that was raised concerns certain drugs for which biological availability may depend on the crystalline structure achieved in a particular tabletting process: In this case, the particular “brand” may make a difference. If anyone can turn us on to information concerning this question, we would appreciate it.

Several people also raised good questions in the discussion that pointed out the difficulties in trying to make reform changes within the structure of capitalism. R.C. had purposely not called into question the entire system of capitalism as it functions in the drug industry, because of his feelings that most people (at least around here) have been “programmed” to “turn off” when they hear trigger words like capitalism, socialism, revolution, liberation, etc. I think what he feels has validity (particularly here in the Midwest where the atmosphere is pretty conservative politically), and that the situation arises primarily out of propaganda efforts of the ruling class, but also out of the tendency the American Left has had to be rhetorical. It’s much easier to say “Down with capitalism! Up with socialism!” than it is to work out the details of why and how in particular situations and in ways that relate to people’s everyday lives. On the other hand, not go to the root of the problems and call into question the whole system of capitalism, racism, and sexual repression is inadequate, and this is what some of the medicinal chemical people picked up on. I tend to agree with Herb Fox’s comments on this question, although I would like to see further discussion of it. I was at R.C.’s talk that day, so I tried to carry the discussion a step further to the question of the capitalistic system. The general response was (and has been with other scientific people I’ve talked with) that yes, capitalism didn’t seem to work very well, but as far as they could see, it worked better than anything else that’s developed so far.

People are beginning to question capitalism. But people are also very suspicious of socialism—and anything “radical” for that matter—they are usually much more critical of radical plans than they are of the way things are. Unreasonably so! There is basis for their questions of what will replace the present system, though. The problem of how to extricate ourselves from the present mess and build a new society out of a society as complex and technical as ours is extremely difficult! Again, the Left has tended to throw out the idea of Revolution! Ray! without doing the hard work necessary to develop the details. Highly-educated people who have some sense of just how difficult this task will be (and who are fairly well off economically, under modern capitalism—thanks to imperialism) seem to have a natural tendency to feel like it’s less strain to try to adapt individually to the way things are than it is to engage in the highly risky business of revolution (you think the drug business is risky!??!). Andre Gorz has some good things to say about this in Strategy for Labor. He discusses the “technoclass”—technical workers whose job is to make the system run as efficiently as possible but never to question the system. He points out that the radical movement needs these people with their skills to help work out the details of revolutionary construction. But the movement will have to work out some of the overall outlines of revolutionary society now—both because all people should have a say in this and as a tactic for showing the “technoclass” that there is indeed a better system for them to work on, and under much more fulfilling work conditions.

Anyway, there has been more discussion of political and social issues in the medicinal chemistry department since R.C.’s talk. One of the other exciting developments that has come, to some extent, out of the kinds of individual consciousness-raising we’ve tried to do is that several people, primarily. women, with radical politics have decided to get into health-related work, or have gone back to school to gain other technical skills (film-making, law, for example) that can be put to good use in the movement. This seems to be part of a nation-wide trend in which many people who dropped out of school as they became aware of their alienation and turned to radical politics are now resuming (with new perspectives) their training. Hopefully this new consciousness will maintain itself and will lead in time to new radicalization and a new mass movement from within this educated sector of the working class. On the other hand, there are reasons to be concerned about these developments. The mass student movement of the late ‘sixties has definitely slowed down, and this has affected our ability to do certain kinds of mass political work. Many people have become disillusioned with Left politics, for many reasons. Some have more or less given up hope of radical social changes. Some have turned to other things—particularly religion and Eastern mysticism. This latter trend offers a unique challenge to radical scientists—who probably feel, as I do, that the scientific approach is in general more progressive than the mystical approach, but who also feel that science as it is presently practiced needs to incorporate more in the way of intuitive, aesthetic, or mystical insight and needs to be done with more feeling, or spirituality. One thing we’ve done is to get several of the people who are just getting into health work into our SESPA activities. Other radical science groups should attempt to get people who are just entering scientific fields into organized activity at the start. Has this happened elsewhere? What has been happening elsewhere concerning this dying down of the mass movement? How has it affected your work?

The primary problem we have faced in building a radical science movement in and around Kansas University is lack of time for political work. It is this problem and how to deal with it, more than anything else, that we would like to hear responses about. Towards the end of the summer, we began to consider how to expand our group and to want to do some kind of action project together. But the pressures we were under (the obvious family and personal psychic pressures, but especially the pressures from work and school) kept us from being able to move. In fact, we had to even give up our regular weekly meetings because of lack of time. There was a great deal of frustration as a result. In fact, at one of our meetings R.C. and I nearly had a fist fight coming out of our efforts to push ourselves and each other. (Although it was scary at the time, this highly emotional confrontation has been really good for our relationship—helping us both to break out of the impersonal, unemotional patterns we and other scientific people are forced into.)

The scientific system in America (at least, in the academic part of it we are in) almost seems to be consciously constructed so as to inhibit the possibility of political activity—or any other activity of a “purely human” nature. Course work, studying for cumulative exams, preparing seminar presentations, and demands for research productivity leave the graduate student with hardly any time, energy, or desire for other activities except those that are strictly emotional releases. And the undergraduate student who has to work besides doing school work is in the same fix. The demands and pressures are really incredible, particularly during this period of crisis in the employment of scientists. We tried to challenge our level of political commitment to push ourselves farther, but there is only so much a person can do and still survive in the system—a necessity for most of us at this time. We found ourselves unable to organize because of lack of time on our own part and on the part of those we wished to organize. Can other people please discuss this problem with us? It has been our main problem. Have other groups experienced it—is the problem peculiar to academia or is it the same in industry? What kinds of changes can we make in ourselves, or what kinds of structural changes can we work for to solve this problem? We really need some feedback.

All is not lost however! We haven’t been completely devoured by the all-consuming curriculum! Some very exciting developments are happening. I’m enclosing a letter and resource materials list we sent to about 40 of the more liberal science faculty. We’ve already had some positive response. One thing we have come to concerning the best use of our limited time is that as long as we’re at the university our primary energies should be focused on changing science education. We of course also want to focus on research work at the university and on community science projects, but for the present, we are placing these in a secondary position. Radical changes in science education could have profound impact on the long run directions we’d like to see develop. Since this is where we are, this is what we’re focusing on. We hope to build a movement within the various departments to institute courses on the social aspects of science as a regular part of the curriculum.

To get started on this, to draw ourselves together around a concrete project, and as a way to reach people, we decided to do a course, The Social Uses and Misuses of Science. Four of us (a professor in biology, a graduate student in medicinal chemistry, an undergraduate in chemistry, and myself) began planning the course several weeks ago. We obtained approval from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to offer it as an undergraduate LAS 48 course—a program at Kansas University for offering experimental courses that are outside a particular department. We came up with the following overall plan for the course: it will center around the discussion of a few Specific “problem areas” in science—both misuses of science and problems where science could be used to help things but isn’t. We are preparing introductory discussions of several problems that are important to us, as well as beginning bibliographies, for presentation in the first part of the course. People in the class can of course introduce other problem areas we haven’t thought of. After the introductory discussion, everyone will choose particular areas to research in detail (why there is a problem, what is the nature of it in detail, how could it possibly be solved) to lead further class discussion later on. In the meantime, we plan to spend three or four weeks in general discussions on the historical development of science in human society and on an introductory analysis of the overall structure of science in present American society. I’ve found a really good book on the history of science: J.D. Bernal, Science in History, which I plan to write a review of in about a month for publication in the magazine. If anyone knows of other good books on the history of science, please let me know immediately. We’ll then discuss the problem areas in detail, and finally, the last third or so of the course will focus on what this means to us as future scientific workers—personal aspects, work conditions in science, what can we do to effect change, etc. I really hope this last part can “get down to it,” and that the seeds of one or several organizations will be planted in the people.

We wrote and distributed a leaflet about the course in all the science departments and talked with people we knew about the course. There are now eight people working to prepare the course, and I just found out yesterday that over 30 people have enrolled in the course! Several faculty members have responded to our leaflet as well and plan to participate in at least some of the discussions. The specific problem areas we’re preparing are for example: Industrial Pollution, Transportation, Population, The Use of Science in Vietnam, Technology of Domestic Repression, Psychology and Children, Psychology and Sexual Repression, Drugs in the Counter-Culture, Medicinal Drugs, Food Additives and Processing, World Hunger, Social Sciences and Racism, Industrial Health and Safety, Availability of Medical Care, Preventive Community Health and Mental Health. We want to be able to study these problems in a non-superficial way in both their scientific and social aspects, so we may cut down on the number of areas in order to devote fuller attention to a few key ones. We would really like to hear suggestions anyone might have concerning the course.

So that is where we’re at now. The course starts next week. We could write more on it later if you’d like. There are also several people here who are working with free schools who might consider writing about how they teach science with these young children.

I have one other question. One of our people is graduating this spring with a B.S. in chemistry. I am graduating this spring with a B.A. in chemistry & math, and with 3 years work and academic experience in computer programming. Neither of us plans to go to grad. school now. I hope to get a job—probably in industry (hopefully in the Kansas City area)—as a chemist or programmer or both. We both want to work in science in ways that we could be most effective in bringing about change. Does anyone have suggestions?

We would like to see other people write similar letters detailing their experiences like I’ve tried to do here.

Love and struggle,
for Lawrence SESPA

P.S. You can do what you want with this letter—including rewrite parts of it if you want to for publication as I wrote it rather quickly and sloppily; I would like for at least those parts that raise questions for discussion to get around to other SESPA groups in some way. Let me hear from you …

It may be written “rather quickly and sloppily” but it is a beautiful letter. That is why the editorial collective decided to print it essentially unaltered. We should all take up Steve’s request to send in letters detailing our organizing experiences. Also his several questions deserve thoughtful answers. The magazine belongs to all of us: Let’s use it as Steve has.

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