A Modest Proposal

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A Modest Proposal

by Joel Swartz

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 1, January 1973, p. 27 – 28

A difficult area for SESPA people has been in organizing scientific workers around their own legitimate interests. The problem of unemployment, underemployment, and meaningless employment are very real to many people working in science, but up till now SESPA has not been very effective in responding.

Actions at the last APS meeting in San Francisco are a good example. SESPA made a demand for jobs for all unemployed physicists, but the demand had little impact, for two reasons. First, we had no power with which to back our demands. Second, many of the jobs in physics that could be produced by this system are kinds of jobs that we have struggled against for the past years. Some involve producing weapons and other gadgets to defend the empire, and many others do little to benefit the vast majority of the people. We cannot easily justify demanding funds for many of these jobs.

But there is a lot of worthwhile scientific and technical work we could be doing. SESPA can emphasize this by drawing up a Science for the People Program for science and technology that would benefit the people, and use it as an organizing tool for demanding decent employment. Such a program would give us a way of reaching many scientific types, as well as others working in scientific areas who are legitimately worried about their jobs.

The program can be made political by being specific. It is insufficient to just ask for jobs in health and ecology. We know very well that simply doing more research for the medical system, controlled the way it is in this country, is not going to provide a great boon to people’s health. Moreover, much ecology research is just a sop to give the appearance of dealing with the problem, when nothing is really being accomplished.

We should demand funds aimed at preventive health, rather than just for the patch-up care which mainly exists now. Money should be appropriated for research in neglected areas such as in studying diseases that primarily affect poor people and people in certain hazardous occupations. Research in the area of nutrition should find out what people really need to eat (conversely, what they should not eat), what foods have these nutrients, and help recommend economical, ecologically sound diets that meet these needs. It is clear that the latter type of research will not be considered with special favor by food companies.

There are other types of scientific work that are even more threatening to corporations, but useful to the people. For example, the hazards associated with various chemicals found in ambient air, workplace environments, food, and drugs should be carefully investigated. (The current studies on these chemicals are outrageously inadequate). Not only should hazards associated with drugs be researched, but so should alternatives to drug therapies.

I have outlined a possible plan for health related sciences, because this is an area I know something about. People in all sorts of fields can put together plans in their areas. This is not just a technical task, but a political one. Science for the People must involve those it purports to serve. A good example of this is the rat control article in the last issue. Community involvement in defining the problems also forces us out of our narrow technical perspectives. Instead of designing a safer machine, perhaps a whole new manufacturing process is called for to make the work safer, more interesting, and easier.

Involvement of the communities served by our proposed research is also necessary to take the next step, the application of the findings for human benefit. This next step will be difficult because it will be costly to corporations, and dangerous to the captialist system. We should make this clear in our propaganda. We should demand that control of these projects be in the hands of the workers and communities involved.

Many of the useful jobs that we find may tum out not to involve the sophisticated, prestige science for which many of us have been trained. This is a good political lesson. The value system which puts a premium on certain prestige problems will have to be replaced by one that puts greatest importance on science for human need. This does not mean that basic, or theoretical, research should be neglected in our program, but in many instances this research should take a secondary role to more practical work. Teaching also is an important area which should not be neglected. Certainly our program should include jobs for teaching science in the political context it belongs.

An alternative program for technical work is no panacea. Scientists must realize that in this society almost any type of research stands a chance of being perverted. For science to serve the people the basic social structure will have to changed. New tactics are needed. We can’t get very far by organizing people around moralism, by calling them criminals, or by demanding they quit their jobs. That does not change society, and people will not listen to it because nothing better is offered. But people can be organized around the fact that something better is possible, but not within the present economic system.

I think the best way to implement the proposal is for collectives in different places to work up programs in particular areas. Several collectives in different places might all work on one program. When we get our ideas together we use them in several ways. They can be used at scientific meetings for critiquing the discipline of that meeting, and for demanding jobs. We can use them as a basis for demanding jobs in actions aimed at the institutions of the Federal Government.

The initial actions could lead to day long activity. In previous years there have been “Days of Concern” on March 4th. Why not have a real strike this time? We could protest the misuse of science in this society, present our alternatives, and demand jobs. With the discontent among students and young scientists so great, such actions might have a tremendous impact.

I would like to hear responses, criticisms, and suggestions from other SESPA people regarding this proposal. If people like it, maybe various groups can begin working on it right away.

Joel Swartz
2532 Dana Street
California 94704


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