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 firstname.lastname@example.org
SftP Activist Rejects National Academy
by Richard Levins
Mr. Allen V. Astin
Home Secretary, National Academy of Sciences
Thank you for your letter informing me of my election to the National Academy of Sciences.
During this past week I have consulted with friends in and out of the Academy, discussed the situation with some of my students, examined a number of Academy reports and correspondence, and met with my comrades in Science for the People. I have come to the conclusion that I cannot join the Academy.
My first and most urgent concern is the continuing participation of the Academy in military matters.
There is no secret about the involvement of the National Academy of Science in military research or its collaboration in U.S. foreign policy. In Dr. Handler’s letter transmitting the Academy’s report on the effects of herbicides, he notes “The Academy has a long tradition of scientific assistance to the national defense and it desires also to be of whatever assistance it can in furthering our ability to minimize the underdesirable secondary consequences of warfare without sacrificing the capability of the American military establishment to assure the national defense.”
This is accomplished through direct research contracts from the Department of Defense, including classified research, by its participation in formal program reviews and informal interagency groups which coordinate military research (see DOD appropriation hearings FY1971 Part 2, Army, p. 824). It is supplemented by the efforts of the Academy’s president to weaken any criticism of the actions of the military, as he did in his covering letter cited above where among other things he dismisses the evidence of damage to human health and of death caused by herbicides.
My rejection of military research is not based on a generic pacifism but rather on the way in which U.S. military power has been used since World War II. The whole system of direct intervention, covert operations, military aid, training, advisors and consultants acting through many government agencies as well as privately, has been aimed at thwarting popular insurgent movements throughout the world. They can only be described as “defense” by the most cynical doublespeak. These interventions depend for their feasibility on a large and varied arsenal of “flexible responses” that draw their most imaginative and vicious schemes from academic science. The NAS, through its formal contracts and informal advice, is an accomplice in this program.
The involvement of the NAS and its operating arm, the National Research Council in military research is not the result of a perversion of the Academy’s nature by Phillip Handler or his predecessors but of a faithful interpretation of its charter and traditions.
When Richard Lewontin raised the problem of military research in the Academy a number of members responded with general sympathy. But they doubted that anything could be done, or that president Handler could do anything about it if he wanted to. They pointed to the charter of the Academy, and to its formal and informal long term collaboration with the government. Their observations are accurate. I cannot hope to remedy this situation by planning with other colleagues to replace Mr. Handler with a more liberal president or by maneuvering to restore the NAS to its true mission: it is performing its true mission, and I find that mission repugnant.
There is something in the nature of the Academy as an elite honorary body linked to government which turns the creativity of its members into conformity or impotence and makes the NAS behave below the level of its individual members. There are pacifists in the Academy who refused to fight in the last war that I could have supported, but who are unable to prevent NAS involvement in current wars; veterans of the Spanish Civil War who took great personal risk to challenge fascism but are unable to defy the Academy’s charter; outspoken critics of the Viet Nam war who continue to see the NAS as neutral ground; people who were persecuted in the McCarthy period, who faced unemployment with equanimity but fear the raised eyebrows of prestigious colleagues.
There is the elitist myth that history is made by the important people who are in the know, which happens to include us, which makes the loss of credibility with the powerful people a terrifying prospect.
There is the sporadic direct contact with the real centers of power that creates the illusion of access to power if only we play it carefully.
There is the placid belief that a society which appreciates us so well cannot be all that bad.
And there is the acceptance of the pervasive ideology which has been so much a part of our own careers—the separation of thinking and feeling which makes strong commitment suspect; the faith in technique which sees problems as yielding best to well-financed expertise; the individualism which avoids any collective action as an abdication of self; and what C. Wright Mills labeled “crackpot realism”, an overwhelming preoccupation with short term feasibility that produces acceptance of the present as necessary. In short, NAS concentrates and imposes the worst features of American academic ideology.
I have to conclude that by its charter, formation, recruitment, ideology, and modus operandi the National Academy of Sciences is not capable of leading in the creative transformation of science to serve people’s needs, that it is the least favorable arena in which to fight for change in the scientific community, and therefore that is not a worthy career ambition.