AAAS: Bicentennial and Beyond—Will the Future be as Bad as the Past?

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AAAS: Bicentennial and Beyond

Will the Future be as Bad as the Past?

by Frank Rosenthal

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 2, March 1976, p. 4–6

“Science and Our Expectations: Bicentennial and Beyond” is the title of this year’s AAAS convention. But what are our expectations? We see our cities falling apart, people thrown out of work, education and other vital social programs being cut back and the danger of war continually increasing. At the same time, people are struggling against these attacks on their standard of living. Workers are fighting back everywhere and there are many rent strikes, teacher’s strikes, student demonstrations, and other actions.

And where is science in all of this? The health of this country is declining as huge amounts of money are being put into high-level medical technology while day-to-day problems of preventive medicine, diet and exercise are being ignored. Little attention is given to the problems of industrial health and safety as workers are being sped up and companies cut costs, leading to more accidents. Only a small amount of investigation is going into the effects of industrial pollutants even though it has been shown that they may be a major cause of cancer and other diseases. More and more research gets poured into developing new weapons and new methods of warfare, while other research and education in science gets cut back. While crime is running rampant because of economic deterioration, scientists are running around “proving” that is a genetic problem (XYY “research”) and figuring out ways to “treat” it with drugs, behavior modification, and special screening to “weed out the bad kids.” Meanwhile technology is being developed to aid police forces and government agencies in social control, e.g. new computerized information and communication systems—technology that can keep down the struggles of people for a better life. The reason for all of this is that the overall thrust of science in this country is not to serve the needs of people but to serve the needs of the ruling class—big businessmen, bankers, industrialists and corporate directors who run the economy on the basis of profits.

As we look through the program for the AAAS conference we see very little discussion of any of these questions. The convention consists of several public lectures and 180 panel discussions. The public lectures are the only times that any large number of participants are together. There is usually little or no time for discussion after these lectures. Although they cover several interesting topics, such as “Mapping the Grand Canyon” and “Art of a New Scale,” they do not deal with where science is going and how it can meet the real needs of the people.

The heart of the convention is the panel discussions. The participants choose, out of 180 sessions, the ones they are interested in. And the whole process is more like a supermarket of topics than an actual meeting or convention. But this supermarket is saturated with certain definite ideas about science. First of all, science is being glorified as an independent force grappling with such major social problems as health, energy, crime, and nutrition. There is very little discussion of military or corporate research and development. The government’s science program is sold to the people at the conference and to the millions reading or hearing about it in the media as being more than worth the huge amounts of money the government is pouring into it. Secondly, the AAAS sessions put forward the idea that many of the problems in this country and around the w0rld are technological problems and not political problems. For example, there are sessions on “Malnutrition, Behavior and Social Organization,” and several sessions on crinie (“Crime: What We Know and What We Need to Know,” “The Anatomy of Violence in Today’s Society”) which, if they are anything like past AAAS sessions,1 will portray the problem of crime as one of individual deviation. By reducing these problems to technological questions, the real class conflicts underlying them are obscured. Finally, AAAS serves as a forum where representatives and apologists for the ruling class can speak directly to the scientists. For example, John C. Johnson, the director of an ordinance laboratory, will speak on “Putting Science to Work Through University/Industry Interaction,” Andrew Brimmer2 will speak on “Economic Equity . . . etc.” Past AAAS conferences have featured similar speakers 3 Throughout these conferences science has been portrayed as a neutral, nonpolitical force.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (presently U.N. ambassador from the U.S.), who was vice-president of the AAAS in 1971. eve.p went so far as to cancel his talk when he heard that protestors would be there, saying that politics has no place in science 4 Moynihan, Urban Affairs advisor under the Nixon administration, is known for his “theory” that the condition of Blacks in this society is due to cultural characteristics of the Black family. 

So, on the one hand, the convention does not ask whom science serves and why it is being used against people and not for the people. On the other hand, the convention as a whole serves the interests of the ruling class of this country by (1) persuading the public and scientists that the money going into science is being well spent; (2) consolidating scientists around government programs in science and convincing them that their work is in the public interest; (3) obscuring the underlying political causes of social problems by presenting them as technical problems; and (4) serving as a forum for reactionary politicians (e.g. Moynihan and Brimmer).

What Is the AAAS?

The AAAS (then called the American Association for the Promotion of Science) was formed in Philadelphia in 1848. It originally had less than 500 members; its purposes were to promote communication between scientists in different parts of the country and to “procure for the labours of scientific men increased facilities and a wider usefulness”.5

Since it was founded, and to this day, AAAS has fought more funds for science, worked to advance the status of scientists, and in general, looked out for the narrow self-interest of the scientific community. This can be seen today in the numerous editorials in Science magazine advocating that science be favored in the federal cutbacks and proposing more participation of scientists in government. But the role of science has changed dramatically since the AAAS was founded and so has the AAAS. During and after World War II, the government became much more involved in science. The atom bomb and radar, followed by guided missiles and satellites, all proved the enormous possibilities of science to the military. Scientific research became a necessity to keep militarily even with the Soviet Union. Tremendous amounts of money were infused into science through the military and through the “Sputnik”-era science programs.

At the same time, numerous military and government agencies were set up to make key decisions and set priorities about the direction of science,6 (See the article by Carol Cina in this issue.) This created a hierarchy which penetrated every area of science. Those who move up in this hierarchy are those who advance science in the eyes of the people who control and fund it. The AAAS council is made up of delegates from affiliated professional societies which themselves are influenced by the government control of science. So it is not surprising that the members of the Board of Directors of the AAAS (chosen by the council) are almost all directors of government-funded laboratories, politicians, government advisors, or corporation men.

AAAS is also tied to the government and the ruling class by the income it gets from grants. Most of its activities, outside of Science magazine, are funded by government and foundation grants. For example, a large chunk of its “International Program” is funded by the A.I.D. (State Department). In return, the government has sometimes used the AAAS to represent it at various international functions.7

Within the AAAS structure, there has been some room (or even encouragement) for liberal programs. Notable are the AAAS studies of defoliation in Vietnam (released in 1972), and the AAAS minority programs, and the News and Comment section of Science which sometimes publishes articles about controversial topics in science. But upon closer examination, it seems that the defoliation study was held up for several years by the AAAS be- cause it was waiting for the Pentagon’s side of the story and by the time it was published, defoliation had already been thoroughly exposed. The AAAS minority projects have done little more than study the problems of minorities in science, while providing a public forum for such racist “scientists” as Moynihan and James Coleman.8 And finally, the News and Comment section, which in some ways is a good column, is increasingly under attack. The new president of the AAAS says that this part of Science magazine is too “narrow” because it gives too many opinions and not enough “news.” In fact he means that it doesn’t report enough news from the government and industry.9

There are many instances of the AAAS working in the interests of the corporate rulers of this country, but two in particular stand out: 

First, in June of 1973, the AAAS held a two-week conference in Mexico City entitled: “Science and Man in the Americas”. The AAAS issued no call for papers or proposals for this meeting, but selected various groups and individuals to participate. Most of the participants were from groups such as the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, A.D. Little Co., the World Bank and Coca-Cola. Five out of nine members of the planning committee were directors of major corporations with investments in Latin America. Ostensibly, the meeting was to help Latin American development, but session after session defined this as capitalist economic growth and ignored the basic problems of food distribution and imperialist domination. Overpopulation was often put forward as the major source of the people’s problems. What the meeting was really for was to bring together scientists and businessmen, Mexican and American, to discuss the most profitable ways to exploit Latin America.10

Second, in 1971, during the early days of Science for the People, four members of Science for the People wrote an article which was a critique of science under the American system of corporate capitalism and a description of the acitvities of Science for the People.11 (Article available from Science for the People.) The article was submitted to Science and, in accordance with the customary procedure, was submitted to three referees chosen by the editor, Philip Abelson. Despite an unanimous decision for publication, the editor personally rejected the article for publication.

Science and Our Expectations

There are definitely hard times ahead for the people of this country. Everywhere people are being thrown out of work and the standard of living is being driven down. At the same time, the U.S. government is preparing for war. These problems do not have technological solutions. No amount of technology can stop the layoffs or the cutbacks or stop the rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In order to solve these problems we need major changes in the system we live under. The key to these changes lies in the struggles of the people as they fight back against every type of exploitation and abuse at the hands of the profit-makers. But science is not a neutral force in this battle. While it has tremendous potential for building a better society and releasing human potential, it is currently oriented to the needs of those who rule. We can expect that as the economic crisis deepens, more science that really helps people will be cut back, while military and repressive technology will increase. In fact, the lack of jobs in science will bring pressure on scientists to embrace these new applications of science. There will also probably be a new burst of “theories” to place the blame for social problems on the people (such as racist theories of genetics and crime). We must accept a greater responsibility to expose these abuses of science and to build a social movement among scientists to resist the repressive uses of technology. 

This is part of what the future holds. At the same time, we have another view of the future—a future with a society in which the great potential of science can really be harnessed to serve the broad masses of people rather than the profits of a few. And the struggles that are going on now are part of the fight to get there. We are coming to the AAAS as part of that struggle. We want to talk with people about the role of science in this society—about the uses of genetic theories to serve reactionary ideology, about why technology cannot eliminate crime in the streets, about how science is used for repression and war, and about how scientists can resist this direction and use their skills to aid the struggles of oppressed peoples.

What Are We Going to Do?

The scientific establishment, the government and the corporations behind it are the interests that have pulled together this year’s AAAS conference. This is reflected in its program and in its co-chairmen, who are both corporate directors.12 They have their own reasons for calling it. But we are going to it for different reasons. There will be many scientists and people interested in science at this conference. Many of those who come are interested in the social issues in science. Through our activities, our sessions, our meetings, literature, agitation, etc. we can raise political questions in a serious way. We can join with the scientists who are already dissatisfied with the direction of science and the uncertainty in their lives. We can learn from our discussions and mobilize even more people around these issues, and thus continue the struggle to make science for the people.

Frank Rosenthal

>>  Back to Vol. 8, No. 2  <<


  1. Science for the People, Jan. 1973; Science for the People, Feb. 1971.
  2. Brimmer is a member of the Federal Reserve Board, the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a past member of the S.E.C.
  3. E.g. Daniel Moynihan, Hubert Humphrey, William P. Bundy.
  4. Science for the People, March 1972.
  5. Science for the People, Dec. 1970.
  6. “From Corporate Liberalism to Counterinsurgency,” by Carol Cina.
  7. Science Magazine, March 21, 1975.
  8. Science for the People, March, 1972.
  9. New York Times, Jan. 2, 1976.
  10. Science for the People, July 1973, Science for the People, Sept. 1973; see also Por Que, published by Science for the People.
  11. This article has been issued as a pamphlet entitled “Censored,” published by Science for the People.
  12. The two co-chairmen are Gerhard D. Bleicken, chairman of the board of John Hancock Mutual Life Ins., and a director of A.D. Little and the First National Bank of Boston, and Howard W. Johnson, chairman of the MIT Corporation and director of John Hancock, Morgan Guaranty, Champion International, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.