About This Issue

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 sftp.publishing@gmail.com

About This Issue

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 5, September/October 1976, p. 3 & 38

Alternative Technology

Many people interested in strategies for social change have recently become involved in the alternative technology (AT) movement, and there are now extensive AT activities all over the country. This relatively new movement poses important questions for people who have come to realize the political influences behind science and technology. Several points of view on the subject are presented in this issue. Ken Alper and Chuck Garman argue from a Marxist-Leninist perspective that AT is inherently barren as a method for social change, and criticize the movement for serious neglect of the real situation of most working people. However, they do not show why people who are concerned with the needs of working people could not be productively involved in AT activities. Phil Bereano, following perhaps in the anarchist tradition, contends that innovative institutions, relying in part on AT, will make possible a new consciousness. This article seems to ignore the role of class struggle. The Boston Area Alternative Technology Group presents a third, intermediate position, and suggests concrete areas where a significant role for AT may exist. None of the articles deals with explicit examples of AT projects, and it becomes apparent in reading them that it would be extremely hard to evaluate the success or failure of specific projects. This is both because of the newness of the whole field and because individual projects are based on different theories, with differing criteria for success. Nevertheless, these articles place AT in the context of theories of social change and suggest some of the criteria by which it should be evaluated. We hope that this will stimulate further discussion in SftP with reference to practice as well as theory.

The article on nuclear power is a response to the pamphlet which was published in the May issue of SftP. The magazine should be a forum for continuing discussion and reevaluation of important issues, and this article is meant to stimulate further debate and careful thinking about the question of nuclear power.

Issues in Research Policy

The politics of research can be examined on 2 levels: the personal.and the institutional. The review of Sayre’s Rosalind Franklin and DNA deals with the micropolitics of bourgeois science in a specific historical case. When new ideas are private property to be aggregated for maximum gain by the “owner”, it is hardly surprising that traditional sexist behavior is accentuated or that public knowledge of a woman’s key contributions to understanding the structural basis of molecular replication can be discredited, denied and forgotten. In the article exposing sexist and elitist practices in cancer research at the Hutchinson Center, we are given a glimpse of an institutional research environment. Here we see that success comes to grant hustlers, traditional role players and loyal followers of the official line on priorities and approach. The experiences of these scientists pinpoint the questions of how science should be carried out on the local level, and how priorities in research should be established in the first place.

Research priorities should not be controlled by corporations, Washington bureaucrats, politicians or Big Science administrators. Rather, ideally, they should reflect careful choices determined in the course of extensive public discussions, by institutions which serve the interests of working people. These discussions would explore people’s needs in the broadest context. Such institutions do not exist as a significant force at present and thus a full solution to the priorities problem involves a much larger political struggle than merely questioning priorities.

Decisions about how research gets carried out within socially defined priorities, similarly, should not be made by private institutional interests (like research centers with elite governing boards), science empire-builders, or other managers and officials in research hierarchies. Such decisions should be the responsibility of the science workers themselves, their peers, and other work associates, in collaboration with genuine representatives of all working people’s interests. The institutional support and ideological requirements (i.e., that science should serve the people) for such accountability and participation are, again, lacking and depend on broader political change. To these ends people working in science must increasingly confront questions that arise in their work. This includes everything from elitism and discriminatory practices—especially sexism and racism—to the content and priorities of science, and the economic—especially employment—impacts of various technological options. Developing organizations and making ties with progressive organizations of other working people would constitute major advances in this program.

Recombinant DNA

The very active debate on recombinant DNA provides a unique opportunity to put these ideas into practice. The decision of the City Council of Cambridge, Mass. to briefly and mildly intervene has created global waves, so unusual is it for a “public” and local body to involve itself in science policy. This research is rapidly moving out of the realm of “pure” knowledge into hard-core technology: it is now being lustily eyed by pharmaceutical and other industries, and technocrats in government are feeling pressures. Consulting opportunities are open-ing up for previously cloistered academicians. Nevertheless the debate itself reflects a good development: people no longer automatically accept that new technology means better living. While several variants of this popular opinion are, we believe, wrong (e.g., that technology is inherently bad, that civilization has irreversibly exceeded the limit of optimum technology utilization, that mystical explanations are more valid than science after all) it is nevertheless a positive advance that the word of establishment experts is now frequently suspected of hiding unstated motives and interests. Fifteen or twenty years ago this would not have happened. But this awareness is not sufficiently widespread to protect dissident graduate students, faculty or employees elsewhere from severe harassment. As the example from cancer research shows, much more awareness and unity must be achieved before these issues can be solidly challenged. Meanwhile the debate must be broadened to reveal its full political implications. For example, the recombinant DNA issue can be readily expanded to address research priorities, environmental origins of disease and other analogous major technological choices such as nuclear power. By waging this debate in all possible arenas—schools, community forums, local media—progressive science workers can make a significant contribution toward the larger social changes that are needed.

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