Science for the People was an organization of scientists and science workers who banded together around the turn of the ’70s to express concerns about the commercialization, industrialization, and militarization of science. The group raised awareness of a multitude of issues, organized and balanced public debates (which sometimes included disrupting establishment conferences), and published a spiffy magazine for nearly a decade. Worried about how science was being used against people, SftP advocated for.
In 2014, a conference was organized at UMass-Amherst to examine the group’s legacy. At the close of the event, several attending students and scholars from across the country met to discuss ways to continue the examination, even ways to revive and evolve the mission of SftP. I was fortunate to be among this group, and the result of our decision has finally been realized in a new book: Science for the People: Documents From America’s Movement of Radical Scientists, now available.
Instead of immediately writing further scholarship of our own about the group and the issues discussed during the event, we decided, guided by Sigrid Schmalzer at UMass-Amherst’s Social Thought & Political Economy program, to collect, select, and make available again important writings from the group. This book presents 45 texts — many from the SftP magazine archive, others published papers and various manuscripts — written by SftP members expressly under the auspices of the group and its ethos. The documents are organized within themed chapters:
“Science, Power, and Ideology”
“Disrupting the ‘AAA$’”
“Biology and Medicine”
“Race and Gender”
“Agriculture, Ecology, and Food”
“Energy and Environment”
“Science for the People for the World”
I selected and edited texts for the “Technology” chapter with Schmalzer — fliers and articles from the 1970s and ’80s that resonate remarkably with current (often precisely the same) issues. David Chidakel’s “The New Robots,” for instance, offers considerable prescience in examining the social impacts beginning to appear as the result of industrial automation (including things as seemingly simple as adding self-checkout lanes at the grocery store). An address by David Dickson critiques the proprietary and essentially undemocratic nature of innovation, pointing toward inclusive alternatives to design and ways we could be “Choosing Technology” instead of having it foisted upon us. We also reprint Herb Fox’s manifesto of sorts for SftP’s groundbreaking Technical Assistance Program, which connected social and political groups with expertise and assistance “in situations where technical experience and knowledge can make their struggle more effective” (158). So … like Geek Squad, but with a conscience.
Other chapters and texts document SftP's pioneering communication and visits with science workers in China, its forward-thinking calls to action regarding feminist and racial issues, and some piercing insights into the co-opting of intellectual powers and resources for militant purposes.
A fine text for classrooms, which was the prevailing drive in creating it!
Bonus: After the conference, interest in Science for the People revived, and the group has been loosely reorganized — organizing protests on behalf of tech workers and forming new SftP chapters across the country. Find them here.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.