What an invigorating weekend at UMass-Amherst for the one-off conference about Science for the People! Organized by Sigrid Schmalzer and her comrades at the university's enviable Social Thought & Political Economy program, the two-day gathering assembled nearly 200 people — most of them former members of Science for the People, and many of them enjoying the reunion with colleagues and cohorts — to discuss the legacies and lasting impacts of the group's resistance, publications, and educational efforts.
Founded in 1969, SftP became a diverse national network of scientists commonly concerned about the increasing militarization and corporatization of scientific research. Through organized confrontations at established science conferences, various street-level social projects, and an impressive, eponymous bimonthly magazine that published for 15 years (now neatly archived online), SftP sounded early alarms about issues ranging from drones (as early as 1973) and computer surveillance to the commercialization of biotechnologies and genetic manipulation. Early in the conference, the consensus was clear: these issues have grown only more urgent, and much work remains.
The conference featured two days of panel sessions, including an opening examination of SftP's lasting influence (Susan Lindee from UPenn made some great connections here between the formative years of SftP and what we now refer to as STS), a superb panel about "Science and Ideology" (where Katherine Yih pointed out the group's main perspectives — that we live in a class society, which affects the nature of knowledge production, and that knowledge production is not and cannot be politically neutral — and its goal of creating a "liberatory science"), and a closing plenary in which founding members and young students alike considered how to move such activism forward, in particular how to sustain the science movement without the mass anti-war movement that originally sparked it.
Dick Levins' presentation Saturday afternoon was worth the airfare alone. If this group gathers again, one session needs to be Levins in a chair just talking, riffing, broadcasting his considerable wisdom. Levins pointed out that scientists are workers — they are "people who think they're professionals but discover they're workers" — and as such they produce knowledge commodities. But since they have a less-alienated stake in their own production, Levins said they must also then be activists by solving their own problems through their very work. "Every system has a domain of the permitted and a domain of the forbidden," he said. "There's always a zone between them, which can be pushed." So scientists should "struggle within their disciplines to push that boundary" or "step outside and work for people's organizations."
Numerous resources remain in the wake of the conference:
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I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.