Beneath The White Coat: The Radical Science Movement

A raised fist of solidarity against oppression held up behind a chemist's flask: a striking, slightly humorous image that playfully juxtaposes images of political revolution and scientific work which are generally kept apart. It was the cover of last year's Geek Manifesto. But it was also the logo for two magazines of the 1970s socialist science movement, Science for the People (based in the US) and Science for People (from the UK).

Looking back at these earlier radicals, the Geek Manifesto seems to pale to a Che Guevara T-shirt in comparison. That's not a dig at the Geek Manifesto. Its less overtly ideological stance might well be a better fit with 21st century science, and 21st century politics. But there was a history of radicalism in science, and it's worth at least knowing about that. Let me introduce you to some of the UK side of things.

"We have to face the fact that there is a crisis in science today." So said Maurice Wilkins on 19 April 1969 as he opened the one-day inaugural meeting of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS). That's Professor Maurice Wilkins, of King's College London. Nobel Prize winner Maurice Wilkins. And he was standing at the Royal Society. Other early supporters of the Society included JD Bernal, Francis Crick, Julian Huxley and Bertrand Russell. In some respects, it was all quite establishment.

The hall was full to overflowing with more than 300 delegates. There were eminent speakers but a mixed audience from across and outside of science. At one point a young woman (a non-scientist) stood up to exclaim that ordinary people never came into the Royal Society. She was reassured that ordinary scientists rarely visited either. Two hundred signed up there and then, with membership reaching over a thousand by the following year. They started publishing a newsletter and BSSRS branches popped up across the country. The second newsletter mentioned at least the seeds of groups at Aston University, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Imperial College, Leeds, Brighton and more.

Wilkins' sense that science was in crisis was slightly tired even then and we've heard it many times since. When does science not perceive itself to be in some crisis or another? However, what distinguishes the BSSRS from other campaigns is that it was not simply a matter of scientists calling for more research funds or demands for their voice to be heard more in the media or public policy. Rather, they aimed to open up the politics of science to both scientific and public scrutiny so it might change and improve. They perceived a crisis in wider society and felt science could help, but also thought science as it was currently constructed was part of the problem, so would need to change to use its powers for good. The fist of solidarity stood in front of the chemist's flask here, not simply used to hold science up high. If you couldn't already tell from the iconography, they were also generally quite explicitly socialist, although this varied a bit at times.

As well as gaining members, they accrued some public attention. The annual report in 1970 noted that the society had some letters printed in newspapers; the Times published one on CS as an anti-riot agent and another on pollution in the Rhine. Correspondence pages suggest they became embroiled in some disagreement with John Maddox, editor of Nature. By the summer of 1970 the BSSRS had received a grant (I'm not sure where from) of £3,000 and set up an educational trust, with offices. Their publications grew with longer essays, illustrations and reports of more and more events, and from issue 18 (Oct 1972) onwards, it developed into bi- Londoners would meet at the Black Horse pub, just off Oxford Street, with debates on the problems of sponsored research or scientists' relationships with the mass media. By the 1970s, this developed into a series of pub-based seminars on science and politics entitled "Beneath the white coat". There were further study groups across the country on topics such as science communication, transport and agriculture. The Edinburgh branch helped run a huge teach-in on pollution in March 1970 which involved over a thousand people and was reported in both Nature and New Scientist. A group of BSSRS activists disrupted the 1970 British Science Association meeting in Durham, deliberately raising political issues in apparently "technical" sessions under a banner of "Science is not neutral"; a nod, perhaps, to a Nature editorial on the election earlier that summer. Later editions of Science for People suggest an ongoing critique of the BSA for its lack of vision, even sheep-like, over-deferent "propagandist function", to quote a report of the 1976 Lancaster meeting. A 1977 edition contains a response from Aston Science for People activists to a Daily Mail article which had taken their action at a local BSA meeting as a sign that "the Left has Science by the throat" (let's just say they disagreed on the accuracy of this description).

There was a strong and ongoing commitment to the peace movement, aware of the role of military funding in scientific research. The cold war was a context – with early associations with the anti-nuclear activism and worries about chemical and biological warfare transforming into concern about the Strategic Defense Initiative and "new cold war" in the mid-1980s – but Northern Ireland and the policing of dissent in the UK was a particular focus. From early on, the BSSRS was active in critiquing use of CS gas at home, discussing what they dubbed the technologies of political control (a book of the same name was published by Penguin in 1977). They also joined forces with the National Council for Civil Liberties to launch a campaign against plastic bullets, including an exhibition in Brixton Art Gallery in 1985.

If the pacifism was inherited from earlier iterations of the scientific left, the BSSRS took a newer interest in both the environment and women's rights. They had a strong commitment to the class component of environmental problems, with strong concern for the welfare of the workers of science. An editorial for issue 27 made this especially explicit, noting that previously the society been largely concerned with radicalising academic scientists but would, in future, aim to work for and with shop-floor workers of industrial science. In terms of feminism, the second edition of Science for People was a special on women, later followed by an entire edition edited by women's collective, and they maintained an ongoing interest in issues surrounding the intersection of science and gender.

The BSSRS had "comrades". There was Undercurrents, a radical technology magazine, and the more academic Radical Science Journal. There was also the Radical Statistics Society, which is still going. They seemed to have a decent relationship with New Scientist, co-organising science writing competitions for young people. The path to revolution is rarely smooth, and there were disagreements within the movement too. A write-up of the 1975 BSSRS meeting published in Undercurrents laughed at it for being esoteric and elitist, concluding "there may be a socialist science, but if that was it, I want no part of it". In response BSSRS members argued the Undercurrents reviewer had failed to appreciate the meeting's attempt to understand the complexity of oppression, an understanding which "doesn't grow on windmills" (a reference to Undercurrents interest in wind power).

There were disagreements within BSSRS too. The autumn 1971 edition of Science for People includes a letter from John Ziman regretting withdrawal of Stephen and Hilary Rose (he didn't sound very regretful) and saying it would be a relief "not to be embarrassed by the posterings and inept stunts of those who naïve, crackpot, or ideologically committed views are so much at variance with any sort of rational attitude to the complex and serious problems of science and modern life". He also makes the point that the power of BSSRS lies in local network, not centralised national branch. Flick through the archive a few years and you can find a review of one of Ziman's books which leads with statement that he is "no friend of the left", so maybe attitudes shifted over time. Throughout the 70s, the letters pages show a steady stream of people leaving because they felt the BSSRS was too wedded to socialism and calling for a more ideological neutral approach, but there were others calling for more radical action too. One mid-1970s letter complained a review of the Roses' book was just "snide" and accused the BSSRS of pussyfooting around CS gas use in Northern Ireland. Another said it felt pity for the "impotent armchair liberalism" causing people to resign over radicalism: "and irritation at the naïve and potentially dangerous way they still seem to worship and cling to the mythical ivory tower".

Such correspondence raises the question of how radical the BSSRS really was. A 1972 note from an American comrade noted with some glee that he'd never been anywhere where Marxism is so respectable as Britain. "Half of the people in the University of Sussex over the age of 40 are former members of the CP. The Student Union representing every student on the Campus is 100% Marxist as far as I can tell from its meeting." And yet, he argued, "the left is in bad shape because it is so respectable. I have the feeling it is 100% 'radical chic'. There is virtually no attempt to do real agitation if it involves the slightest bit of unpleasantness." Some might argue Science for People was a bit of a Che Guevara T-shirt too.

Gary Wersky, a participant in 1970s radical science who also wrote a history of earlier Marxist scientists, suggested in a 2007 article that we might see a third wave to the movement. Zac Goldsmith might argue this can be seen expressed in Sense About Science, but I remain unconvinced by that. I don't think we've seen the like of the radical science movement since the BSSRS packed up in the late 1980s. Left, right or other in political orientation, I don't think we've seen a scientist-led movement that dared that level of self-critique.

Whether we put the fist/flask logos on T-shirts, are inspired by their more radical approach, argue they failed because they weren't radical enough or simply wish to consign the whole movement to history, we should remember they existed.

Alice Bell is a research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. She is indebted to Erik Millstone for dropping a pile of Science for People magazines on her desk one Friday afternoon, Jon Agar's notes from the Needham Papers, and a few informal conversations with ex-BSSRS activists. 

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