Plenary Panel: “The History and Lasting Significance of Science for the People”

The first speaker in this panel was Kelly More, she discussed Science for the People and what was distinctive about Science for the People during the time they were active. She talked about how the group rallied around the use of scientific development for military purposes. She talked about the scientists involved and their response to their peers who were engaging in these practices. Science for the People looked at the economic, gender and other histories that were intertwined within science worldwide. Science for the People rejected the idea that science would trickle down to the people. They strived to engage all people in the development of science to keep the production of knowledge in check with the needs of the people. She discusses that this inequality is still occurring today and that there is a need for an organization like Science for the People to spread the development of new technologies and knowledge to the entire global community.

Next Susan Lindee spoke, she discussed the use of modern education to train a work force to fit into an industrialized work environment. She then moved into discussing the distribution of funding and how small organizations were overwhelmed by the amount of money the DOD was putting into scientific research. She also asks about the rise of a sociology and science that they are asked to lie about what they were doing and this did not seem to fit with the mindset most scientists had. She talks about the post-cold war era and the scientific organizations that were formed then and what their primary goal was. Was it for the people or did they have other more selfish or harmful goals.

The next speaker was Sarah Bridger who talked about after the use of the atomic bomb how the questions about ethics and science became more urgent. She then talks about the idea of professional neutrality, can scientists truly rise above the fray and be truly independent. She reflects on two topics: 1. how did scientists themselves understand and debate the concepts of professional neutrality during these crucial years of the Vietnam War? 2. What is the legacy of some of these debates?

The next speaker was Alyssa Botelho. She talked about a debate at Harvard over the construction of a lab that would study recombinant DNA. This technique is used commonly today, but in the 1970s very little was known about this technique and many questions about the ethics were brought up. Some people equated it to scientists playing God. Some people also had more immediate concerns, such as could these new genes be used to harm people and were they a risk to public health. Science for the People was a large part in the protest against the use of these new technologies. She talked about the rules and protocols for recombinant DNA studies were created by the people who would be doing the research and were not widely accepted. This led to public debate that halted studies for a while but eventually studies resumed with more over sight. She discussed how the scientists of science for the people largely disagreed with most of their colleagues views that new technologies would inevitably lead to good.

The last speaker was Peter Taylor who discussed the intertwined nature of SPS and Science for the People. He talked about counter culture in the 1970s and how people were driven to form groups to create their own culture and reform societies. He posed the question: “How to make sense of radical scientists and critics in relationship to their changing contexts?”  He suggest using various filters to think about these issues. He used a lot of visual aids and collages to represent the progression of scientific movements. He talked about the transitions between generations of scientists and how after the communist era it became much harder to distinguish between who was a scientist and who was a science critic. 

One thought on “Plenary Panel: “The History and Lasting Significance of Science for the People”

  1. Peter V

    I found this panel to be really interesting, and I personally think it’s one of the panels that felt most relevant to the STPEC program, who are obviously the people who hosted this conference. I thought Sarah’s piece was especially interesting, however, because it highlighted the fact that it’s becoming more and more difficult to show neutrality in the world of science because of the intentions behind the research and how the science will be used exactly to effect people or the environment. Even to this day, people debate over whether using the Atomic Bomb was the right choice in Japan. Many justify it, while others find it extremely barbaric. This can show that scientific questions can have just as heavy a weight as certain philosophy questions. “If we CAN do something, SHOULD we do it?”This is the most common question in the ethics of science. I think the speakers in this presentation covered the ways that Science for the People is an excellent example of an activist group that tackled these questions.

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