The Seeds of Science Advocacy: A Look Back to a Political Awakening of Scientists

Published Feb 26, 2019

In a troubled, divisive time, a small group of scientists decided to make their voices heard—and founded the Union of Concerned Scientists in the process. Dr. David Wright, co-director of the UCS Global Security Program, talks about those beginnings and the half-century of science advocacy that grew from them.

In this episode
  • Colleen and David explore the foundations of UCS
  • David talks about boycotts and mobilization by young scientists
  • David explains how the scientific community tried to tackle the threat of nuclear weapons
  • Colleen and David talk about science and activism
Timing and cues
  • Opener (0:00-0:47)
  • Intro (0:47-3:08)
  • Interview Part 1 (3:08-11:52)
  • Break (11:52-12:28)
  • Interview Part 2 (12:28-24:45)
  • This Week in Science History Throw (24:45-24:50)
  • This Week in Science History (24:50-27:27)
  • Outro (27:27-28:30)
Related content
Full transcript

We live in troubling times for science, and for those who care about facts and evidence. It can be difficult to broaden our perspective and see silver linings to our current reality. It can be even harder to find causes to celebrate.

But I’m going to try to give you both right now. Come back in time with me, 50 years ago, to 1969.

The United States was enmeshed in a brutal and divisive war. The Cuyahoga River was on fire. There was no Environmental Protection Agency. A president with a one-time 34% approval rating handed over the office to a guy who would in a few years be impeached.

Back in those days, if you were training to become a scientist, conventional wisdom was that science was strictly an academic discipline… and that scientists only cared about their work, and were neutral on every other topic. It was normal for top performers to be recruited to work in the defense industry, creating deadlier and more precise weapons, and normal for them to accept. With very few exceptions, the idea that a scientist could also be an activist would have sounded as improbable as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong planting a Soviet flag on the moon when they landed that year.

1969… was also the year that the Union of Concerned Scientists was founded. That’s right—we’re turning the big 5-0 this year! And it’s worth it to remember how much has changed. In honor of our anniversary, I wanted to compare the mindset of the scientific community 50 years ago to the present, and take stock of how the actions of March 4, 1969, marked a political awakening in the scientific community. So I took advantage of one of the many perks of my job, and turned to a literal rocket scientist for help.

David Wright is co-director of our Global Security Program, and has a rare perspective on our milestone anniversary… being that he studied physics under one of our founders. He joined me to talk about how the Vietnam War led scientists to essentially go on strike… how the action mobilized the scientific community and led to the creation of the Union of Concerned Scientists… and how the world is a better place when scientists can speak their truths.

Colleen: David, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

David: Nice to be here.

Colleen: Excited to talk about the beginnings of the Union of Concerned Scientists today. We're coming up on our 50th anniversary so I thought we'd do a little bit of a historical podcast. To start, on March 4th, 1969, 50 years ago, there was an uprising of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Can you tell me what was going on and what scientists were upset about?

David: Sure. Not surprisingly, this started several years earlier because at MIT, as in a lot of other schools, there was a lot of concern about the Vietnam War, about the role that the government was playing in continuing that war. At MIT, that played out in interesting ways. For example, DuPont, the chemical company, would come to MIT to recruit students. Well, DuPont was also the company that was making napalm that was being used in Vietnam and that was really a concern that people had focused on.

So students organized a boycott of the DuPont recruiters. This was a couple years before that. So clearly, students were paying attention to the bigger set of issues. And sometime around the fall of 1968, a couple of Physics graduate students, Joel Feigenbaum and Allen Chodos, were having dinner and got talking about whether there was something more that they should be doing as scientists at MIT.

And so they decided that they would try and draft a statement to see if they could get, physicists at MIT to sign it to basically talk about the set of issues. They drafted something. They took it to Kurt Gottfried who was a physics professor at Cornell who was visiting for the year at MIT. He then sort of reworked it, got some of the other physicists that he knew at MIT involved and that was sort of the beginning. People started thinking, "Yeah, we really should be doing and saying something about it and putting out a statement like this and thinking about what else we should be doing." It seems like a good start.

Colleen: So what were some of the points in the statement?

David: The statement talked about the fact that science and technology was being sort of dominated by military uses. A lot of it was talking about the fact that the scientific community should be speaking out about these issues, should be trying to think about how science and technology can be used most productively for society. And so they were both thinking about the bigger issue, the societal issue of how you spend your resources, what you use science and technology for but also focused on some of the specific pieces that they saw coming down the line.

Colleen: So, how sophisticated were weapons at that point?

David: In the 1960s, the United States and Soviets had developed long range missiles to put nuclear warheads on. Both countries had some hundreds at that point probably of nuclear warheads that they could launch at the other country.

What people were thinking about at that point was, is there a way to get out of this? Is there a way to get an advantage? So if we can make smaller warheads then we could put more warheads on each missile. If we can build so-called MIRRV-ing technology, then we can put more warheads on each missile and have each of those go after a different target. Let's put missiles on submarines so that the other country doesn't know where they are and so we'll always have a secure ability to retaliate.

And so one of the results of that was that by the mid-1980s, between the U.S. and Soviet Union, you had on the order of 65,000 nuclear weapons that those countries had.

And, fortunately, that was the peak and things have been coming down since then. But, again, one of the concerns about both building new offensive weapons, and at that point they were beginning to talk about building defensive weapons, was that the response of the other country was to simply build up its offensive weapons to counteract what advantage you might get out of that. And that's part of what caused the numbers to grow to such a high level. And it was really the advent of arms control between the U.S. and Soviet Union where they started to understand more what the other side was going to do and not going to do.

And it started to limit some of the technology that they were concerned about that both countries were able to sort of back off of that and start to cut their arsenals.

Colleen: Tell me about MIRRVs, what are they, were they, and their significance.

David: MIRRV is an acronym, stands for Multiple Independently Re-targetable Reentry Vehicle, which is a mouthful to basically say that if you had a big missile that normally carried one nuclear warhead, that this would allow you to put several smaller warheads on that same missile to launch them toward the Soviet Union and then to independently target each of those warheads at a different target location.

Colleen: So this protest on March 4th, I don't wanna overstate it by calling it a watershed moment. Maybe it was more of a milestone or a way post for the scientific community. Scientists were not typically rising up and protesting like this. This was somewhat of a new thing.

David: Well, there certainly had been cases in previous decades and even several years before where scientists had gotten involved.

One that people, I think, are probably aware of is in 1955, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein released a manifesto that was signed by a number of famous scientists basically calling on the governments of the world to try and deal with the looming nuclear weapons issue.

A notable case was when the U.S. government said it was going to start deploying missile defense sites around some large cities, like Boston and Chicago and Seattle. Physicists in those cities started to organize, get people information to protest them. And that, in fact, drew so much attention that it basically shut down that proposal.

So there were examples of that, but I think what was interesting about the MIT case was it really moved beyond looking at particular systems and started to look at this bigger issue of the dominance of government funding for science and technology for military purposes. Then the idea of should, campuses like MIT, be so focused on government military funding and was there kind of work that shouldn't be done at universities.

So one of the things that came out of this was they called for a work stoppage, which some people called a research strike on March 4th. And the idea was to take classes that day and to use them to talk about not just the course material but the societal implications of the material in the course of what it meant to be a scientist or an engineer and put on sort of a conference in the afternoon that had a number of panels with people talking about various aspects of that. So the idea...

Colleen: So is this your classic teach-in?

David: It's a classic teach-in. And part of what was interesting about this was, as they started talking about it, somebody talked to a reporter at "The New York Times," and in January of 1969 there was an article in "The New York Times" where it talked about a research strike in the title of it. And that, of course, made this issue much more polarized because if you talk about a teach-in, that sounds pretty benign. If you talk about a research strike, that's a much more aggressive sort of thing. And that became somewhat divisive at MIT between people who felt like… Well, some people felt like we need to continue the military research that we're doing and it's a good source of money and we're the best people to be doing it.

Some people simply felt that, and this sounds a little naive at this point because a lot of discussions have happened since then, but a lot of people at that point felt that science was an academic pursuit. That it was apolitical and that by raising these issues, people weren't talking about sort of implicit political issues but were, in fact, politicizing science. And for people who felt that strongly, this seemed like just a very bad way to go forward.


Colleen: So going back to the protest on March 4th, 1969, this was the beginning of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Tell me a little bit about that. So there's an MIT faculty group and they called themselves "The Union of Concerned Scientists." And then what happened?

David: So just taking a step back, the original statement that was written was a joint student and faculty group. And they found that as time went on, as they were planning the events for March 4th, that the students and the faculty had somewhat different ideas of where they wanted to go and what they wanted to talk about and how radical they wanted to be.

And so those two groups split. And the faculty group called itself "The Union of Concerned Scientists." One of the things they decided was that both of these groups, the student and the faculty group, would sort of have an equal part in designing the parts of the teach-in on March 4th, and designing various panels. And so the faculty group under the name "Union of Concerned Scientists" started having meetings through the winter of 1968, 1969, inviting speakers, thinking about what they wanted to talk about, doing those kinds of things.

They also, during that time, wrote the first paper that came out with the Union of Concerned Scientists' name on it, which was about the Anti-Ballistic Missile debate. And that came out around the time of the March 4th meeting. And it was followed not too long after that by a second technical paper on biological and chemical weapons, which, interestingly enough, was headed by David Baltimore, who later won a Nobel Prize. Very esteemed physicist.

And part of what's interesting, if you look back at the history, between Harvard and MIT, there were a very large number of leading physicists and biologists and chemists. I mean, it's really an esteemed group. And part of what's interesting is that these people seem so willing to take time out of their very busy schedules and work on this. And I think it's some indication that there was really an awareness that something needed to be done, that there was a concern about these issues and that a lot of these people were happy to see a way that they could get involved and talk about these things.

And so that, I think, gave a lot of emphasis and hope to the people who were developing the teach-in, feeling like this is really something which is bigger than just a one day teach-in, that we really should try to continue this. And I should just say that, apparently, people started contacting friends at other universities. And so there were about 30 universities across the country that had similar sorts of teach-ins on March 4th. What followed was, as usually happens, people get busy. They have to get back to their classes, and things...

Colleen: Yeah, what do we do now?

David: Things wound down. There were several people at MIT, like... Well, Kurt Gottfried had gone back to Cornell at that point, but Henry Kendall was starting to work on these things. And, basically, what happened was, during the 1970s then, Henry became interested both in environmental issues, had long been interested in environmental issues but was decided that it would be good to try and get scientists to focus on those issues. And also the nuclear power safety debate. He had been alerted by some people to the fact that there were safety concerns, potentially as plants aged, but even with some of the safety systems they had.

And that was really one of the things that UCS really grew on, was Henry's involvement in that. That led, Henry and two other people actually, to start doing a lot of technical work, to start advising members of Congress to doing press conferences. People were hearing about it. There was support for that kind of work. And toward the end of the 1970s, once Three Mile Island happened, really focused people's concerns about some of these safety issues. And it was not long after that UCS had released a report talking about the safety concerns of Three Mile Island and a couple other plants.

And so I think, again, what it did was it helped people see a way for them to get involved and focus on some of these issues that they had been concerned about for a long time.

Colleen: So, David, you've been with the Union of Concerned Scientists for more than half of UCS' existence and I know you took a few courses as a grad student with Kurt Gottfried. Tell me one thing that surprises you when you look back on this history of the Union of Concerned Scientists and one thing that you think the organization is uniquely positioned to take on in the years and decades ahead.

David: Well, to some extent, I would combine those two because I think the thing that surprised me is also one of the things that I think is the strength. There's a tendency of scientists who have not been involved in policy issues before to think that the real problem is a lack of knowledge or a lack of education and that what we need to do is inform people.

Colleen: If you just explain it to them, they'll get it?

David: And it's interesting to read some of Henry Kendall's discussion of some of his early involvement with the nuclear power safety issue. They went into that assuming that that was the case. There's also a tendency to think that, and it goes along with that, this idea of talking truth to power, that the truth will eventually win the day. I tend to subscribe much more to something that Frank Von Hippel, a professor at Princeton, who's long been involved in these issues, talks about. He talks about that it's important to have activists and analysts working together.

And you need a solid basis for what you're putting into the debate and what you're saying but you also need to figure out how to get people to listen, how to get things in the press, how to create political pressure. So I think one of the surprising things to me about UCS that I've told people for many years is that from the very beginnings, it was designed to have sort of a balance between analysts and outreach people who worked to reach the public, to reach people in Congress, media people, to get the word out. And so it really, I think, from the very beginning, had this quality of trying to do multiple pieces.

And as I look around, I think there's a lot of organizations that do one or two of those things very well. But I'm really impressed that from the very beginning, UCS has had that as part of its view of itself, that it's recognized the importance of that. And I think that's gonna continue to be useful going forward. The other thing that I think is gonna be useful going forward is that the UCS has tended to pick hard problems and stick with them. So, things like missile defense, nuclear weapons, climate change. And I think that's important because these are issues that need people that continue to work on them.

At the same time, it's tried to be flexible enough to begin working on new issues that are important. And one of those that came up was concerns about scientific advisory panels being politicized and, especially under the George W. Bush administration, that became much more common practice. And UCS began working on that trying to talk about why that was a bad idea, try to work with Congress to get some of those practices changed.

So, again, I think it's this combination of focusing on things, sticking with them, but also having the flexibility to be able to pick up new issues that we wouldn't have thought about 50 years ago.

Colleen: So David, if March 4th, 1969 hadn't happened at MIT, what do you think you'd be doing now?

David: Very interesting question. I actually got involved in this, separate from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and it was around the Star Wars debate back in the 1980s. Now, I have to say though, that part of what I think allowed me to do that was I was a graduate student at Cornell at that time and I think at that point, people believed that it was a legitimate thing for scientists to be talking about these issues. And it was an interesting place to be a graduate student because Hans Bethe, who was head of the theoretical division of the Manhattan Project, was there and typically he would start the physics seminars out by talking about some aspect of a policy that he had been working on.

And he was clearly a great physicist who had been involved in these things for a long time. Robert Wilson, the head of the experimental division at the Los Alamos project was also there and he had also been long involved in these issues. Kurt Gottfried was there. So I think there was a sense that for people who saw these issues as interesting, that it was a legitimate thing to be spending your time on. And I think it's hard to understate how important that is for people, to realize that you can pull your head up away from your research and pay attention to these things.

And so once the Star Wars debate started, a group of us at Cornell started looking both at some of the technical issues of the plan but also started looking at the way that the Missile Defense Agency at that point was trying to gather both congressional and public support. And part of what they said they were trying to do was to get universities across the country to take money for the Star Wars program as a way of them being able to say, "See? We've got the best scientists and engineers working on this."

So that got us thinking and we decided in, I guess, in 1984 to organize a boycott of Star Wars funding and to have scientists and engineers across the country say that they would refuse to solicit or accept money from Star Wars Organization. Now, again, that seemed to me to sort of have an echo of March 4th because it was a boycott of taking research funding, which I don't think had been done before. And it attracted a lot of attention because it was a very strong statement. And part of what that did, because it got into the press, we organized press conferences, we did a lot of the things that I think people like Henry and Kurt and others had realized you needed to combine with technical analysis, by getting in the press, we were not only able to illustrate the strong feeling of the scientific community that this was a bad idea and technically unworkable, but also gave them a forum to go out and talk about why it was a problem.

And so I think, again, it was the sense of taking a strong stand, only I think it was easier for us because of the work that people like Kurt and Henry had done before that sort of legitimized the idea of scientists taking strong stands in policy issues.

Colleen: So, really, a scientist-activist at heart.

David: Well, that's what I like to think I am. It's part of why I like being at UCS.

Colleen: Well, David, thank you for joining me.

David: It's been really great to be here.

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This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald