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Covers from 1970s issues of the magazine published by Science for the People.

Science for the People

As scientists prepare to march, Science for the People reboots

The upcoming March for Science is frequently described as the first time U.S. scientists will take to the streets.

Epidemiologist Frank Bove and biochemist Ben Allen know better. They are part of a small cadre of “science workers” trying to revive a short-lived organization—named Science for the People (SftP)—that evolved from the 1960s antiwar and civil rights movements and engaged in demonstrations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and other forms of direct action. But whereas the current marchers want to defend open inquiry and evidence-based policy in response to outside assaults on the profession, SftP was trying to rescue science from itself.

The original group maintained that too many U.S. scientists had become willing tools of an oppressive government that was fighting an unjust war and serving corporate interests. In its early years, SftP disrupted the annual meetings of AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider), with activists shouting down speakers, accusing prominent scientists of serving the ruling class, and staging counter sessions on hot-button political issues. 

Many scientists were turned off by those confrontational tactics, however, and the membership of SftP’s largest chapter in Boston never rose above a few thousand. By the early 1980s the organization, which drew its strength from half a dozen local chapters, had all but disappeared from view.

Bove, 65, was a community organizer right out of college when he joined the Boston chapter in 1975 to work on its eponymously named magazine, which also served as the public face of the organization. He acknowledges that its radical critique of science wasn’t everyone's cup of tea. “We were trying to make links to other issues, to broaden the politics to recognize that we were working under a capitalist system riven by the profit motive, sexism, racism, and militarism,” he says.

Although Bove left the staff in 1977, he has never stopped enlisting science in battling those and other social ills. After earning a doctoral degree in public health and epidemiology, he joined the New Jersey Department of Health. For the past quarter-century he has worked for the federal government in Atlanta.

In 2014 Bove received a prestigious “unsung hero” award from Boston University for his tireless efforts to help communities plagued by contaminated water and soil, notably the families of U.S. marines stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. And he believes that the goal of SftP—to make science a force for good by having researchers address the needs of the average citizen—remains relevant today.

“It’s not just about funding cuts or restrictions on immigration,” Bove says about two issues that loom large in this year’s march. “Yes, those are important issues for scientists. But our job is to get them to see that those problems are connected to bigger societal issues, like climate change and public health and environmental justice.”

“To me, the question remains: In our pursuit of science, are we serving the people, or just corporate and government interests?”

Rebooting a movement

Long involved in progressive labor and antiwar (in this case Iraq and Afghanistan) causes, Allen helps manage a genomics database for a federal facility in Knoxville, Tennessee. But he had never heard of SftP when he saw a notice for a conference on the history of the movement.

The conference, held in April 2014 at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, was an eye-opener for him. “These scientists had helped run free health clinics set up by the Black Panthers,” he says about one of the group’s many activities that moved well beyond the traditional boundaries of scientific activism. “That blew me away.”

The 27-year-old Allen was thrilled to meet some of the people who had played prominent roles in an organization that had folded before he was even born. But he wanted more. “It was great to hear their stories,” he recalls. “But I didn’t see any follow-up. So a group of us, both original members and newcomers like me, got together and asked ourselves, ‘What would it take to reboot this thing?’”

Three years later, the answer is still gestating. Allen is part of a steering committee wrestling with how the new SftP can become a truly national organization without diminishing the authority of its small, grassroots chapters, now operating in 10 cities. The first step, he says, is to ensure all the groups traditionally underrepresented in science play a prominent leadership role. “We don’t have a clear path forward,” Allen admits, “but we think it’s crucial to acknowledge the uneven terrain that has existed for so long within science.”

Organizers of this month’s science march have faced similar criticism of being not sufficiently representative of both the scientific community and the larger public that they want to attract. At the same time, the organizers haven’t had the luxury of time to plan their strategy. Within days of the massive women’s march that followed the inauguration of President Donald Trump on 20 January, the idea of doing something similar for science exploded on social media. Since then, fierce debates over messaging, participation, and other details about the march have taken place online, in real time.

In contrast, political activism unfolded at a more leisurely pace in the 1970s. The SftP magazine offered readers a chance to engage in thoughtful discourse over ideology and tactics, Bove recalls, as well as serving as a megaphone for information about upcoming protests and other events.

As quaint as that may sound to millennials, Bove feels that a magazine still serves a valuable role in a social movement. “We’re talking about how to replicate the magazine in this era,” he says. “We think that writing articles is still a good way to spread information and to network.”

Allen agrees, saying that the new group hopes to begin with blog posts and eventually move to long-form electronic journalism that would appear in a magazine format two or three times a year. In a departure from the deliberately decentralized approach of the original group, the new SftP will also try to maintain a national presence. “We want to be able to articulate the principles of the organization,” says Allen, “as well as have something to offer when chapters come to us for guidance or when someone wants to start a chapter in their city.”

Whatever structure it assumes, say Allen and Bove, the revitalized SftP won’t waste time on one issue that has plagued the science march, namely, how political its actions should be. “We believe science is political, and that the way to get scientists into politics starts with a thoughtful discussion of politics,” Allen says. “One big goal is to provide people with a way to see the intersection of politics and science as a basis for taking action.”

Bove thinks that climate change may be an ideal vehicle for launching such discussions. “It affects people’s jobs, their homes, their lives, their health,” he explains. “It’s also a good way to build coalitions with other organizations.”

The fact that SftP needs to be revitalized is not a black mark against its founders, says Kelly Moore, a sociologist at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, who has studied social movements in science. “If we consider organizational survival to be the sine qua non of social movement success, SftP was a failure,” Moore wrote in her 2008 book, Disrupting Science, which devotes a chapter to SftP. “But if we think of social movement organizations as means to generate more activity, rather than to sustain or reproduce themselves, then SftP’s legacy is in the networks and ideas that it produced.”

Organizers of this month’s marches so far have shown little interest in connecting with that legacy, Allen says. Nonetheless, he and Bove wish them well. Allen is a key organizer of the planned science march in Knoxville, and Bove plans to join marchers in Atlanta.

Whether the 22 April events lead to a larger, sustained social movement or not, the march provides a venue for the two men to spread the word about the new SftP. “I’m hopeful that something good will come out of this,” Bove says. “A network of progressive scientists would be very helpful.”