Via the Guardian, Alice Bell on the 1970s movement involving some of the UK’s top scientists:
“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 Nobel Prize winner Maurice Wilkins. Other early supporters of the Society included JD Bernal, Francis Crick, Julian Huxley and Bertrand Russell.
The hall was full to overflowing with more than 300 delegates. 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.
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 in public policy. Rather, they aimed to open up the politics of science to 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.
Londoners would meet 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”.
By the summer of 1970 the BSSRS had 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-monthly Science for People magazine.
There was a strong and ongoing commitment to the peace movement, aware of the role of military funding in scientific research. 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).
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. In terms of feminism, an entire edition of Science for People was edited by women’s collective, and they maintained an ongoing interest in issues surrounding the intersection of science and gender.
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.
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