50 Years of Science and Action
A US president with scant regard for the rule of law. Political instability, exacerbated by war and international tensions. Members of the scientific community mobilizing in response, in record-breaking numbers. It sounds a lot like our current moment. But these factors were also all in play 50 years ago—when an unprecedented political awakening led directly to the founding of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In early 1969, Richard Nixon had been sworn in as president. Military service was compulsory in the United States and close to a half-million American soldiers were deployed in Vietnam. Students and other activists continued to protest across the country. At that tense political moment, a group of faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several other US college campuses announced that, on March 4, they would essentially go on strike, stopping their classes and research to hold a “teach-in.” Their stated aim: to begin to “devise means for turning research applications away from the present emphasis on military technology toward the solution of pressing environmental and social problems.”
The MIT faculty group called itself the Union of Concerned Scientists. And the work these scientists began—insisting that science be harnessed to build a healthier planet and a safer world—endures as the unwavering mission of the organization that grew from their efforts.
The founders of UCS could scarcely have imagined the scale and breadth of the work undertaken by the organization today. With a half-million supporters and a network of more than 25,000 allied scientists around the country, today’s UCS is engaged on multiple fronts. We’re standing up for science when it’s being attacked and developing evidence-based approaches to a host of pressing problems, including emerging ones that would have seemed like science fiction 50 years ago, such as how to harness the potential of self-driving vehicles, or grapple with the threat posed by new hypersonic weapons.
Just like our founders, we at UCS today are relentlessly focused on the vital issues at hand. Much of that work entails fighting back against the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to roll back hard-won environmental protections and public health safeguards.
Yet even as that urgent work continues, our 50th anniversary affords an important opportunity to both reflect on our past and celebrate the fact that UCS continues to thrive and grow after a half-century in existence. We will be commemorating “50 years of science and action” throughout 2019. We’ll hold events in San Francisco, California; Washington, DC; Chicago, Illinois; and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and we hope you’ll attend. A new timeline on our website highlights the organization’s many accomplishments; take a look and share our sense of pride in all that you have helped us achieve so far. Issues of Catalyst throughout the year will recount some of these successes, offer “then-and-now” snapshots, and discuss our plans for the future.
On that note, this milestone also gives us the chance to think about where UCS goes from here—to recommit to the enduring values that first drew our staff and supporters together, and to envision the innovations and new initiatives we’ll need to meet whatever challenges lie ahead. We’ll be reaching out to you throughout the year, enlisting your continued input and support as we chart a path forward.
A Watershed Moment
As UCS staff planned for our anniversary, I had the privilege to conduct a series of interviews with UCS cofounder Kurt Gottfried (see below for his personal recollection of the events of 50 years ago). Not only did Gottfried draft the faculty statement calling for the landmark protest on March 4, 1969, he also established UCS as a nonprofit organization along with Henry Kendall, his former roommate and a soon-to-be Nobel laureate, and has continued to serve as a UCS board member to this day (and as board chair from 1999 to 2009).
Notably, despite the intense focus on the war in 1969, Gottfried stressed that he and his fellow organizers chose to frame the issues broadly. That decision helps mark March 4, 1969, as more than merely a protest against the Vietnam War. As the scientists’ impassioned statement explains, they sought to “explore the feasibility of organizing scientists and engineers so that their desire for a more humane and civilized world can be translated into effective political action.”
At the time, this was a radical notion which met intense resistance within the scientific community, as many senior faculty members opposed the work stoppage, arguing that science ought to remain above the political fray. Though the year 1969 is often remembered for the events of July 20, when US astronaut Neil Armstrong declared his small step onto the moon’s surface “a giant leap for mankind,” the demonstrations on March 4 represented a fateful step too. A critical mass of prominent scientists stepped into the public eye, against the wishes of many of their peers, to insist that the power of science be applied to social problems and human needs, not just corporate and military needs.
Decades of Science and Action
From humble beginnings with a single staff member, the organization quickly learned by doing. Its first report exposed the flaws in the Nixon administration’s plans for an anti-ballistic missile system, and built public support for the US-Soviet Antiballistic Missile Treaty—an important milestone in nuclear arms control.
Many consequential analyses followed; among them an eerily prescient warning about nuclear power safety. Just two months before the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a UCS report called on the US government to shut down that facility and 15 other nuclear reactors due to fundamental concerns about the safety of their designs.
UCS continued to build an impressive record of successes: discrediting Ronald Reagan’s flawed “Star Wars” missile defense proposal, sounding the alarm on the reckless overuse of antibiotics on farms, working with states across the country to establish renewable energy requirements, exposing decades of fossil fuel company deceptions about climate change—the list goes on.
In 1992, UCS issued the “Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” a seminal effort to alert the public to the threat of climate change and other human impacts on the environment. With this statement, signed by some 700 members of the National Academy of Sciences and a majority of the world’s living Nobel laureates, the organization demonstrated its impressive ability to mobilize the scientific community.
Partnering with a Broader Public
Much of our work in subsequent decades has sought to broaden our reach, to communicate complex issues more effectively to the public, and to focus more directly on issues of environmental justice: partnering with the communities most affected by pollution and climate change, listening to their concerns, and collaborating on solutions. As part of that work, in 2012 UCS launched the Center for Science and Democracy, which has built strong, lasting, and diverse partnerships with communities whose voices are often ignored in policy discussions.
The Center, like UCS as a whole, is committed to working for racial and economic justice, because we know that science can—and should—not only improve health, security, and the environment at a general level, but also alleviate existing disparities and inequities. For example, it is not enough to reduce pollution nationally; we need to make sure all communities receive health and environmental benefits from pollution reductions and share in the opportunities created by clean energy. It is not enough to build a food system based on more sustainable farming practices; we must ensure that everyone has access to healthy and affordable food. These considerations of equity and justice inform all our efforts, from issues of transportation to nuclear safety. If our work over five decades has taught us anything, it is that only a broad coalition—representative of the entire nation—can manage to overcome the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of change. We’re firmly committed to building such a coalition.
As UCS marks its 50th anniversary in 2019, the organization is larger and stronger than ever and we’re just as dedicated and passionate about standing up for science as our founders were. We are grateful for their foresight; and we are grateful for the passion and loyalty of our supporters who have been with us on this journey. While we are proud of the organization’s successes over the last five decades, we are steadfast in our commitment to our mission and confident that our most important accomplishments lie ahead. As UCS Board Chair Anne Kapuscinski recently put it in a message to our members: “Heroic victories for a safer and more sustainable world lie ahead, and you are part of every one of them.”
March 4, 1969: A Sense of Tension and Urgency
By Kurt Gottfried
At this moment 50 years ago, opposition to US involvement in the devastating and morally suspect war in Vietnam and concerns over scientists’ contributions to it had reached a crescendo that caused many of us to become very emotionally engaged with these issues.
It is hard to fully capture the level of tension and urgency we felt at that moment as students and faculty alike began planning a “teach-in” and a work stoppage—something that, as far as I know, US scientists had never contemplated before. The idea had caught on rapidly and was a consuming subject of discussion and debate at the time.
I had recently become a professor at Cornell but was spending the year as a visiting faculty member at MIT where I had earned my doctorate in physics. I became deeply involved in these activities and contributed an early draft of the statement put out by a group of faculty members that would soon call itself the Union of Concerned Scientists. That statement was ultimately signed by dozens of prominent scientists at MIT, Harvard, Cornell, and other schools across the United States.
What felt so new and compelling at the time was the extent to which these factors were causing scientists to explicitly confront their broader role and responsibilities in the political arena. For me, like many others, this was much more than just another extracurricular activity; it became practically an all-engrossing enterprise. Some colleagues at the time even discussed the prospect of abandoning their scientific work permanently.
Although concern over the Vietnam War was front and center, there was a good deal of debate and some friction and tension about how broadly to frame our concerns in the faculty statement. It felt important to me and many others at the time to place the issue in a broader context.
For instance, many of us were particularly concerned with nuclear weapons and the prospect of nuclear war—an issue with enormously complex scientific and technical aspects that could literally lead to the destruction of civilization. Similarly, the issue of human rights and the broader role of science in society seemed integrally linked to many of us and it is noteworthy that one of the sessions on March 4 was devoted to the dissenting voices in the Soviet Union led by Andrei Sakharov.
This link to human rights was especially strong among a subset of those who had fled fascist regimes in Italy or other parts of Europe. In my case, I was born in Vienna to Jewish parents and our family fled the Nazis when I was nine years old after our home was raided on Kristallnacht. Other colleagues, such as Hans Bethe, an eminent physicist at Cornell and Nobel laureate, told me at the time that older scientists such as him had lived through the 1930s and had seen firsthand that politics cannot be cleanly divided from science and technology. Their experience with the rise of fascist regimes meant that they didn’t need to be lobbied to get involved at this time in 1969, or to support the broader notion that science, like almost all things, is connected to and dependent upon its social and political context. In retrospect, the choice to frame the issues more broadly stands as an important decision that I think adds significantly to the historical impact of this event.
During that year at MIT in 1969, I was reunited with my former roommate and fellow physicist Henry Kendall. After the March 4 event, he and I launched a nonprofit organization to carry on the work we had begun, and we gave it the same name as our faculty group: the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
At the very least, I believe the events of March 4, 1969, helped spark a wider acceptance of the notion that scientists, like others, need to actively engage and cannot stand apart from the political implications of their work. As I wrote at the time, the scientific community has the “responsibility to educate the public, to evaluate the long-term social consequences of its endeavor, and to provide guidance in the formation of relevant public policy. This is a role it has largely failed to fulfill and it can only do so if it enters the political arena.”
Fifty years on, the existence and continued strength of UCS is a testament to the power of that idea. While our current political moment is certainly cause for grave concern and a huge amount of work remains to be done, the call to action on March 4, 1969, remains as relevant and urgent as ever. As we see science sidelined by the federal government today, the words remind us of the work that lies ahead as we strive to build a healthier planet and a safer world.
This piece is adapted from the foreword to the 50th anniversary edition of March 4: Scientists, Students, and Society, a collection of the proceedings of the demonstrations held that day (MIT Press 2019).