“There needs to be a Scientists’ March on Washington,” a scientist explained on Reddit in January of 2017. That post started the momentum behind the March for Science, a movement that spread in April of 2017 across 450 cities and brought together over one million scientists and citizens to call for evidence-based science policy decisions in the Trump Administration. But the larger debate stretched much farther back. What are the origins of America’s “science wars”? When did scientists first protest science policies of the executive branch? For the past fifty years, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has provided policymakers with a rigorous independent analysis that is relevant to current environmental and national security policy debates.
On March 4th, 1969, decades before the March for Science, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) founded the Union of Concerned Scientists. That day, MIT canceled classes so that scientists and students could participate in a “Day of Reflection” to protest the scientific community’s relationship to the military during the Vietnam War. Ever since, the UCS has become a continuous thorn in the side of subsequent presidential administrations, waging fierce public debates. Today, the UCS is a prominent public policy organization committed to building “science for a healthy planet and a safer world.” UCS scientists have launched protests over presidential decisions in nuclear policy, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and stem cell research and climate change, among many other issues. In an era of alternative facts, it is crucial that we understand how scientists came to stand up for science so that we can stand up for science, too.
The Union of Concerned Scientists and Its Beginnings on March 4th, 1969
The Union of Concerned Scientists began on March 4th, 1969 when scientists at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) convened a “Day of Reflection” to protest and critique the scientific community’s relationship to the military.
At that time, the UCS scientists and scientists nationwide were highly critical of the Nixon administration’s plans for an Anti-Ballistic Missile Initiative, a controversial piece of legislation. The goal of the Anti-Ballistic Missile initiative was to destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles, rocket-propelled vehicles that deliver nuclear or conventional weapons, by placing missile silos near major cities. During the Cold War, legislators debated how to protect Americans from potential bomb attacks by the Soviet Union and China. The president proposed spending over $5 billion dollars on the ABM initiative, and most scientists believed that this decision would exacerbate international military buildup.
In 1969, Americans were divided over whether or not the United States should be involved in the Vietnam War. To protest the US’s involvement in Vietnam and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Initiative, physicists Henry Kendall and Kurt Goffried wrote a petition staunchly opposing the president’s policies and advocating for arms control. Kendall and Goffried had both been involved in post–World War II political debates about the control of atomic energy and the place of science in public life. To plan for the March 4th Day of Reflection, Kendall and Goffried also collaborated with the Science Action Coordinating Committee (SACC), a group of MIT students active in the Vietnam War Protest movement. “Misuse of scientific and technical knowledge presents a major threat to the existence of mankind,” the UCS-SACC petition explained. “If you share our profound apprehension and are seeking a mode of expression which is at once practical and symbolic, join us on March 4,” the scientists implored. Hundreds of MIT students participated in the “Day of Reflection,” and all classes were canceled that day at MIT.
The March 4th movement soon became a national discussion of the proper relationship among scientists, “science,” and politics. After the MIT Day of Reflection, thirty universities around the country including Yale, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania, held similar meetings to discuss the relationship between the public, the military, and the United States government. In a public statement in response to these demonstrations, President Richard Nixon’s Science Advisor Lee Dubridge praised the importance of the initiative, explaining: “We [scientists] do not have, and do not want, any organized social controls over the active pursuit of basic science—the pursuit of new knowledge—other than the inherent controls which exist in the minds of and hearts of scientific investigators themselves. Scientists must be free to pursue the truth wherever they can hope to find it.”
After the March 4th protests died down, many members of the Union of Concerned Scientists returned to their research. “Many of us were quite disturbed that we’d spent several months playing hooky,” recalled co-founder Kurt Goffried, “this hotbed of activity sort of faded away.” Scientists felt advocacy was important, but they were more interested in conducting the research itself. But Henry Kendall, the UCS’s other founder, remained committed to the mission. A respected scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1990, Kendall was also the heir to an industrial fortune. “For the first couple of years, Henry Kendall pulled some money out of his own pocket” to cover expenses, recalls Daniel Ford, a young economist who became UCS’s first executive director. Kendall converted the Union of Concerned Scientists into a national non-profit organization committed to its current mission. The efforts of the UCS to protect science had only just begun.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, “Star Wars,” and Protests Against the Reagan Administration
During the Reagan administration, the Union of Concerned Scientists emerged on a national stage once again to protest the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known in the media as “Star Wars.”
The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a program initiated on March 23, 1983, by President Ronald Reagan. The goal of the initiative was to develop a sophisticated anti-ballistic missile system to prevent missile attacks from the Soviet Union. The program was nicknamed “Star Wars” after the popular motion picture of the same name because many of the ideas behind the program such as the deployment of space- and earth-based lasers seemed far-fetched. As journalist and historian Frances Fitzgerald argued in Way Out There in the Blue, Reagan was living in a world of “rhetoric, performance, and perceptions” when it came to Star Wars. Although the program never was actually used to deflect missiles, the Reagan administration eventually spent over $30 billion on the Strategic Defense Initiative idea.
Many of the scientists who had protested the Nixon administration’s nuclear policies reemerged to protest Reagan, including the founders of the UCS Henry Kendall and Kurt Gottfried, both still professors at MIT. Kendall noted that in 1982 there was even “less appreciation for technical criticisms” from scientists than during the Nixon administration. Goffried called the $18 billion that Reagan proposed to spend on SDI a “prodigious amount of money.” Kendall and Goffried did not think that the “Star Wars” program was feasible, and they were convinced it would lead to the continuation of America’s nuclear arms race.
The Union of Concerned Scientists had expanded mightily since its first protest day at MIT on March 4th, 1969. By the Reagan administration, the organization had offices in three cities and a full-time staff of 44 people. Carl Sagan, a well-known Cornell Professor, was one of the most prominent supporters of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ efforts against Star Wars. The group became an incessant critic of the Reagan administration and its policies, relying on a variety of tactics to combat what they saw as misguided and dangerous scientific policies of the Reagan administration. The UCS’s initial report on the subject, Space-Based Missile Defense: A Report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, was later published as a book entitled The Fallacy of Star Wars. ref]“Space Based Missile Defense: A Report by the Union of Concerned Scientists,” March 1984, Box 14, Strategic Defense Initiative, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, George Keyworth Papers.[/ref] In February 1983, the UCS also circulated a petition for a ban of space weapons. A statewide survey of political attitudes was administered by the UCS to thousands of Americans to gauge their disapproval for SDI. The results of these reports, petitions, and surveys were publicized through a national television program organized by the UCS to stand down SDI.
Although initial funding for SDI was approved by Congress in the mid-1980s, these heated debates initiated by the UCS called attention to the various ways the program was unworkable and explained how it encouraged a further arms race while undermining established arms-control agreements. Testing on a number of SDI-related devices continued throughout Reagan’s presidency, before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 rendered the program moot.
The Union of Concerned Scientists in the Bush Administration: Debates Over Stem Cells, Climate Change, and “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking”
During the George W. Bush administration, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued public protests of the president’s policies on numerous issues such as climate change and stem cells. In the summer of 2001, President George Bush made his first address on prime-time television. President Bush’s speech was about the future of embryonic stem cell research. Campaigning in 2000, Bush had told the US Conference of Catholic bishops that taxpayer money “should not underwrite research that involves the destruction of live human embryos.” As Bush explained in his address, federal agencies would not fund research on embryonic stem cells except for the “sixty genetically diverse” cell lines already existing. The issue was soon to become a political nightmare, and the issue was hotly debated in the media. According to a Gallup Poll, 78% of Americans said that the issue was “very important” or “somewhat important” to them. The Bush position on embryonic stem cell research became the rallying cry for a generation of scientist-activists to “expose” the scientific abuses of the Bush administration.
The group at the forefront of protests against the president’s science policy decisions was once again the Union of Concerned Scientists. From 2001 to 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists embarked on a fact-finding mission about Bush science policies and published those findings in a report entitled “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking.” Seth Shulman, a science journalist hired by the UCS and the primary author of the report, explained, “something was going badly awry in the handling of scientific and technical information in the Bush administration.” Sixty-two of the nation’s most prominent scientists (including ten Nobel Prize winners) co-signed the initial report, and more than 15,000 scientists added their names over the next four years.
The man at the center of this controversy between the UCS and the Bush administration was John Marburger III, Science Advisor to President George W. Bush. In a fourteen-page statement, Marburger claimed that all the descriptions and accusations were “false,” “wrong,” or “misleading.” Marburger became the target of harsh protests from the scientific community. In a National Public Radio interview, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner explained that Marburger was a “prostitute” who was paid to succumb to the will of his employer, the president. According to another scientist, Marburger was “the official apologist for the Bush administration.”
By 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists had become a large non-profit organization with influence and power that Marburger could not match. Forty years after its founding, the UCS had grown to over 80,000 members with a staff of 130 working in offices across four cities. During the Clinton years and other Democratic administrations, fundraising for the Union of Concerned Scientists was more difficult. As the scientific community had shifted leftward, Republican science policies gave the group an agenda to organize around during the Bush presidency. The aggressive UCS campaigns of the Bush administration increased the visibility of the organization and helped it to triple its operating budget to $20 million. The UCS was no longer the haphazard effort of a group of MIT professors; it was well-funded with enough political influence to sway elections. The group slashed Marburger’s credibility and worked to promote evidence-based science policy in the Bush administration.
The Union of Concerned Scientists Today
In 2019, the Union of Concerned Scientists continues to campaign for energy efficiency and nuclear nonproliferation. Because fossil fuels are both polluting and depletable, the UCS advocates a switch towards renewable energy sources such as sunlight and wind. The UCS has advocated for strengthening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and for increasing the UN Security Council’s role in enforcing the treaty and peacekeeping. By mobilizing scientists and combining their voices with those of advocates, educators, business people, and other concerned citizens, UCS has been able to achieve victories and work towards its mission to build “science for a healthy planet and a safer world.” This March 4th, 2019, we must remember the efforts of the Union of Concerned Scientists since 1969 and consider ways we can stand up for evidence-based science policy in the United States. Not sure how to get started? The Union of Concerned Scientists offers some helpful tips: https://www.ucsusa.org/best-resources-for-science-advocates
- These digitized archival resources from MIT provide insight into the UCS’s founding and history: https://libguides.mit.edu/c.php?g=633358&p=4430869
Books & Articles
- Kelly Moore, Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1975 (2008).
- Stuart, Leslie. “Time of Troubles for the Special Laboratories.” Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, MIT Press, 2012.
- Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety (1999).
Science Policy in the 20th & 21st Centuries
- Marcus, Alan and Amy Sue Bix, The Future Is Now: Science and Technology Policy in America since 1950.
- Mooney, Chris. The Republican War on Science (2006).
- Pielke, Roger. The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics (2007)
- Smith, Bruce. American Science Policy since World War II (1990).
- Golden, William. Science Advice to the President (1984).
- Herken, Greg. Cardinal Choices: Presidential Science Advising from the Bomb to SDI (2000).
- Jasanoff, Sheila. The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers (1990).
- Smith, Bruce. The Advisers: Scientists in the Policy Process (1992).
- Wang, Zuoyue. In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America (2008).
Podcasts & Videos
- UCS-produced “Got Science?”: https://www.ucsusa.org/got-science-podcast#.XGWrJtF7lE4
- This video provides insight into what UCS scientists think about the age of alternative facts: https://www.philsci.org/announcements/recent-psa-announcements/1264-psa-ucs-joint-webinar-on-alternative-facts