An Uneasy Partnership

Jody A. Roberts reviews Kelly Moore’s Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military.

By Jody A. Roberts | June 2, 2016

Kelly Moore. Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945–1975. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. 328 pp. $35.00 cloth.

In June 1948, 35 scientists and engineers met at Haverford College, to plan a new organization. The group, eventually known as the Society for Social Responsibility in Science (SSRS), was intended to support individual scientists who were struggling to reconcile their moral convictions with their scientific work in post–World War II America. The war was over, owing in large measure to the power of a new network of government, the military, and university scientists that announced itself with gruesome force in August 1945. In the wake of these events scientists were mired in soul searching. Just how closely ought science to be wedded to the military?

Disrupting Science explores a pivotal moment in U.S. history (1945–1975) through the eyes of scientists struggling through political, moral, and scientific turmoil. Moore focuses on three cases to illustrate the escalating unease that characterized the U.S. mood from immediately after World War II to the height of the Vietnam War, as well as the scientists’ diverse approaches to addressing this turmoil.

Drawing on Quaker principles of individual revelation, members of the SSRS advocated for individual scientists’ taking responsibility for the consequences of their research. Through workshops, conferences, and newsletters, members of the SSRS attempted to construct, and to demonstrate, the strength of the network of like-minded scientists engaged in these individual acts of resistance.

Unlike the SSRS, the Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI) focused on the responsibility that science had in promoting sound reasoning in political decision making. CNI joined scientists (most famously Barry Commoner) from Washington University with local citizens to confront what they saw as political spin on the safety of nuclear-weapons testing. Through such projects as strontium analysis of baby teeth, CNI both involved citizens in their work (baby teeth were sent in from around the country) and informed participants of the information gleaned from these studies. CNI believed that scientists could be conduits for public understanding of and involvement in scientific research. Unlike SSRS, CNI’s members attempted to directly engage with local citizens who would in turn use scientific knowledge to influence research and policy to the promotion of a democratic society.

But by the late 1960s many scientists were frustrated by the lack of progress in confronting the growing relationship between “big science” and the military. These scientists, mostly students, opted instead for direct (often political) interventions, both within the scientific establishment and in public demonstrations. They directly confronted senior scientists in charge of large military projects, disrupted scientific meetings (such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science), and conducted campus protests (ranging from teach-ins to research stoppages).

In each of these cases a central question persists: what is the proper relationship between the establishments of science and the military? This question leads to others about science’s role in politics, whether it can be employed morally, and how scientists should use their scientific expertise. As a consequence, in part, of the massive political and military engagement of scientific research during World War II, scientists in the mid-20th century had new authority in political and social matters, especially as the products of science (like nuclear weapons) became matters of public concern. As Moore concludes, scientists mistakenly thought that this new situation necessitated a new role for them as producers and communicators of facts. They soon learned, however, that they were not nearly as important as the science that they produced. Science, minus the scientists, has become a ubiquitous feature of politics. Perhaps this is one reason that some of the direct-action groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (started at MIT in 1969), continue to operate to this day. Eliminating politics from science, it would seem, is no easy task, and it is still unclear just how science, politics, and morality ought to coexist.

Despite the obvious links between Moore’s historical account and our current scientific-political landscape, it is hard to link Moore’s story with her conclusion that today’s wildlife ecology, green chemistry, and immunology are heirs to the midcentury period of intellectual, political, and moral strife (p. 213). Moore rightly wants to end on a positive note. But in her attempt to historicize the present moment, she has created some connections that don’t seem to fit. Where her story stops, campuses across the country are in turmoil, students are taking over buildings, and debates are taking place about the future of relationships between science and the military and the moral duties of scientists. The reader is left in suspense: what will the future look like? What happens next? We now live in a time when the students of the students of those under investigation during the McCarthy era are in their prime, setting the course for research. But, we should wonder, how has that collective experience shaped the way scientists voice their opinions, conduct their research, and seek funding? What is the continuing legacy of the Cold War? What is the missing history that links the days of moral and political engagement in the scientific community with a future that accommodates the creations of both sustainability science and military research on campus?