Radical Science Returns
by Ben Allen
Volume 22, number 1, The Return of Radical Science
The return of Science for the People as a publication and organization is a milestone in the struggle for science.
In the decades of our absence, the embrace of science as a power standing above society has become all too common. As an academic enterprise oriented toward discovering knowledge about the universe, science has managed to propel itself further away from the scale of our immediate world to discover all things bigger and smaller. Pursuits of elegance in abstraction, missions to account for the fundamental units of life, and searching the cosmos for all that lies beyond have been good enough for many scientists and for the powers that be. The absence of systemic knowledge and social conscience has enabled the hegemony of reductionism in theory and technocratic professionalism in practice. This worldview has confused a lot of people into thinking that human health has more to do with mapping and comparing our chromosomes than ensuring that all people can see a doctor without going bankrupt. Or that addressing global climate change is a factor of optimizing science communications, instead of decisive social and political action to end fossil-fueled capitalism.
But science is shaped by struggle. It certainly was in the late sixties when so many scientists, who were often actively prevented from knowing to what ends their research contributed, became conscious that the imperialist state was mobilizing their knowledge in the service of the Vietnam war while making profits for capitalists at the expense of so many Vietnamese and American people’s lives. So those scientists walked out, they marched, and they disrupted the pallid professional conferences that gave accolades to the war makers. They converged with the uprisings of exploited and oppressed peoples in the US while reaching out to support the liberation struggles of colonized people across the world. We owe our name and so much more to these scientists, who fought for science to serve the needs of everyday people and the planet that sustains us. Science for the People!
Contained within these pages of critical analysis and visions of science is a half-decade’s worth of struggle to revitalize this magazine and organization and return radical science to the world. A 2014 conference organized by Sigrid Schmalzer at UMass Amherst brought together veterans of the original movement to share their stories, wisdom, and inspiration with younger activists and academics. Our contiguity with the original Science for the People is built upon ample correspondence between original and new members, alongside the transgenerational conviction that better science is possible. Personally, it has been a deeply moving experience to witness so many scientist-activists come forward to learn from the wisdom of our elders, develop our organizing skills, sharpen our theoretical tools, and build a path to power for radical science. Now as then, Science for the People, and the magazine, are organized by a dedicated group of people, who share a radical understanding of the relationship between science and society. We embrace the term radical in the spirit our forebears, Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, understood the term: “to be radical is to consider things from their very root, to go back to square one, to try to reconstitute one’s actions and ideas by building them from first principles.”1 So, what are our first principles?
Fundamentally, we understand that science—the practical and theoretical exploration, investigation, discovery, and organization of knowledge about physical, biological, and social reality—is an emergent feature of human society. As such, the trajectory of science is contingent on the development of society, with all the varied and uneven experiences present in particular histories. The relationships between productive forces of economies, the ideological composition of politics, and the stratifications of society shape science as they do every other aspect of human life. As scientific methods develop in relation to these phenomena and new knowledge is discovered, these insights open up new possibilities for changing the way we organize society—for better or worse. Whether these possibilities become reality is not a matter of knowledge and discovery, but of people and power.
Herein lies the impasse for science today in a world governed by neoliberal power structures. Addressing the greatest challenge facing the entirety of humanity—global climate change—requires not only acknowledging that science has demonstrated the crises of climate and ecology driven by our economic system, but also integrating these findings into the apparatuses of state power to avoid exacerbating these problems. In particular, science tells us that we must significantly transition away from fossil fuels and industrial agriculture within the next decade to keep global average temperature rise below 1.5C, and achieve global carbon neutrality by 2050. Acting on these findings is overwhelmingly antagonistic to the primary function of the state, particularly for the most dominant nations. For these states, any science that doesn’t enable the powers that be to secure profits for capital or ensure imperialist domination is ignored. As such, denial of science has become institutionalized: a boon to profiteers and warmakers, a bummer to science. Unfortunately for those in power, history is still happening, and there are still those of us willing to make it.
This is our struggle. Policy recommendations, electing scientists into office, improving science communications, educating the public, and marching will simply not be enough if we want to survive, much less thrive. We have to deepen our struggle by uniting the advanced scientist-activists who have emerged in the fight for justice within science with movements of exploited, oppressed, and marginalized people of the world. The absurdity of science denial is but one link in a chain of immiserating absurdities—from economic inequality to injustices across society. We have much to learn from the people on the front lines of social, economic, and environmental struggles, who have the most knowledge and experience struggling against this system, and the most to gain from total system change. Through contributing ourselves to these struggles, we can help build a mass with enough energy to break the bonds of oppression, exploitation, and marginalization — the very same forces driving the climate crisis.
Let’s fight for justice for all people in science. Let’s use the power of science to seek peace and freedom for all. We hope to meet you in this struggle to make Science for the People!
About the Author
Ben Allen is a biologist, educator, musician, and organizer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. He currently serves as the elected Secretary of Science for the People. As a scientist, his passion is integrating systems biology and ‘omics into bioremediation and waste-to-energy studies. As an organizer, he is working towards a just transition from fossil fuels towards a sustainable future in Appalachia. You can follow him online at @bioben_tn on Twitter.
- Richard C. Lewontin and Richard Levins, “Stephen Jay Gould– What Does It Mean To Be a Radical?,” Monthly Review, November 1, 2002. https://monthlyreview.org/2002/11/01/stephen-jay-gould/.