An Uneasy Partnership

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).