My last column celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Conservation Association. This one celebrates a second birthday, that of an organization that, though younger by half, has compiled a remarkable record of achievements. Equally important: Its contributions are not solely of benefit to the people of the United States; they increasingly benefit the entire world.
The Union of Concerned Scientists was founded in 1969, a harsh and stressful time in our national history. Richard Nixon had recently been sworn in and would ultimately become the only U.S. president in history to resign to avoid being impeached. Nearly half a million young Americans were in Vietnam, engaged in a war that seriously divided our people at home, sometimes violently. And a growing number of Americans were vexed by the realization that the environment was in serious trouble.
Something else happened as well, however — something that would not be widely appreciated for some time but would be of exceptional moral significance: Scientists, who had stayed pretty much in laboratories and classrooms for generations, pursuing arcane knowledge and engaged in experiments that most of us didn't understand (and still don't), became socially and politically active.
So it was, that spring, that groups of faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and on several other college and university campuses declared that, on March 4, they would go on strike, abandon their classrooms and conduct “teach-ins.” Their stated goal: to “devise means for turning research applications away from the present emphasis on military technology toward the solutions of pressing environmental and social problems.”
The MIT group called itself the “Union of Concerned Scientists,” little appreciating, perhaps, how enduring a movement they had launched. Fifty years on, it not only carries their name, it continues to embody their aspiration that science be harnessed to build a healthier and/ safer world.
One has to wonder, too, whether the participants in that original effort had any inkling how far their influence would extend. The UCS (as it is often now called) has more than half-a-million supporters and a network of more than 25,000 allied scientists engaged in multiple efforts across the country. It has matured into one of the world's most effective advocates for evidence-based decision-making.
As stated by Seth Shulman in the 50th anniversary edition of “Catalyst,” the UCS's quarterly magazine, “... today's UCS is engaged on multiple fronts. We're standing up for science when its 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.”
If anything, the demand for scientific input in political decision-making is more urgent now than it was 50 years ago. Again, Schulman: “Just like the 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.”
In evidence (were any needed) that such battles are never truly over, one of UCS's first engagements was in discrediting President Ronald Reagan's “Star Wars” proposal — an effort that led directly to the U.S.-USSR anti-ballistic missile treaty. President Donald Trump's decision to undo such diplomatic accomplishments is discouraging but hardly surprising.
Lest the UCS be thought a closed-minded group, however, its flexibility is worth noting. To illustrate: Just two months before the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power station, UCS published a report that called on the government to shut down that and 15 other nuclear reactors due to fundamental concerns about the safety of their designs.
But, since 1992, when UCS published its “Scientists Warning to Humanity,” a seminal effort to alert the pubic to the threat of global climate change, the organization has amended its position to urge that, with proper design safeguards, nuclear power can be an important element in solving the climate crisis. But not at the price of sloppy technology. As a nuclear physicist colleague once commented acidly, “Of course we can do nuclear energy, but it's got to be done right!”
That warning to humanity, by the way, was signed by 700 members of the National Academy of Sciences, including a majority of living Nobel laureates. Unfortunately, we can't yet say the same for the majority of living politicians.
Don Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.