Scientists against the machine

Jane Shallice examines the history of radical research at the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science

May 17, 2019 · 13 min read

The social consequences of the present direction in which science and technology are clear.  New technologies used to strengthen state surveillance, the interminable research and production of weapons and delivery systems, the necessity to end carbon based energies, the corporate nature of science and universities, intellectual property rights and the seizure of knowledge as private property for private returns, genetic engineering and GM, AI, algorithms, big Pharma’s dominance and impact on health care, environmental pollution and degradation and, dominating all, the role of human activity on climate change.

While many “single issue” campaigns try to address some of these, there is no organisation that challenges overall the role of science and technology in society today.  Fifty years ago, when some of these issues were starting to emerge in public debate, over a thousand people, including leading scientists, with a Nobel prize winner and some Fellows of the Royal Society, created the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, (BSSRS) which turned issues previously treated as neutral and technical into focal points of political controversy and contestation.

Difficult as it is to imagine now given the huge sensitivities of governments, but throughout the 60s direct news reporting of the Vietnam war was constant. Journalists were embedded with the US troops and reports were written and televised daily.  (Even today that photograph of the naked girl racing away from a napalm attack says Vietnam.) Nightly in every living room people watched and heard the sounds of the Bell helicopters delivering troops or firepower or releasing chemical clouds of defoliants like Agent Orange.  This was a televised war, which everyone could and did watch and the horrors of it, together with the casualty rates of GIs, ensured a mounting opposition.

It was in 1966 – 67 Jonathan Rosenhead, a young British mathematician, spent a year at the  University of Pennsylvania where he met scientists opposed to the Vietnam war. They were focused on chemical research being used to develop techniques for chemical and biological warfare.  On his return he was determined to find ways of publicizing the clear misuse of science. In 1968, amidst the ferment of student activity, the Chemistry Society at Essex University had invited a speaker from Porton Down, which was and still is the government chemical warfare establishment.  In response the students who were in occupation organized a teach-in inviting Steven Rose, a neuro-biologist, and Rosenhead. This successful meeting was one of the triggers leading them to organise a group of like-minded scientists and the British Society for the Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) was in gestation.

Within a year in 1969 BSSRS was launched at the Royal Society with over 300 participants, and the Nobel Prize winner, Maurice Wilkins was installed as president supported by other eminent scientists and intellectuals such as Hans Krebs, Bertrand Russell and Ernst Braun. Of these Wilkins and Tom Kibble, a theoretical physicist who co-discovered the Higgs boson, maintained long term their involvement and commitment to BSSRS. A national committee was elected with Steven Rose as Chair, Peter Smith was Treasurer and Bob Smith the Secretary, and a series of working groups were established.  They held monthly committee meetings, an annual meeting and produced a magazine Science for People.

The aim was to find ways of organising scientists to acknowledge their collective and individual responsibility for the science in which they are working. They wanted the implications of scientists’ work to be profiled and widely debated in order to create an informed and active public.

In the early period there were a series of actions which reflected the spirit of the age. Early in 1971 some members attended a NATO sponsored maths/physics conference at Bedford College. By the final session a third of those attending had signed a statement deploring the military funding of science through organisations like NATO. In the following year, Felix Pirani , a physicist at Kings College  with a radical background, (“He would like to see universities where students got their degrees on arrival and did not have to worry about exams”) organised their intervention in the annual British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Newcastle which was attended by the science establishment. As the president Lord Todd was speaking he was surrounded by a manifestation of opposition in the form of street theatre, which clearly irritated him.  The publicity from this event increased the membership to 1000 and at its height it reached 1500.

Establishing BSSRS.

At a time in the late 60s when critical thinking was unleashed throughout higher education in much of Europe and North America challenging educational ideologies and practices, BSSRS allied itself with demands for greater democracy in educational institutions and workplaces, especially those demanding student representation. It questioned the hierarchies in medical and other training institutions, demanded the social accountability in industries and research institutions, publicizing and opposing the use of universities for military research.  An example of this was the department at Michigan which was used to plan bombing patterns in Vietnam.

BSSRS supported abolishing  nuclear weapons. Iy opposed the development and use of chemical and biological weapons, land mines and cluster bombs. It was concerned about over-use of pesticides and the impact of the ‘Green Revolution‘. At this time during the political and military struggle in Northern Ireland , BSSRS prioritized work on opposition to the use of CS gas, to the use of rubber and plastic bullets, (specifically developed for the use in NI), and to interrogation techniques used by the military after internment. It raised questions about surveillance techniques, closed circuit television cameras and the use of psychiatric drugs.

BSSRS members developed a radical position on energy policy and particularly opposed nuclear technologies. Papers were produced analysing the social relations of production of knowledge, technologies and manufacturing, e.g., scientific management (Taylorism and Fordism) and the society laid the basis for long term campaigning around hazards at work. This latter campaign was described by Tim Shallice as “the main feet on the ground activity”.

A key figure in the hazards work was Charlie Clutterbrook, a soil zoologist  working on the impact of herbicides on soil animals. BSSRS was then looking for a “pollution man”, as in 1974 Jonathan Rosenhead had met a wealthy property developer willing to fund for a short period a person to “do something about the environment”.  This benefactor was David Hart, living in Notting Hill and wealthy enough to have a helicopter and an estate in Devon. (He was later notorious for supporting Thatcher and specifically for funding the breakaway union of miners). Charlie was employed to help community campaigns respond to local concerns, and he worked closely with Alan Dalton, a source of great expertise and support for those involved in all the asbestos campaigns. These campaigns had been taken up by workers finding that despite all the money being poured by the asbestos industry to whitewash their product, asbestos was a killer building material.  A further high profile campaign was against the pollution caused by the BP operations at Baglan Bay, Port Talbot, which was related to PVC production later found to be carcinogenic. A World in Action film was made on this campaign. Much of this work was carried out in collaboration with trade unionists and local campaigners, and its legacy is found in the critical developments around health and safety.

Health and safety issues became an important impetus to the Lucas Aerospace workers creation of a plan for “socially useful production”. Through health and safety concerns with both the military products they worked on and the conditions in which they worked, they learnt that technology was not neutral. As highly skilled engineers and designers they quickly identified the values shaping the development of new technologies including the new information technology that was potentially threatening their jobs. They decided to defend their jobs not by defending their work on missiles but by organising through their company  wide shop stewards ‘combine committee’ to campaign to put their skills to socially useful purposes. In the process they made common cause with many BSSRS members and with Dave Elliott from the Technology department of the Open University. The Lucas Workers Alternative became a beacon for the idea that the direction of technology could be changed. There were socially driven alternatives.

An agricapital group of BSSRS was established in 1975–76 and focused on food production, becoming an important framework for young radical scientists concerned about the modern food industry. The following year Tim Lang met Clutterbuck and joined BSSRS. In an article on food campaigning in the 80s and 90s, (Going Public 1997) he explained the importance of BSSRS, bringing together “a wide range of disciplines to argue out a perspective which was neither corporatist nor top/down planning orientated, nor free market, but pro the public health, the worker, the ‘people’.”  Tim Lang later went on to lead the London Food Commission which was established by Livingstone’s GLC. The importance of BSSRS’s work in this area was ground breaking as it directly supported and fed into those campaigning in response to corporate patenting and domination.

As a central focus BSSRS aimed to support science workers, trade unionists and campaigners, and various working groups were established, with a myriad of pamphlets and papers produced. In 1975 a Women in Science group was formed with Dot Griffiths, Anne Cook, Leslie Walker, Esther Saraga, Suzie Orbach, Hilary Rose and others, autonomous from BSSRS but producing work in the publication Science for People.  Other groups worked on use and abuse of social science, science and Art, social factors in health and disease, (for Cumberland County Council) off-shore disposal of nuclear waste and sociobiology.

In a response to Limits to Growth (1972), BSSRS argued it said nothing about the unequal distribution of consumption nor the essential relationship between capital accumulation, competition and growth. They had also produced a critical commentary on Rothschild’s proposals for university research funding in 1971, which had argued for a client – customer relationship between science and the state.

In an important and successful campaign with trade unionists, BSSRS members helped develop anti-racist science teaching working with London NUT members who opposed the use of IQ testing in schools. Part of this work was also supporting black organisations and Bernard Coard, whose pamphlet “How the school system makes black children educationally subnormal”, was a crucial argument against the use of IQ in determining the allocation of special school places.


Throughout this period with the British state engaged in the suppression of Republican actions in Northern Ireland, BSSRS produced a pamphlet, the New Technology of Repression, and building on this Carol Ackroyd, Karen Margolis, Jonathan Rosenhead and Tim Shallice published (1977), the Technology of Political Control, a ground breaking analysis of the state’s surveillance and control methods being used in the army operations in NI, but which were being transferred for use against the civilian population. Tim Shallice has argued that in “1984”, Orwell established in popular consciousness the idea that the state could or would scrutinize and control the population.  BSSRS’s particular contribution was analysing the forms of technology being developed. Today a member of the Royal Society and institutions like Bradford Peace Studies department consider that the work they did was the originator in the field.


Post war science research had largely been funded through public funding bodies (with of course some industrial research money) and there was a level of autonomy within universities which meant that there were space and resources   for critically minded academics to determine the purpose and direction of their work without the pressure of private interests or narrow definitions which constituted academic research. which could be developed. For many people working within the academic world there was a basic public service ethos , willing to work with and harness the contributions of a layer of independent intellectuals and social movement activist researchers.  This period also saw local authorities, especially with the election of a left GLC, which commissioned and supported some of the initiatives undertaken. However with the Thatcher victory and the victory of neoliberalism there was the shift to increasing privatization, contracting out, marketisation, and liberalization with the emphasis shifted to the power of LMCs, science parks and enterprise spin offs from all aspects of basic research.  Corporations especially the drug and biotech companies would increasingly determine research priorities.

Decline and fall

Through the 70s sharp distinctions developed between those who wanted BSSRS to be an agency for the introduction and authoritative information about scientific issues to a wider public, and those wanting to be clearly aligned with revolutionary and working class movements. To bridge the gap it was agreed that BSSRS should prioritise the provision of scientific expertise and advice to those with less access to such information.  It would comment on political issues whilst maintaining the internal ideological discussions, and they would continue to attempt to recruit individual scientists.

As in all organisations there were political differences with people leaving and forming new groups; Robert Young had done this around Radical Science Journal. By the late 80s there was a major split between members and former members of BSSRS and it was also proving difficult to maintain the energy and vision from its inception. Many of its initial members became successful in their fields and were finding it impossible to contribute time to the society. Whilst continuing to support the project some felt that they had spent time writing pamphlets, which no one would read.  It was wound up in the early 1990s after a vote at the final Annual Meeting.

The importance of BSSRS still stands. Many of the issues on which BSSRS focused are of central importance to us today and its legacy is found in individual campaigns such as Hazards at work, campaigns around Trident or nuclear weapons and drones or around food issues. Yet today there is no organisation which focuses on the overall role of the scientist and their relationship to society and social issues.  With the impetus and speed of technological change framing much of our thinking and our responses, there are awakening demands for public accountability in the face of increased centralized control and the particular mechanisms of state control – geared considerably by the War on Terror and “security interests”.

And why is it that many people campaigning around the consequences of these developments are not scientists?  Where are the critically political scientists? The example set by Wilkins and others should light the way for intellectuals of all kind to critically examine their role.

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