We Must Urgently Build an Inclusive Science Advocacy Movement

March 4, 2021 | 10:00 am
Vlad Tchompalov/Unsplash
Fernando Tormos-Aponte
Kendall Fellow

On March 4, 1969, the Union of Concerned Scientists held its first public event at MIT. On that day, UCS founders staged a teach-in with the goal of disrupting teaching and research to give way to a different kind of teaching—reflecting on the misuse of scientific knowledge and protesting the atrocities that the US government perpetrated against the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War.

In a statement distributed to participants of that teach-in, UCS co-founder Kurt Gottfried spoke on behalf of fellow founders about the issues that motivated the day’s action. He expressed a sense of urgency as he decried the undemocratic character of a government that excluded the vast bulk of its constituents from scrutinizing some of the gravest issues. He asked: “Can the American scientific community all those who study, teach, apply or create scientific knowledge help to develop effective political control of the technological revolution?”

The continued relevance of March 4th

The March 4th statement provides useful guidelines more than 50 years from its publication. UCS founders conceived of the scientific community in broad terms. They called on democratizing the US political system in ways that enabled the participation of the scientific community in decision-making processes on science and technology.

Founders placed within the scientific community a responsibility over scrutinizing and informing the public about technological developments that the US government weaponized. They called on this community to assume responsibility over evaluating the social consequences of scientific endeavors and providing guidance in the formation of public policy.

A humane application of scientific and technical knowledge, they argued, required broad popular participation in policymaking processes. They urged the scientific community to embrace their role in popular efforts to build a broad and inclusive democracy.

Why we need collective action on science to fulfill this vision

The scientific community’s responsibility for justice and democracy must be accepted personally and collectively. We must accept responsibility for justice and democracy collectively because injustice emerges from the accumulated outcomes of the actions, intentional and unintentional, of masses of individuals and from the exclusion of groups from the decision-making processes that affect them.

The scientific community’s responsibility for justice stems from recognizing the role that scientists played in producing and perpetuating inequality and oppression, and from an aspiration of repurposing it with emancipatory aims.

Acknowledging complicity with injustice is not just about looking back to assign responsibility, it is also about looking forward for ways to upend injustices. To this end, we are invested in building collective power to challenge the inequalities that we had a role in creating.

We build these collective vehicles for social change because they are effective means by which we can represent the perspectives and back the demands of marginalized groups. Effective movements turn their supporters into active agents of change. They turn activists into organizers and mobilizers. They invest in diverse leadership and training. Effective movements combine tactics and coordinate action across various organizations.

Yet, for movements to be meaningful avenues for the advancement of the demands of marginalized groups, they must prioritize their issues; they must be inclusive and under the leadership of the groups that they claim to represent.

Why we must build an inclusive movement

Movements that fail to include and support the leadership of marginalized groups can do more harm than good. Efforts to adopt sweeping policies that lack inclusion and grassroots support continue to fail, further delaying action on urgent crises like climate change.

Grassroots organizations have been calling for their inclusion and support for their leadership for decades. Just as we take guidance from the March 4th statements, we must also build science organizing that aligns with the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing. 30 years ago environmental justice leaders gathered at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and began to develop these principles, which they finalized during the Working Group Meeting on Globalization and Trade held in Jemez Springs, NM, in 1996.

Environmental justice organizers called on well-funded, predominantly white-led environmental advocacy groups to transform their advocacy agenda and organizing practices to confront the ways in which environmental degradation and climate change predominantly affected marginalized groups and communities.

We must continue to feel a sense of urgency

While some progress has been made in our efforts to support and follow the leadership of the marginalized and frontline communities that are affected by the issues that we advocate for, environmental justice scholars have documented the troubling absence of ethnic and racial diversity in major environmental organizations.

The urgency felt in the March 4th statement in 1969 must again permeate our efforts to combat structural racism and climate change. This urgency must energize our efforts transform our organizations into vehicles for anti-racist and climate justice struggles. This urgency must fuel our acceptance of responsibility for justice and commitment to subvert racial domination. The solidarity enacted on March 4th, 1969 with those impacted by the US invasion of Vietnam must again inspire our solidarities with those who are still fighting colonialism and its consequences.

As the history of the Union of Concerned Scientists shows, striking has lasting pedagogical and political consequences. Today, we must again commit to striking within and beyond the scientific, academic, and educational settings. We strike for Black Lives and for addressing our climate crisis. We must fight for broader recognition of the intersectionality of these issues and those who are at the frontline of our struggles to subvert the structures that produce conditions of marginality and oppression. We must help to build this struggle under the leadership of these frontline communities.