It was following the scientific conflagration that brought the Second World War to an end that, as the physicist Joseph Rush observed, science became politically interesting, and scientists became interested in politics. The traditional role of the lab-coated, disinterested scientist, cloistered in the laboratory, no longer held sway. Scientists became public actors. And many began to practise, either wittingly or unwittingly, a brand of interested science.

We are living with the effects of that rise in scientific activism in our own fevered political time, in which many scientists seek to influence politics but also find themselves sometimes wielded as a tool of ideologues. How science evolved from its one-time role as the provider of legitimacy for state policies — in return for financial support — to become a player in the political arena, is a development that needs to be better understood as we ask what we expect of science in 21st century politics.

The death of Barry Commoner last September provided a moment and a prism through which to pose the question. Commoner was a biologist who challenged the American faith in monitoring the environment and “leaving it to the experts.” He believed the scientist’s social responsibility was to the public. In a nutshell, Commoner invented the science information movement; he and his colleagues worked to carefully translate their technical findings into a more accessible language so that a nonscientific audience could understand and act upon their findings.

Public participation in science policy was a kind of open conversation about risk analysis, Commoner argued. And it was a social conversation, not a scientific one. He did not believe scientists had a special moral authority to make decisions over what constituted acceptable exposure to fallout or DDT or dioxin. As he warned in 1966: “The notion that… scientists have a special competence in public affairs is… profoundly destructive of the democratic process. If we are guided by this view, science will not only create [problems] but also shield them from the customary process of administrative decision-making and public judgment.”

Determining the nature of environmental hazards was a scientific exercise, but deciding how a society should address those environmental hazards was a political one. And this was a critical feature of Commoner’s science information movement: rather than telling people what to do, Commoner developed a rhetorical method of presenting accessible scientific information to the public, empowering them to participate in political decision-making. This reconception of the scientist in practice — intentionally expanding the traditional peer review in order to include and communicate with a public audience — is likely the most significant development in the history of science since the Second World War. And it set the stage for the public battles we see today over the role of science in politics.

The new scientific engagement in politics that arose in the last half of the 20th century was spurred in no small measure by the proliferation of policy challenges to the times: nuclear fallout; synthetic chemicals; and new, polluting technologies. These crises entered the mainstream through new mass media conduits, which amplified the debate. Along with the rise and entrenchment of the military-industrial-academic complex, science became transformed.

By the 1960s, in response to the growing number and severity of perceived threats to the environment and public health, a new scientific praxis was developed that highlighted the popular feeling that environmental decline was an objective feature of the era. Concerns over the potential health risks associated with above-ground nuclear-weapons-testing established a receptive audience for Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic, Silent Spring. Her success, derived from an articulate prose and clear and nontechnical explanations of the hazards associated with synthetic chemicals, was not lost on other scientists who were intent on reaching the public and participating in shaping environmental policies.

The Scientists’ Institute for Public Information (SIPI) was founded in 1963 by some of the more politically engaged scientists of the postwar era — Margaret Mead, René Dubos and Commoner were among its founders. They recognized the public and political nature of scientific information and sought to produce accessible knowledge to encourage non experts to participate in scientific and environmental debates. Rather than an activist institute, SIPI was more an umbrella organization — or a clearinghouse — whose organizing platform was to provide “information unencumbered by political or moral judgments” that was “freely available to all.”

But the new interaction between scientists and policy involved more than just a rhetorical turn. Having constructed a platform for communicating with the public, scientists returned to the lab in order to produce socially and environmentally relevant knowledge. As Commoner wrote in 1965,

At the present time, the interactions between man and his environment are undergoing quantitative and qualitative changes of such a magnitude as to create wholly new problems. The present problems of environmental health have rapidly begun to outrun our understanding of the complex processes that mediate the interaction between organisms and the environment. There is, therefore, an urgent need to reorganize our scientific approach to environmental health problems, so that we can find new ways to bring the growing power of modern science to bear on them.

This line of thinking was motivation for the creation of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University in St. Louis. The Center is historically significant for a couple of reasons. It coalesced around the experiences of scientists who had engaged in using a vernacular approach to warn the public about the hazards associated with radioactive fallout from above ground nuclear-weapons testing. The Center’s mission and efforts were informed by that work from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, Commoner and other scientists at Washington University had been instrumental in producing accessible information about nuclear fallout to the public in a variety of novel ways. But as much as the Center’s work was a concluding moment for that earlier chapter in the history of public science and “communicating knowledge,” it also marked a departure in the history of the science information movement.

This was science designed to raise awareness.

Frequently, science and policy are lauded as two of the most democratic processes in the developed world: open, accessible and public. But more often than not, both processes occur behind closed doors, typically using language that borders on being incomprehensible to the general public. The emergence of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems constituted a sea change in the history of the production and consumption of popular science. By alerting the public to the environmental hazards inherent in new technologies, the Center found itself playing a novel role in the environmental movement in serving as an important conduit for communicating knowledge to the public.

In 1965, Commoner submitted a funding application to the US Public Health Service to create the Center, which was to be a scientific research institution that would tackle environmental threats to human health. Commoner would be the principal investigator of a team of St. Louis-based collaborators, which included botanists, zoologists, physicists and chemists.

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Commoner’s application is a remarkable document. It was effective in articulating the state of the environmental crisis and how the new centre could serve as intermediary between knowledge production, policy-makers and the public. The environment had typically been regarded as an infinite sink for the hazardous products of human activity. But increasing technological industrialization after the Second World War, especially of new, petrochemical products whose parts and waste did not break down in nature, challenged the assumption that the environment could absorb our polluting practices. As Commoner’s application noted, “The scale and intensity of biological and technological activities of man which affect the environment has now begun to approach the scale of the environment itself.”

These kinds of metaphors were instrumental in setting the stage for a scientifically informed modern environmentalism and the more recent efforts to promote sustainability. Also, the grant proposal asserted, the scientific challenges were of greater magnitude. Like the existential threat posed by taking warfare from conventional weapons to nuclear ones, the emerging environmental risks posed a higher level of risk to humanity. “In the past,” it stated, “apart from relatively localized inorganic industrial pollutants, human impact on the environment was due almost exclusively to human biology and was represented by the common products of animal excretion: CO2, nitrogenous wastes, and the concomitant microbial flora.” While these pollutants constituted natural wastes and were subject to biological degradation, the new synthetic pollutants were new to the biosphere.

Commoner’s proposal was clearly outside the mainstream of scientific inquiry for the time. The Public Health Service had never attempted to develop a comprehensive research program on the environment and, in the end, of the 10 centres it hoped to support, only the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems would ever receive funding. Nobody else was working in this way. In its formation and mission, the proposed research was intentionally multidisciplinary — or, as Commoner insisted, adisciplinary — because, he argued, traditional academic disciplines were not independently equipped to tackle environmental problems. In a period in which scientific investigations tended toward greater reductionism, the more wide-ranging adisciplinarity of the Center’s vision demonstrated a novel reading of the nature of environmental problems. This was not ecology, but rather a science of the total environment, which resisted being limited to ecological or toxicological methodologies.

The public funding didn’t last. By the middle of 1966, the funding program was turned over to the National Institutes of Health, under the auspices of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which defined its research programs along traditional academic lines and disciplines. As a result, the Center’s budget was cut each year after its annual review. But while the cuts slowed its productivity during its first few years, they ultimately led to the Center’s greater independence and creative and wide-ranging methods of procuring funds. Money came from a variety of sources as diverse as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Shah of Iran. The projects were equally diverse in nature. In addition to local research on rats in tenements and lead poisoning, the Center also explored the costs and benefits of synthetic fertilizers and their productivity when compared with organic methods of agriculture.

Alongside the financial independence from government, Commoner and his colleagues developed a public engagement strategy that provided political support for their research. Findings were disseminated not just through scientific journals, but also to local media outlets and public interest groups. This was science designed to raise awareness about the impending environmental crisis and geared toward generating public interest. Rather than conducting research behind closed doors and then revealing the results to a curious public, the Center created an interested public by involving them as partners in the various experiments. Calls for hair or blood samples for various projects were not uncommon, cultivating an interested audience for the research’s findings.

The Center’s lines of inquiry shifted with changes in public interest as well. Their activities changed in the 1980s after the Center moved from St. Louis to Queens College in Flushing, New York. More urban interests — dioxin exposure, recycling, air pollution among others — drove their public health agenda. By stressing transparency and frequent criticism of industry researchers, it also came to be seen as subversive by the scientific establishment. But this was consistent with Commoner’s larger politics. In 1962, he had stressed the scholar’s obligation to dissent. “The scholar’s duty is toward the development of socially significant truth, which requires freedom to test the meaning of all relevant observations and views in open discussion, and openly to express a concern with the goals of our society,” he claimed. “The scholar has an obligation — which he owes to the society that supports him — toward such open discourse. And when, under some constraint, scholars are called upon to support a single view, then the obligation to discourse necessarily becomes an obligation to dissent. In a situation of conformity, dissent is the scholar’s duty to society.”

Throughout his career, Commoner wore that obligation to society and to dissent of the unquestioned, mainstream opinion like a badge of honour. His Center became an institution for training a generation of scientists in social and public engagement. It was always an uphill struggle, however: science is interested, and competition for scientific engagement in the public arena breeds a cacophony of noise that discourages the kind of public participation that Commoner sought to foster. In the Internet age, it has become even more difficult to distinguish between the altruistic efforts of the unvested interests and those deeply steeped in vested ideologies or profit margins. Small research centres like the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems can carve out their local niches and contribute to social needs, but the larger battle for science literacy — an implicit feature of Commoner’s activism — is a hard sell.

And that is disturbing, especially at a time when the challenges of effectively communicating science become ever more urgent. From climate change to resource scarcity and biodiversity loss to air pollution and water contamination, the environmental threats that confront the contemporary world are daunting. Commoner remained, however, a congenital optimist. He firmly believed that since it was human economic development that had messed up the planet, it was entirely feasible for humans to fix it. As he concluded his 1971 book, The Closing Circle:

In our progress-minded society, anyone who presumes to explain a serious problem is expected to offer to solve it as well. But none of us — singly or sitting in committee — can possibly blueprint a specific “plan” for resolving the environmental crisis. To pretend otherwise is only to evade the real meaning of the environmental crisis: that the world is being carried to the brink of ecological disaster not by a singular fault, which some clever scheme can correct, but by the phalanx of powerful economic, political, and social forces that constitute the march of history. Anyone who proposes to cure the environmental crisis undertakes thereby to change the course of history. But this is a competence reserved to history itself, for sweeping social change can be designed only in the workshop of rational, informed, collective social action. That we must act now is clear. The question which we face is how.

In Commoner and the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems we witnessed a model — still relevant — of how to integrate science into society and apply both to making better public policy.

Photo: Shutterstock by DisobeyArt

Michael Egan
Michael Egan is a professor in the Department of History at McMaster University.

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