Onward, noisily

January 22, 1999

Tim Cornwell finds that in its 150 years, the association has not only not kept out of politics but has sometimes invited it in.

One hundred and fifty years ago last year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science was founded to bring together the handful of scientists then scattered across the American continent. From the civil war to the cold war, the history of the AAAS has mirrored the history of the country itself.

Despite teetering on the brink of collapse on several occasions, the AAAS fulfilled its aim of promoting cooperation among scientists and giving direction to their work. It established a strong reputation, nurturing such talents as the young Edwin Hubble, later famous for providing the first evidence that the universe is expanding, while Albert Einstein presented his work to the association's annual meeting in 1934.

But as science became increasingly specialised, the association found its role superseded by the work of smaller societies, and it was forced to remodel itself after the second world war. Since then, it has focused on science education, the public understanding of science and issues of science policy.

Despite the call throughout its history for politics to be kept out of science, the AAAS has not been completely sheltered from external events. During the civil war and the second world war meetings were cancelled. But most often, it was scientists themselves who felt morally obliged to bring politics through the association's doors.

The AAAS's official journal, Science, reported the rise of fascism in 1932, and later condemned the treatment of Jewish professors by the Nazis. This proved to be the beginning of a history of concern for the rights of scientists. Members were outraged, for instance, at the 1955 gathering in Atlanta because their black colleagues would experience segregation in the city, and the council decided that never again would a meeting be held in a place where "members could not associate freely regardless of race or creed".

During the cold war, members' concerns turned towards the relation between science and war, culminating in 1969 when a radical student movement, angered by the war in Vietnam and the scientific community's role in the arms race, disrupted sessions.

Yet establishment scientists were hardly uncritical of America's role in Vietnam. In 1970, a group of scientists reported the results of their investigations into the use of herbicides by the US military in Vietnam. As they told the meeting about the widespread ecological damage they had seen, the White House simultaneously announced that it would phase out its use of defoliants.

Indeed, concern for the environment is a long-standing theme. As far back as 1873, Franklin R. Hough presented a paper on "Duty of governments in the preservation of forests", and in 1968, Garrett Hardin's presidential address became one of the most widely cited papers ever on the need for government intervention on environmental issues.

But it was human rights issues that returned to centre stage in the 1980s,when the association helped identify the children of los desaparecidos, "the disappeared", in Argentina by means of DNA tests.

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