Archive | history

The history of science is written by the “victors.” So find your own narrative.

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The chosen version of the history of science defines “science” and shapes the present culture.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. No one is in charge of defining science for all.

Very few graduate programs require even one class in the history of science: many do not even offer one. Individual labs or departments may tell their own history, and several books on the development of molecular biology are popular around labs, but the philosophical situating of science in society’s history or philosophy seldom is institutionally done.

Yet this history- in all of its various interpretations- shapes the day to day life of the present day scientist. Each individual’s choice of project, likelihood of getting funded, expectation of a job, and relationship to the larger culture, is entangled in and influenced by past events and present conceptions.

One way one can understand the forces that affect the 21st century scientist’s work is through an interpretation of the influences on the fields of molecular biology and biomedical research. One subjective list might be:

ïFrom amateur science to professionalism.

ïLand-grant universities and the Flexnerian revolution: improving academic education for all.

ï(The revolution in physics after 1900).

ïPeer review grows in importance.

ïWorld War II, the Manhattan Project, and the start of huge government commitment to science.

ïThe unraveling of the properties of DNA.

ïThe Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 and the beginning of biotech.

ïThe cloning of the human genome.

ïChanges in trainees: an overall increase in the numbers of science trainees, and changes in the make-up of the trainees to include more women, people of color, and foreign trainees. 

  • From amateur science to professionalism.                                                             The first few centuries of science in the USA were done by amateur scientists, funded by family money or wealthy sponsors, occasionally by the government. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was a significant move for the definition and professionalism of science: The National Academy was founded in the mid 1863’s, furthering the interest in science. Around turn of the 20th century, professionalism was emphasized and the Bureau of Standards was founded to fit into the ongoing pattern of world commerce.

    Amateur science- performed by those without advanced science degrees- is still done in the U.S., but it wasn’t respected until the tech revolution, which revered the outsider.

– Land-grant universities and the Flexnerian revolution: improving academic education for all.

Science and other academic endeavors were generally available only to the wealthy, who could attend excellent private universities in the country, or abroad. Government commitment to higher education was boosted through the Morrill Act of 1862. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln, this act granted federal land to states on the basis of the size of the states’ congressional delegation. These lands were then to be sold to provide an endowment for the establishment of at least one college or university.

…the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

The Morrill Act of 1862. Land-Grant Colleges and Universities. 2008. Education Encyclopedia,State


By 1873, there were twenty four land grant institutions, which together enrolled 2,600 students, about 13% of the total US collegiate population. Agriculture was the most popular course in these early days. Engineering overtook agriculture as the most popular course of study through the 20th century. Practical and useful and applied education, available to all, funded by the federal government, became an assumption. 11 of the twenty top institutions in total research-and-development spending for fiscal year 1998 were land grant universities. [Land-grant Colleges and Universities 2008].

Peer review grows in importance. 

Peer review, the process through which scientists evaluate each others grant applications and manuscript submissions, is one of the cornerstones of research and science in the USA, and one that has enabled scientists to feel that the profession is and should be self regulating. Its origins are in England’s Royal Society, where members sometimes asked scientists to read submitted papers submitted to its Philosophical Transactions, and this ad hoc approach took place in American scientific journals as well. With the formation of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, ad hoc committees were formed to oversee the dispensation of funds received as private gifts.

The US Federal government, through the National Research Council, began supporting scientists after WWI, and committees oversaw the distribution of funds. By the end of World War II, peer review was routine.

      “Thus, by the post-World War II science boom, peer review had become accepted practice. “It came into full force after the war with the establishments of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health,” says Jonathan R. Cole, provost of Columbia and co-author of a number of works on the peer review system, including a 1981 National Academy of Sciences study on its ethical aspects. “That is where the principle of merit-based review was very clearly established and has been followed ever since.” Cole argues that, whatever its flaws, peer review has worked. “It’s been an essential part of the American science scene and one of the reasons why American science has done so well.”” Tom Abate. 1995. What’s the Verdict on Peer Review?

World War II, the Manhattan Project, and the start of huge government commitment to science.

Before WWII, science was funded by donors or industry. The Manhattan Project and the race for the atomic bomb was the first big government expenditure on research. Vannevar Bush, advisor to  President Roosevelt and leader of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, was responsible for the expectation of a government and science collaboration funded by the government after WWII. In 1950, the National Science Foundation was funded to promote science, advance health and prosperity, and secure the national defense.

The military continues to be very much involved with basic science, a collaboration that was protested in the 60’s and 70’s, but is now accepted passively….

“…in the first decade or two after 1945, the United States attempted to use its scientific and technological leadership, in conjunction with its economic, military, and industrial strength, to shape the research agendas, the institutions, and the allegiances of scientists in Western Europe in line with U.S. scientific, political, and ideological interests in the region.” P 3 American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe. John krige. MIT Press, Cambridge.

The unraveling of the properties of DNA and regulation of recombinant DNA work.

Watson’s and Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA was published in 1953, and started a revolution in biology and chemistry. The wild and heady times of the early work with DNA have perhaps more than anything else imprinted themselves on the research culture. Both in the lab and in interacting with the greater world, was a sense of discovery and also of activism, of that science could do well for the world.

“Chemistry was then a field with a strong conservative streak. Not only was there a fairly rigid view of what path one should take to be a chemist, but the social and political environment in chemistry departments was confining. The field seemed to have retained much of its authoritarian German roots. Biochemistry was more welcoming to me, although the origins of many of its practitioners in the field of chemistry made it only a slight improvement. It was during my graduate career that the emergence of the new field of molecular biology began to dramatically revolutionize sensibilities and the climate in the life sciences.

    “Molecular biology was anointed as a scientific discipline in the late 1950’s, formed from a gathering of scientists in the disparate fields of genetics, biochemistry, and biophysics. Its roots go back to the entry of a number of young physicists into biology in the 1940’s. These pioneers, convinced that the fundamental problems in physics had been solved, sought new scientific principles in the study of living organisms. “ [Beckwith 2002], p 16.

The first gene was spliced in 1971 and among themselves, scientists debated the implications of gene engineering. Soon the discussion moved to the public, however, and Congress heard testimony from scientists, for and against, the new technology. The Cambridge/Boston area was the center of the debate about recombinant DNA, and remains a center for molecular biology research.  The recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) was established by NIH in 1974 and still advises the NIH on issues involving basic and clinical research with recombinant DNA.

“To the consternation of the scientists and the confusion of policy-makers, recombinant DNA became a testing ground for emerging national concepts in public participation. In the early stages of the DNA debate (1973-975), policy-making was largely initiated and controlled by scientists and administrators involved in biological research, that is, by researchers with little experience or expertise in public participation. Their role was a reactive one, a succession of stopgaps, and finally a painful accommodation to increasingly “foreign” pieces of politics inserted in their normally private decision-making machinery.” [Goodell 1979], p 36.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, bringing business to academia, and the beginning of biotech.

The Biotech industry and the incursion of business interests into the academic laboratory were jump-started by the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Named for its sponsors, Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole, the Bayh-Dole Act adjusted the U.S. patent and trademark law and transferred the title of all discoveries made with the help of federal research grants to the universities and small businesses (later, also to non-profits and large businesses) where they were made.

Now universities and other organizations could market inventions made there, and individual researchers could personally profit, and so both the organization and the researcher were encouraged to patent their discoveries. A wave of technology transfer offices were established in universities, and Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

In 1976, Genentech, the first biotech company, was founded by venture capitalist Robert Swanson and biochemist Dr. Herb Boyer. Genentech scientists produced the first human protein, somatostatin, in a microorganism in 1977, cloned human insulin in 1978, human growth hormone in 1979, and the company went public in 1980. The use of cells to make proteins and hormones which distinguished biotech companies from pharmaceutical companies could be done in small academic labs by individual scientists, and many patented their findings and formed companies.

The possibility of making money certainly brought a new wave of enthusiasm to the world of academic scientists, and biotech scientists gradually gained respectability. In the 80’s, scientists might refuse to attend a seminar given by an industrial or biotech scientist, but as patents and millionaire scientists and biotech products became more familiar, biotech gained respectability with scientists….that is, with some scientists.  Acceptance of the intrusion of patents and lawyers into basic research has been more difficult among the generations of pre-biotech scientists who don’t believe personal profit is valid motivation for a scientist.

“I’m troubled that many researchers are becoming less productive because they divert their skills away from the goals of producing quality science and technology. Too many people in the scientific community are now driven by motives aside from the desire to make practical or basic discoveries. The accoutrements of success-large laboratories, significant funding, travel to many meetings at home and abroad- have overshadowed the joy of discovery. And too many scientists feel tempted to cut corners due to competitive pressures and the rapid pace of contemporary science. Science advances most productively when we focus on scientific merit rather than on the potential for attracting fame or increased funding.”  Yalow 1993 p 3

The opening of entrepreneurship to the academic world brought another kind of excitement, that of individual achievement and profit. It brought other source of income to universities, and opened job choices for researchers. It also raised conflict of interest issues to both individual researchers and to institutions, and started the commercialization and privitization of universities.

      The collaboration between molecular biologists and industry and government also set molecular biology apart from other biological sciences. In the reductionist times of the molecular biology revolution, ecology, population genetics, community ecology, were slighted in funding, and “important science” was linked to profit.

Sequencing of the human genome and consideration of ethical issues.

The sequencing of the human genome in 2003 had a huge influence on how science is viewed, and ushered in a shift to systems thinking, the integration of the parts, the ecology of components. Reductivism became less prestigious. Technology was directed towards systems, although one could also argue that development of the technology influenced the philosophy.

This change in looking at systems rather than at isolated components is, interestingly, reflected in changes in the sociology of how science is done.  Science has become more collaborative, more interdisciplinary, almost as if communication styles have paralleled the philosophy of experimentation.

The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 by the NIH and the DOE, after several meetings and talks through the 80’s. Reportedly, the DOE interest in the project developed from its study of genetic damage to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Human Genome Project was extremely controversial among scientists, some of whom worried about the ethical implications of the research, and others who feared that other science would no longer be well funded as so many resources were put into the genome project. As well, the tradition of the independent investigator in a small lab was challenged, as the importance of collaborative science to the genome project became manifest, and industry and academic labs teamed up on different aspects of the project.

 In 1998, Ventor started Celera with the intention of competing with NIH to sequence the human genome. The two groups announced the completion of their sequencing in separate journals (Ventor in Science, NIH in Nature) in 2001.

The collaborations of the Human Genome Project, across multiple labs and with academia and industry, became a model to continue to follow: business provided the big machines, academia the ideas. Numerous institutes and centers based on this model were begun.

 – Changes in trainees and greater commitment to diversity : An overall increase in the numbers of science trainees, and changes in the make-up of the trainees to include more women, minorities, and foreign trainees. 

With money pouring into academic institutions, more trainees were accepted. The increase in the number of biomedical and other Ph.D.s is putting a severe strain on the resources of NIH and of other funding agencies and institutions, and fewer people get academic jobs.

There has been not only been an overall increase in the number of students entering graduate school in the biological sciences, but also in the make up of the trainees. There are now more women, minorities, and foreign trainees.

    This diversity of scientists has helped to bring new approaches and questions to science and perhaps new and hopefully better ways of collaboration and communication. The importance of mentoring has become clear. But mentoring such a large and varied group of scientists has been a challenge, and there are huge variations in the quality and quantity of training received.

The feminization of the research environment is said to be responsible for many of the rules that help all with work-life integration. Parental leave, the expectation of a 9-5 job, job-sharing, are all effects of women’s (mainly) desire to work and to have a family. Boundaries have softened- the work and home environments are not as tightly compartmentalized. New trainees tend to appreciate this more than many older scientists, who see a less-than-total dedication to research.

There are many interpretations of history, and the above story was told with an emphasis on the cultural changes causing and being affected by research in cell and molecular biology. It could be told with entirely different events:

Through the story of the development of a technology.

Through the personal stories of individuals.

Through the high points of a specific field.

Through medical discoveries.

History is written by the victor, and the history of even modern science is the same, with the victor claiming objectivity. But there are many different interpretations of science that are shunted aside in business-as-usual science. These interpretations challenge the mainstream idea of the role scientists should play in society.

“Awareness of our subjectivity and context must be part of doing science because there is no way we can eliminate them. We come to the objects we study with our particular personal and social backgrounds and with inevitable interests. Once we acknowledge those, we can try to understand the world, so to speak, from inside instead of pretending to be objective outsiders looking in.”   “Science, Facts, and Feminism”, p 127, pp 119-131. Ruth Hubbard, in Feminism & Science.

The mainstream culture of science assumes  and partially defines itself as having an objective view of the world, and seems to many to be not amenable to other interpretations. But there are feminist interpretations as well that suggest the projects selected, the way problems are chosen, and the ways people communicate could be different. There are Marxist interpretations of science that most Americans would immediately dismiss not only because they are non-mainstream, but also because of the shadow of decades of anti-communist teachings in schools.

Still, there have been times when Marxist analyses of science have been tolerated. For example, with the strong Marxist political movements active in the 1930’s and 40’s in the USA, Britain, and France, there was a flurry of Marxist critiques of the history, philosophy, and politics of science, which faded with the collapse of the political movement in the 50’s. Again, Marxist criticism of science arose again in the 60’s and 70’s, and collapsed in the 80’s.  Gary Werskey, ‘The Marxist Critique of Capitalist Science: A History in Three Movements

The dark side of science, and how it may influence your communications.

      It is likely that most scientists believe they are working for the good of mankind. It is also likely that most non-scientists believe in the good of science- but many do not. Both scientists and non-scientists might mention the Tuskegee syphilis study in the USA as an example of the misuse of science, but there are many other stories that have alienated groups of people to science. For example:

-The American Eugenics movement and its influence on the eugenics policies of Nazi Germany. (Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell.

-The deliberate infection of approximately 700 Guatamalans with syphilis by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1940’s.

Not all non-scientists believe science is inherently good, or even valueless, but is the force that creates wars, that helps some and not others. Not all workplaces are ethically run, not all personnel are ethical.

Establish your own history. In your own lab, group, or department, a shared sense of history will clarify and enrich the culture.

– Make a library to define culture of science. For yourself, your lab, your department, your colleagues, keep and circulate journals and books that will give thought and perspective to science as you practice it.

– 1 x month non-technical journal clubs.

– 1 x month journal clubs with the original papers that defined the field.

– Teach a mini-course in culture and history. Or politics.

In my untenured days, I did one supremely foolish thing. I developed and taught a “science for poets” course. (I haven’t the space here to explain why it was foolish.) The class read much of the original literature and commentary on The Double Helix–including original papers, meeting reports, Watson’s funny and irreverent book, Anne Sayer’s biography of Rosalind Franklin, and Crick’s later work, What Mad Pursuit. We did background reading on Mendelian genetics and examined what was known about DNA in 1954 to get a feel for what Watson and Crick had to work with. We read the later memoirs of some other central figures in the story. We watched the film The Race for the Double Helix, in which Jeff Goldblum cleverly plays Jim Watson. I even tried to have Anne Sayer speak to the class, but, regrettably, her health forbade it.     Gerald Harbison,  Guest comment: Genes, Girls, and Gender Politics. Science Insights 6:6.  National Association of Scholars.


A traditional view via slideshare of the history of science 

The American Eugenics movement and its influence on the eugenics policies of Nazi Germany. (See Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. The Johns Hopkins Univeristy Press, Baltimore.

Harriet Washington. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present


Scientists, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Right Livelihood Award


How many scientists have won Nobel Peace Prizes?

Not many, but more than most people- including scientists- can name. 

The Nobel prizes were started by the bequest of the will of Swedish scientist, chemist and industrialist Alfred Nobel, best known for his discovery of dynamite, and were first awarded in 1901. (The award for Economics was started after the others, in 1968, by the Swedish Bank Riksbank.) 5 of the awards (Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Economics) are given in Sweden, while the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by the Norwegian Parliament. 

While in Oslo, I visited the Nobel Peace Center about Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Peace Prize, near the waterfront. Most of the area in the small museum was taken up with a tribute to the 2013 Nobel to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  The organization is a diplomatic and legal one, and the exhibition was quite slanted in its emphasis on offenders since WWII- citing, for example, the use of mustard gas by the Germans in WWII, but making no mention of the use of Agent Orange by the USA in Vietnam.

There was an installation with all Nobel Peace Prize awardees, and here and there were was a winner identified as a scientist. I wouldn’t have necessarily expected more- the description of the qualifications for the award as given in Alfred Nobel’s will (” and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses..”) is certainly not directed to scientists.

Still, scientists are in a great position of respect and power, are certainly implicated in the development of weapons and technology, and could take advantage of this privilege in promoting peace. I read the Nobel Peace Prize awardee biographies and made a list of scientists and science-related organizations who have won Nobel Peace Prizes. 

Scientists/Nobel Peace Prize Laureates

Name                                      Year of award                      Science focus

Wangari Maathai                     2004                                      Biologist

Joseph Rotblat                         1995                                       Physicist

Andrei Sakharov                      1975                                       Physicist

Norman Ernest Borlaug        1970                                       Botanist

Linus Carl Pauling                  1962                                       Chemist

(Albert Schweitzer                  1952                                      Physician )

Ralph Bunche                          1950                                      Social Scientist

John Boyd Orr                         1949                                     Physician and Biologist

Jane Addams                           1931                                      Sociologist

Fridtjof Nansen                      1922                                       Zoologist


Organization/Nobel Peace Prize                                                               Year

 (Médecins Sans Frontières                                                                         1999)

International Atomic Energy Agency                                                       2005

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)                   2007

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War              1985

( ) denotes a medical person/organization. 

For some, the activism that led to the peace prize was their occupation; in others, it was beyond the job. As for the other Nobel Peace Prizes, the laureates are generally already very well known. The awards are primarily diplomatic, and this combined with the celebrity factor makes the paucity of scientists perhaps understandable. 

But this political focus of the Nobel Peace Prize has been bothersome. The prize has sometimes given to world leaders whose role in peace was dubious, and it is certainly difficult to take seriously a peace award given to, for example, Henry Kissinger, one of the architects of American’s war on Vietnam.

The Alternative Nobel Prize- the Right Livelihood Awards

Journalist and professional philatelist Jakob von Uexkull felt that the awards were narrow in scope and were unrealistic in focusing on the interests of industrialized countries. He approached the Nobel Foundation to establish awards more relevant to the problems of poverty and the destruction of resources, and was rebuffed. He then financed the first “Right Livelihood Award” in 1980, and in 1985 was invited to present the award in the Swedish Parliament. These awards are sometimes described as the “Alternative Nobel Prize” and tend to be given to activists in developing world countries.” There  are usually 4 winners a year, and sometimes an honorary winner who does not receive money. 

 There are many scientists among the winners of the Right Livelihood Awards. The winners are realistically inspirational, ordinary scientists with feet to the ground who made huge local (but often international) differences to people. It is obvious from reading the individual biographies that activism is very doable for a scientist, and can be very effective. 

They come from countries from all over the world. They organize, they collaborate, and those collaborations are often with people outside their own fields. They are multidimensional, and are often experts in several fields, learning what needed to be learned to accomplish their missions. Science is not an end onto itself, but is a powerful tool to effect change, peace, and a better world. Some are self-trained. Many are women.

The choices of awardees are not politically “safe.”

Right Livelihood awardees 

Name                                                           Year of Award                       Science Focus

Paul Walker                                                2013                                       Political scientist

(Denis Mukwege                                         2013                                       Physician)

Hans Herrin                                               2013                              Agronomist/entomologist                                     Biovision Foundation

(Sima Samar                                                2012                                       Physician)

Huang Ming                                               2011                                       Engineer

David Suzuki   Honorary                         2009                                       Zoologist

Rene Ngongo                                             2009                                       Biologist

(Catherine Hamlin                                     2009                                       Physician)

(Monika Hauser                                         2008                                        Physician)

Ruth Manorama                                       2006                                        Sociologist

Tony Clarke                                               2005                                        Sociologist

Asghar Ali                                                  2005                                        Engineer 

Raul Montenegro                                     2004                                        Evolutionary Biologist

Walden Bello                                            2003                                         Sociologist

Nicanor Perlas                                          2003                                         Agriculturalist

Ibrahim Abouleish                                  2003                                          Pharmacologist

Martin Green                                           2002                                          Engineer

Tewolde Berhan                                       2000                                         Botanist

Birsel Lemke                                            2000                                          Political scientist

Wes Jackson/The land Institute          2000                                    Geneticist-agronomist

Hermann Scheer                                     1999                                            Social Scientist

Juan Garces                                              1999                                            Political scientist

Samual Epstein                                       1998                                            Physician, Occupational Medicine

Juan Pablo Orrego                                 1998                                             Environmental Scientist

(Katarina Kruhonja                                 1998                                             Physician)

(Vesna Terselic                                         1998                                             Physician)

Jinzaburo Takagi                                    1997                                             Nuclear Chemist

Michael Succow                                      1997                                             Biologist   

(George Vithoulkas                                  1996                                            Homeopathic Physician)                     

Sulak Sivaraksa                                       1995                                             Social Scientist

Hannumappa R Sudarshan/Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK)    1994 Physician /org

Vandana Shiva                                        1993                                             Physicist

(Zafrullah Chowdhury                             1992                                            Physician)                                                             with Gonoshathaya Kendra (GK)

John Gofman                                          1992                       Nuclear Chemist and Physician

Edward Goldsmith  Honorary             1991                                             Ecologist/writer  

Bengt Danielsson                                    1991                                             Anthropologist                                                                                                (with Marie-Therese Danielsson)

Melaku Worede                                      1989                                             Agronomist

(Akilu Lemma                                          1989                                             Physician)

(Legesse Wolde-Yohannes                     1989                                            Physician)

(Inge Genefke    Honorary                      1988                                           Physician)                                                Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims

Jose Lutzenberger 1988 Agronomist

Johan Galtung Honorary                     1987                  Mathematician, Social Scientist

Hans-Peter Durr                                    1987                                             Physicist

Mordechai Vanunu                                1987                            Geographer, philosopher 

Rosalie Bertell                                        1986                  Biometrics, Environmental Health

(Alice Stewart                                          1986                                              Physician)

Wangari Maathai                                  1984                                               Biologist                                                                                                (Won Nobel Peace Prize in 2004)

Amory B. Lovins                                    1983                                      Experimental Physicist

Hunter Lovins                                        1983                     Political Scientists and Sociologist

Organization                                                                         Year of Award

Grain International                                                                                      2011

Grameen Shakti                                                                                            2007 

Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) Org. of Science Writers        1996  


Reading only the biographies of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates would lead a scientist to believe that there isn’t much change of being an activist for peace.

Reading the biographies of the Right Livelihood Award would lead scientists to believe that they can be effective in activist efforts, and that their particular talents and training makes them very, very useful in a drive for peace and sustainability.

September 24th, 2014

Right Livelihood Award 2014
The „Alternative Nobel Prize“ is awarded annually by the Right Livelihood Award Foundation „for outstanding vision and work on behalf of our planet and its people“. This year, the Foundation has selected not four, but five Right Livelihood Award Laureates:

Edward Snowden (USA), Joint Honorary Award with Alan Rusbridger
„… for his courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights.“

Alan Rusbridger (UK), Joint Honorary Award with Edward Snowden
„… for building a global media organisation dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest, undaunted by the challenges of exposing corporate and government malpractices.“

Asma Jahangir (Pakistan)
„… for defending, protecting and promoting human rights in Pakistan and more widely, often in very difficult and complex situations and at great personal risk.“

Basil Fernando / AHRC (Hong Kong SAR, China)
„… for his tireless and outstanding work to support and document the implementation of human rights in Asia.“

Bill McKibben / (USA)
„… for mobilising growing popular support in the USA and around the world for strong action to counter the threat of global climate change.“

We congratulate the Laureates and extend our cordial thanks for their outstanding enthusiasm and work for a more just, democratic and sustainable world!

posted on




Physicist William Davidon and the Media FBI break-in



William Davidon was a pleasant Haverford College professor, a theoretical physicist and mathematician, with a wife and children, a home. He was also a committed civil rights (he had taken part in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, for example) and Vietnam war antiwar activist, often arrested for visible and peaceful antiwar protests.

But under the surface of academia and public protest Davidon lived an extreme activist life, only detailed recently in Betty Medsger’s well- written and absolutely significant book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.” (2014). Davidon was the instigator of the 1971 break-in at the Media, Pennsylvania FBI office, where secret FBI files were stolen and sent to the press (Author Betty Medsger was the first reporter to receive the files) in a pre-Watergate action. The published files were the first step in confirming that J. Edgar Hoover was operating the FBI outside the Constitution with a secret civilian counterintelligence program, “COINTELPRO,” that sought to destabilize anti -war and civil rights groups.

It was a desperate time. In some months, more than 500 American soldiers were killed: by the end, 58,152 American soldiers, 1.1 million Vietnamese soldiers, and 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed. Nixon had just invaded Cambodia, extending the war further. During that time, the FBI was active in discrediting even Congress people who spoke out against the war. Even protesting the war peacefully could result in violence: 4 students were killed and 9 injured by the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State (Ohio) campus in April, 1970.

Medsger detailed the cruelty and pettiness of the FBI in the face of the civil rights movement, as well. The FBI treatment of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shows the harm the harm Hoover’s FBI was causing the nation. Office break-ins, informers, opening mail, wiretapping, and bugging the office and home and hotel room of King were some of the routine actions done over years. The FBI used information found about King’s extramarital affairs to threaten disclosure and suggested King commit suicide before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The FBI knew of threats against King’s life, but deliberately did not inform King of those threats. The details of the FBI’s deliberately induced paranoia and fear was not demonstrated in detail, though, until the Media FBI break-in.

Medsger said it was Davidon’s science-driven love of evidence that spawned the idea of breaking into an FBI office. He wanted proof the agency was spying on protesters, something many had suspected. It was a hunch that the bureaucratically-minded Hoover would document even the FBI’s illegal actions (Finley 2014)

Davidon approached committed activists he had worked with, and whom he thought likely to join him in a break-in  of the local FBI office in Media as an act of resistance. Though all had worked with the Catholic Peace Movement, only one was Catholic, 3 were Protestants, 4 were Jews. They ranged in age from 20 to 44. There were 3 women and 5 men. Several were professors, one was a daycare worker, another a social worker, one a graduate student, one a cab driver. Several had put their careers on hold to deal with what they saw as a political crisis. He was proud of his team. (One member would drop out a few days before the burglary took place, and would later consider turning the other members in.)

Though they all worked with other equally-committed activists, they told no one of their plans. They picked the day- March 8, 1971- because it was the night of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight title match, and many, many Americans (including, they hoped, local policemen) would be tied to their television sets. They talked on the phone as if they were being listened to (and only found out many years later that most phone conversations were being tapped). For several months before the set date, they studied the movement of traffic and people on the surrounding streets, the movement of people in the offices, the local transportation access point, the closing times of stores and bars and restaurants, and more, and only then set the hours for the burglary. They learned to pick locks from library books. One of the members, Bonnie Raines, pretended to be a college student doing research on a local project, and visited the office, taking note of the location of closets, files, and doors, and to see if there was an alarm system.

The night before the burglary, Davidon rented a car (his wife needed the family car that night) and a motel room near the FBI office to use as a staging area. The next day, he and everyone else went to work, as usual.

Then they broke into the Media FBI office.

The break-in didn’t start auspiciously, for there were 2 locks, and one for which the group lock breaker had no tool. He left, and returned, with the burglary already off schedule, but still coordinated with the fight. 4 members went inside and loaded suitcases with files, with a decoy member and the get-away cars outside. The group still didn’t know if they actually had any worthwhile files. They transferred the files to another car, and met at a small Quaker conference center about 40miles northwest of Philadelphia. They read, analyzed, and prepared the files for distribution to the press for the next 10 days. They knew, within an hour, that they had the information they needed. In a newsletter prepared for FBI agents, they read that agents were advised “to enhance the paranoia..and…get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Medsger p 108

When it was time to notify the press, 2 members of the group read a press release to a reporter from a phone booth on the northwest side of town, near Chestnut Hill. The documents were packaged for mailing, and the day before the last package was prepared, the group met for the last time and agreed that none of them would tell anyone what had happened.

The packages were sent to various politicians and journalists and the firestorm began that caused the Senate to investigate and castigate the FBI, reducing its powers.


-The Media Files

-Carl Stern’s (Stern was a legal affairs reporter for NBC) multi-year investigation and report on the nature of COINTELPRO.

-Assistant Attorney General Henry Peterson’s Department of Justice report on the FBI’s watered down files.

-Watergate revelations about the manipulation of intelligence agencies by the Nixon administration.

-New York Time reporter Seymour Hersh’s story on the CIA’s domestic operations against anti-war protesters.

-Congressional investigation/ Church Committee (and censure) of the FBI and other intelligence groups.


And the group never met together again. For months and years, the robbery was investigated, and several members lived in fear. Several never acted as activists again. Davidon never stopped.

Davidon’s activism started with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as he recognized the potential for total annihilation at the hands of power-hungry leaders. Over the years, his activism increased and he gave public talks with other physicists about the danger of nuclear power.

He did consider silencing his protests after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and moving to New Zealand to focus on research and scholarship- but decided to remain at Haverford College and intensify his activism, not returning to theoretical physics until after the Vietnam War.

“Davidon thinks the silence of his generation after World War II, especially in the 1950’s, diminished an impotent part of the American spirit- the impulse to question and to understand what the government is doing in the name of its citizens. He sees a sad irony in the fact that many of the people who made up what became known a few decades later as the Greatest Generation were largely silent when leading American officials- Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover among them- labeled citizens who questioned government policies as un-American in the 1950s and early 1960’s. His generation’s silence, he thinks, created a habit of silence that by 1964 contributed to the fact that most Americans accepted without question the major decision by the administration of President Lyndon Johnson to send troops to Vietnam” Medsger p 439

Davidon continued his activism against the Vietnam war after the Media break in. In March, 1972, he was part of a group that made a local shipment of bombs in York County, Pennysylvania inoperable; this was done not ably to reduce the destruction destruction of Vietnam, but to point out to locals that their local economy depended on the production of weapons. In April, 1972, he and 44 other Philadelphia antiwar activists in aluminum canoes and light rowboats blockaded the munitions ship USS Nitro in Sandy Hook Bay, NJ. Some members were arrested, but Davidon was not, and he was not questioned in the March or May 1972 actions. In May, 1972, he helped to sabotage 3 Air Force jets on Memorial Day at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station by cutting electrical and hydraulic lines and painting BREAD NOT BOMBS on the exterior of one of the planes.

These were dangerous actions that could have resulted in many, many years of prison time. He regretted later that he never really thought through the implications of his actions on his family- yet he also thinks that contemplating the possible impact of one’s actions could lead to refusing to take risk. He believed a life should be useful, and that decreasing opposition to the Vietnam war would encourage Nixon and his advisors to think that people didn’t care- and here, he could be, and was, of great use. Medsger details how much Davidon disliked the idea of breaking and entering, of destroying property, of risking personal confrontation with  guards, with deception- but “he hated the escalation of war more.”

Though an FBI investigation did not find who had committed the break-in (the FBI did interview some of the group, but did not charge anyone) Betty Medsger, after receiving papers from the FBI break-in, continued to investigate the story while she still worked at the Washington Post, and after she left. Unexpectedly, while having dinner with two friends from Philadelphia- Bonnie and John Raines- those friends lightly told her that they had been part of the Media break-in. It was decades past the time when they could be prosecuted, Medsger talked them into telling their story and finding the other members. They found 7 of the 8 members. All agreed to participate and tell their stories, though only 5 agreed to be publicly identified.

Davidon spoke quite openly (and, in fact, had already mentioned his part in the break-in to Patrick Catt in 1997) and agreed to be identified, but did not live to see the publication of Medsger’s book, or the wonderful media attention the book, and the actual break-in, received. He died on November 8, 2013, of Parkinson’s disease.

So, in the face of such heroism, where does one start to be effective? One of the first actions Davidon did as a graduate student was to write (with a group of colleagues) a letter in response to an article in the New York Times by science writer Walter Sullivan about the role of natural uranium. (Catt 1997)

Davidon tried to keep his scientific and activism lives apart, but the two lives were quite entwined. He did feel some pressure from Haverford faculty, one of whom lamented that he would be getting more work done if he weren’t politically active. But he received tenure, with the understanding that a gap in his publications was due to a focus on activist work. In the last class of the year for his physics and math classes, he would devote the period to talk about nuclear weapons and the dangers they presented.

It has not escaped our notice that the activism of Edward Snowdon and Chelsea Manning has been similarly disturbing and effective.

1971 FBI burglary 211x300



The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. Betty Medsger. 2014. Alfred A. Knopf, New York  Website for the book, reviews, etc

Interview of [Dr. William Davidon] by [Patrick Catt on [July 11, 1997],
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,

Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows. Mark Mazzetti, January 7, 2014. The New York Times 

Recalling Haverford professor’s role in 1971 FBI break-in. Ben Finley. January 14, 2014. The Inquirer. 

Burglars who took on FBI abandon shadows. Mark Mazetti  The New York Times, January 7   2014.

What new revalations about the Media, PA FBI break-in teach us about intelligence reform today   Slate  Beverly Gage  January 9, 2014.


Margaret Palmer: Actionable Science


Stream bed restoration and watershed preservation, testimony in a federal court on the harm done by mountain top removal of coal, an appearance on the Colbert Report in January, 2010: in a fantastic article by Erik Stokstad in Science (Science 343: 592-595, February 7, 2014), you can read about the career and life of Margaret Palmer. Save the article to read again for inspiration. 

That article brought me to interview Margaret, with a focus on her activism and advice for other scientists. But Erik’s Stokstad’s article, with its coverage of the reasons for and complexities of Margaret’s activism, reads as a primer for the ups and downs of a scientific life entwined with politics and policy.

Margaret Palmer received her Ph.D. in coastal oceanography, but soon shifted her work to streams and now runs a laboratory on stream bed restoration at the University of Maryland. This work led her to documenting the effect of the mountain top removal of coal upon streams, and into the political mire of competing interests in the environment. She is now also the director of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis.

In an institute named the “National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center,” (SESYNC) you might assume that activism is an important component of work and research. You would be right. But the balancing act between maintaining scientific credibility in stream bed research while being involved with political and legal protection of the environment is a constant personal challenge, even with institutional credibility.

SESYNC and Margaret’s science are run separately, funded separately, and have different purposes that must be transparent in order for all participants to retain integrity.

Around 1995, NSF first put out an RFP for restoration studies: rather than observation, which had been the core of ecology, NSF would now fund experimentation on ecological solutions. This itself was controversial, as how ecology even defined natural systems was not seen as a social construct open to interpretation. Timing was crucial, though, and as the changing environment was noted more and more by scientists an citizens, the wall between science and public action was lowered.

 Collaborators Margaret, John Cramer, and Jim Boyd recognized the role of social dynamics in environmental outcomes, and convinced NSF to fund an experimental program that would integrate public input with scientific results. SESYNC is a unique core program, funded by NSF (National Science Foundation)  to help the external community do actionable science. They would fund actionable science.

Note the use of the word “actionable.” “Activism” and “advocacy” are still seen as subjective and therefore, unscientific. “Applied” is palatable, but while it includes the public in outcome, it does not consider the public to be part of application.  Every proposal at SESYNC must include and describe consideration of the end user. Yet the federal government, and government organizations such as NSF, do not fund activism, so language must be considered. And boundaries made.

The center does not prohibit advocacy. But Margaret feels she must be careful about activism beyond the actionable science. Though her heart might be there, she does not go to rallies or fundraisers that promote causes she believes in. Participation in overt advocacy or activism could be used against what she sees as her place of highest effectiveness- testifying for science. And with her eyes on the outcomes she wants, she must be effective.

One of the ways Margaret tries to maintain actionability versus advocacy to is deliver the results of analysis without suggesting a particular action- that is, to say “if x is done, y is likely to occur, ” rather than “you need to do/not do x.” But In spite of the care to keep the activism out of actionable science, there are risks, especially to funding from NGO and non-profit organizations, who may see implied criticism of their policies in data. Because of her actionable science, and the perception that she must then be biased, Margaret has been disqualified from being on professional teams such as EPA panels, exclusions that can hurt a scientist’s career.

Staying professional publicly can mean masking personal views. Only once, on a panel at Brigham Young University, did Margaret give her truest answer to the question, “Why do you do what you do?” She answered simply, “I really care about the earth and about our future.” Being in nature, Margaret feels, is deep need not only for herself, but for many humans, and she does not want to see that destroyed.

Advice for activists:

You may not be able to be an activist early in your career. It takes a great deal of time, and will take time away from your science. Academics and academia are conservative, and there is generally no reward system for scientists doing activism or even actionable science. So, in order to be an effective science-activist, be sure you are an effective scientist.

Keep up your science. This is what gives you credibility in the activist world as well as in the scientific arena.

 Consider where you can be most effective! This is outstandingly important advice. What is the outcome you want? Choose the path and tools you need for that outcome.

Make the most of your opportunities. The 6 or so minutes on the Colbert show  brought notice (negative and positive) and funders. Many scientists are worried about saying something wrong, but any activism will involve communication, and you can find, for any medium, advice and suggestion for effectiveness. Even negative notoriety can be leveraged into positive interpretations.

Have a thick skin and look for resources to protect yourself. Any involvement with politics can bring very personal attacks, as opponents try to discredit you to reduce your effectiveness. Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOYA), lawyers for the mining industry requested not only Margaret’s emails, but documents such as reviews written  by in response to Margaret’s journal submissions. You do need advice and protection.

(All of your emails, even your personal accounts, can be requested. So telling the truth in all communications is good both morally and strategically!)

The University of Maryland seemed proud of Margaret’s activism, but they did not protect her against the attacks by the coal mining industries during court testimony days- they protected themselves. This is what universities do, so don’t take that personally, either. Margaret found support through PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) (, an alliance of state and federal legal and communication experts who protect employees who work on environmental issues.

Look for non-profits to work with also in non-crisis mode as collaborators. Non-profits want scientists to work with them, but don’t know how to find them. Don’t wait for an invitation, but contact organizations who share a mindset or mission with you.

I would add that working with or within an organization such as SESYNC can greatly give a mantle of actionable science (an thus, trust for some agencies) that advocacy/activism does not. Scientists working in traditional environments have no way to fund and publicize actionable science, and so all efforts will be activism to the world. It is very difficult to be a lone and effective activist, and it might be impossible.

April 2, 2014 interview.