Archive | interview

Running for office as scientist and socialist

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“My name is Jess Spear.

I am a member of Socialist Alternative.

I am a climate scientist.

And I was the organizing director for 15Now.”

So Jess Spear, who is running for the Washington State Legislature, began her debate on October 7 with the mainstream Democratic and  20 year incumbent, Frank Chopp.

15Now was a successful charter amendment for a $15.00 minimum wage in Seattle, a success that is galvanizing similar initiatives all over the country. For, although she is a scientist, environmental and economic justice are her motivations, and science is a tool to address that activism.

Not that Spear doesn’t love science- but from the beginning, she saw the problems science could address. She was first inspired by Carl Sagan as a teenager to want to do something about climate change, way before it became a common concept. Thrilled by a biology class, Spear switched from anthropology to biology, and applied to work on a climate change problems for her senior year project- only to be told by her project advisor that climate change wasn’t a surety. As a student, Spear listened and worked on red tide- but a belief that authority, scientific or political, was necessarily correct did not take, and she found her way back to climate change as soon as possible.

It was not an end to her disappointment with scientists. Not with her mentor: while not as activist as Spear, he was civic-minded and involved and supportive of Spear. But her fellow students, even those working on climate change, were not engaged beyond their own work. Graduate students often have a laser focus only on their areas of study, but Spear thinks, sadly, that it was cynicism about the future that prevented students from working with the bigger picture.

Few senior climate scientists were speaking out, as speaking publicly led to questions about the scientists’ integrity and objectivity. Then, perhaps more than now, scientists in general were schooled to believe that their role is not to be part of policy, but only to provide the data for the policy, seeming to still believe that the research they are doing isn’t already influenced and caused by policy. Michael Mann and Jim Hanson have strongly acted and spoken out, and have written about the need for scientists to speak out, and public involvement is no longer completely damning.

Spear’s personal discontent with the approach to climate change and injustice took a big change in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, public protest in Wisconsin against the budget and restrictions on collective bargaining, and the Occupy Movement. Though Occupy! Seattle, she heard speakers from Socialist Alternative, with whom she then learned the links between climate change and the economic system.

Science and research are integrated into economics, but are generally seen only through the lens of capitalism in US training. Spear recommends that scientists read Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000) by John Bellamy Foster, who has written several books integrating ecology and economics, and who warns readers about the ineffectiveness of spiritual approaches to saving the environment. Frederick Engel’s The Dialectics of Nature, written in 1883  and published in 1939 with a forward by evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, analyzes the revolutions of science and their parallels with revolutions in society, a larger perspective useful for the scientist and activist.

Socialism provides the philosophical and practical links between science and environmental activism, and economics and social policy. For example, while many scientists and organizations agree that we must decrease reliance on fossil fuels to limit climate change, socialists are also concerned with the resulting human needs and in finding job alternatives for those in industries that might be abolished though activism or government regulation. A major mistake of environmentalists, believes Spear, is that they are coming head to head against ordinary working people. Socialism and Marxism have been very helpful to her in framing the issues, in putting problems in a social context, and have made her more more effective on a range of environmental issues.  Spear says, “I now understand how ludicrous it was for me to rail against individuals for their lifestyle choices. People shouldn’t be asked to choose the environment over their families.”

As a member of Socialist Alternative, Spears is not working as an individual, but as the member of a collective. Decisions about policy and actions are made collaboratively. There is a non-hierarchical perspective. This may be difficult for the scientists who believe in themselves purely as individuals to understand. But even with the inspiration of individuals, it is the power of an organization that creates social change.

After 2011, Spear spent more time on political campaigns, working first on the successful Seattle City Council election campaign of Kshama Sawant before leading the also successful 15Now minimum wage campaign. When she and Socialist Alternative decided that it made sense for her to run for Legislative office in 2014, she left behind for now her career as an oceanographer to focus on the election. She marches for political and environmental causes, has been arrested for stopping oil trains going through Seattle, gives interviews and talks, and leads a very different life, for now.

One of the biggest challenges for Spear has been learning a different way of public speaking than she had been trained in as a scientist. There was no effective formula for a political speech. It was usually not possible to use notes or other aids. Instead, Spear had to learn to make herself vulnerable, to listen and respond to the crowd, to improvise. Having let go of the notion of control that is drilled into science, she feels much better when giving a speech.

The election is November 4. Even without the corporate money poured into the campaign of the incumbent, Spear made a good showing in the primary, and well may win this election…if not this one, then the next. People may be shy about socialism, but are understanding that business-as-usual will not solve anything. As a person, scientist, and politician, Spear gives enormous hope that we have the capability to overcome fear and lassitude and make a better world.

The photograph used for the illustration found at the Vote Spear! website. http://www.votespear.org/jess_spear_arrested_protesting_oil_trains_in_seattle.

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Benjamin Kuipers: Your actions should reflect your values.

 

aanewkuiper

Military money funds many projects in the field of qualitative simulation. During his postdoc, which was funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Department of Defense), computer scientist Benjamin Kuipers realized that the military wanted to apply his work on cognitive maps towards building intelligent cruise missiles. Kuipers, now Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, had done two years of alternate service in the Psychology Department at Harvard as a conscientious objector, and made the decision then not to accept funding that would contribute to war. 

An essay he wrote some years later to explain his decision is reprinted below, with his permission.

Kuipers is clear that this is a personal stance, and not that of his workplace. He does not evangelize for his position. However, he believes that everyone should think carefully about the values they want their life’s work to represent, and make sure that their actions reflect those values. He does not see himself as an activist, but regards his position against military funding as a testimony, or witness, that other people can join with, or not, as they choose.

 “Why don’t I take military funding?” explains more about his background, the effect his decision has had on his research, and how others can fund their research without military money.

 

Why don’t I take military funding?http://web.eecs.umich.edu/~kuipers/opinions/no-military-funding.html

Benjamin Kuipers

I don’t take funding from military agencies. Why not?

Mostly it’s a testimony that it’s possible to have a successful career in computer science without taking military funding. My position has its roots in the Vietnam War, when I was a conscientious objector, did alternative service instead of submitting to the draft, and joined the Society of Friends (Quakers). During the 1980s and 90s, the position seemed to lose some of its urgency, so it became more of a testimony about career paths.

Since September 11, 2001, all the urgency is back. The defense of our country is at stake, so this testimony becomes critical. In short, I believe that non-violent methods of conflict resolution provide the only methods for protecting our country against the deadly threats we face in the long run. Military action, with its inevitable consequences to civilian populations, creates and fuels deadly threats, and therefore increases the danger that our country faces.

I will come back to this, but first some other thoughts.

How did you get started with this?

In 1978, after completing my PhD thesis on cognitive maps, I found that the only funding agency that was interested in supporting my research wanted to build smart cruise missiles that could find their way to their targets. This was not what I wanted my life’s work to support. So I changed areas, and started working on AI in Medicine, which led to some very productive work on qualitative reasoning about physical systems with incomplete knowledge.

Well before that, I had been a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and had done alternative service to the draft from 1970 to 1972 before starting grad school. Since most of my graduate studies were funded by an NSF Fellowship, I didn’t think much about military funding and AI research at that time. After finishing my PhD, I did a year of post-doctoral research funded by a grant that Al Stevens and I negotiated directly with Craig Fields at DARPA. It was at the end of that year, looking for continuation funding, that I confronted the cruise missile scenario and had to decide what my research life is for, and who I am willing to have pay for it.

But how can you fund your research?

Defense Department agencies like DARPA, ONR, AFOSR, and ARO are certainly among the larger pots of money out there, and I have put these off limits for myself.

I have had funding from NSF, NASA, and NIH instead. There is a State of Texas Advanced Research Program that has supported several of my projects. And I have had small amounts of funding from several companies such as Tivoli and IBM.

These other agencies typically don’t provide grants as large as one can get from DARPA, for example. So, there are limits to the size of research group I can have. With very few exceptions, I have decided that I will fund only grad students, and not try to support research staff or post-docs, who are much more expensive than grad students. I have sometimes had quite a few grad students, and a large lab, but the funding requirements remain moderate.

When I first decided to refuse military funding, I felt I would be making a serious sacrifice. As it has worked out, research money has sometimes been tight, but never disastrously so. And as I watched my colleagues dealing with DARPA’s demands for reports, PI meetings, bake-offs, delays and reductions in promised funding, and other hassles, I began to wonder whether I hadn’t gotten the best side of the deal after all.

It’s important to remember that the bottom line in research is productivity of ideas, not dollars brought in. At some point, the hassle of dealing with an agency may decrease one’s intellectual productivity more than the money they provide increases it. But that’s a practical issue, not a matter of conscience.

The bottom line here is that refusing military funding puts a limit on how large a research budget I can sustain. But that’s not the same as limiting my intellectual productivity.

What’s wrong with taking military money? They have funded lots of great research!

Certainly so: AI and the Internet being two large categories of them. That kind of research is enormously important, and I am glad that our society finds a way to fund it.

However, the goal of the military is to settle international conflict through violence. As a friend of mine was told by a general, “Everything we do ultimately has one of two goals: killing people or destroying things.” I believe that this attitude towards conflict resolution has become a “clear and present danger” to our world and our country. The world has become so small through transportation and communication, and our weapons have become so deadly, nuclear and biological, that we cannot afford the illusion that violence makes us safer.

A true defense of our country would require both resources and research into non-violent conflict resolution methods. Both of these exist, but are starved compared with the technologies of warfare.

My stand is a testimony, saying “I will not devote my life’s work toward making warfare more effective.” I am also trying to show, by example, that one can be a successful and productive computer scientist, even while taking this stand.

Do you try to keep others from taking military funding?

No. Mine is an individual testimony, and each person makes an individual decision about how they will spend their life’s work.

Many years ago, when William Penn converted to Quakerism and pacifism, he was troubled by the thought of having to give up the sword that he wore, a great honor at the time. He asked George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, what he should do. Fox told him, “William, wear thy sword as long as thee can.”

Why not use military funding for virtuous research?

First, it’s a testimony, and a testimony has to be clear and visible to be useful. Certainly there is virtuous research funded by military agencies. Many colleagues whom I respect highly take this approach and I honor them for it. But it doesn’t send a clear message to others, and I want to do that.

Second, there’s a slippery slope. You can start with a research project as pure as the driven snow. But a few years later, money is tight in the pure research category, and you get offered a research grant from a more applied office within the same agency. Do research on the same topic, but frame it in terms of a military mission. Step by step, you can slide into battlefield management and smart cruise missiles. One thing that makes the slope so slippery is that you have accumulated responsibility for a lab full of graduate students, and the consequences of a major drop in funding will be even more painful for them than it is for you.

Another thing that makes the slope slippery is that military problems are often very interesting. It’s easy to get caught up in an interesting technical challenge, and lose sight of what is actually happening: that the objects in the plan are human beings, and that the actions that are being planned are to kill them.

With a little cleverness, you can find similarly fascinating problems in the space program, where there is NASA funding, or in the economic sphere, where there is private funding. Or in other areas of science, where NSF and NIH do the funding.

Is everything the military does tainted?

Certainly not. Most people don’t realize that the US military is perhaps the largest educational institution in the world. It provides valuable academic and vocational training to a huge population, many of whom might not have access to it otherwise. It also provides training in character and discipline that are hard to match elsewhere.

There are even signs that the professional military is reaching a clearer understanding than civilian policy-makers of the weaknesses of violence, and the strengths of non-violent approaches to conflict resolution. We may be moving toward the day when trained, disciplined soldiers will be able to move into a situation of conflict and restore civility and peace without loss of life.

That’s a day worth working for.

The military can use your research anyway, from the open literature. Why not have them pay for it?

Many things have both good and evil uses. If I create new knowledge that can be used for either good or evil, and present it and evaluate in terms of the good purposes, then someone who converts it to evil use bears that responsibility. If I present it and evaluate it in terms of the evil purpose, then I make it that much easier and more likely for it to be used for evil. I must then bear the responsibility.

This argument is not very robust against speciousness and rationalization. If I make a rapid-fire machine gun firing armor-piercing bullets, and present it and evaluate it for the sport of target- shooting, I am deceiving myself (or more likely, not). Whoever funds the work, I am responsible for anticipating who is likely to use it.

At the same time, if I develop a new scheduling methodology for industrial processes, the military is likely to benefit, since it includes many industrial processes. But peaceful economic activity will benefit more, and the military benefits only in the aspects it shares with peaceful enterprises.

Do work that makes the world a better place. The fact that the military becomes better too is not a problem.

(From a graduating senior) Should I consider military involvement when I choose a graduate school?

Probably not too much, but keep your eyes and ears open when you visit the different schools. Most top graduate schools in computer science will have substantial amounts of military funding, but most will also have faculty who are seriously concerned about the militarization of research. You should look for a balance that leads to productive discussions, rather than a “party line.”

Look for faculty members who can guide you in directions you want to go. This means looking for both intellect and integrity.

Are you ever tempted by large military grants?

Yes, of course. Recently a friend of mine, whom I respect highly, took a leadership position in a major agency, and created a research program I find enormously attractive.

After struggling with the question for several weeks, I decided that the need for testimonies like mine was becoming greater, not less, in these difficult times, so I have reluctantly passed on this possibility. Sigh.

The fact that a course of action is right does not necessarily make it easy.

What about September 11? We’re under attack!

Our country suffered horrific losses from a terrible attack. The criminal gang responsible must be brought to justice, and we must protect ourselves against possible future attacks.

However, violent actions taken in the name of defense against terrorism are very likely to increase the likelihood and magnitude of future terrorist attacks. We need a combination of short-term vigilance and protection, and long-term efforts to reduce the problems that breed terrorism, both in non-violent ways.

Muchmoretobesaidaboutthis,probablyinotheropinionpieces.

I am writing to ask for advice. I am one year away from graduating with a BS in computer science and am considering graduate school. When I started looking around my department for some research to get involved in, I was surprised to find how much of it relies on military funding. This lead me to find your essay on why you don’t take military funding. I share your views and as tempting as it is, and as much as I feel I’m missing out on some really interesting projects, I’ve decided I will not work on anything that receives military support. So, I’m hoping you can offer further advice on how and where to look for grad programs. How do I find other faculty who share this concern for the militarization of research? Will I find more options overseas? How and when do I tell prospective schools about my decision?

Let me applaud you for your principled stand. As you have surely noticed, these are times that require good people to stand up and be counted, publically.

Although I did alternative service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war, I did not decide to avoid military funding until a year after completing my PhD. I was fortunate to have obtained NSF and Danforth Fellowships that funded almost all of my graduate studies. After I became a faculty member, I got quite good at raising grants from NSF, NIH, NASA, and other places.

You will need to do similar things, just starting earlier. There are a number of competitive fellowships for graduate study that you can apply for as an individual, and carry with you to your choice of graduate school. Many of these, like the NSF, the Hertz, the Gates, etc, are very competitive. It is a big advantage in such competitions to be clear on your own beliefs and your

own priorities. Make sure you can express yourself in a clear and compelling way, and you have a significantly better chance. If you succeed in obtaining your own funding, it makes you much more desirable at top graduate programs.

A couple of useful quotes for this enterprise are, “Momma may have, and Poppa may have, but God bless the child who’s got his own!” and “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” (Look them up.)

Even if you don’t get this kind of fellowship, there are plenty of options for supporting yourself through graduate school without military funding. You can be a teaching assistant; you can be a research assistant to a faculty member with other kinds of funding; you can find work maintaining computers for a lab in another department; you can get a part-time outside job; and so on. Generally, rejecting the single largest funder will require you to be more creative about looking at other funding possibilities. This creativity will serve you well. One of the fortunate things about working in computer science is that you have a practical skill that is needed by people in many different areas, and they are often willing to pay for your services.

On finding faculty with similar beliefs, I would suggest just asking. A quick scan of each faculty member’s web page, and especially the acknowledgements on publications, will tell you where they get their funding. Find a few people whose research you find attractive who have non-military funding, and talk to them.

Personally, I find it most productive to be clear and straight-forward, without being judgmental or confrontational. You will very likely find plenty of people who are very sympathetic to your values, but who aren’t willing to make what they perceive as too large a sacrifice. In my personal opinion, it is more important to encourage people to see their choice of work, how it’s funded, and what it’s used for as an important moral decision that must reflect their own fundamental values, than to pressure them to make the same moral decisions that I have.

I doubt you will find better options overseas. I believe there is generally less funding available outside the US, and little of that would be available to a US student. There are some very fine graduate schools in other countries, but on average, the US has the best graduate schools in the world. Again, personally, I love this country, and I want my work and my life to help strengthen its good parts and help fix its problems. So I wouldn’t want to leave.

How and when to tell is another judgment call. It depends on your own style, and how vocal a testimony you want to make. You may legitimately decide that this point is not relevant on the application for graduate school, or on the other hand, you may feel that it is central. You are not obliged to explain or justify every belief you have, however strongly held or controversial, to everyone you meet. You have to decide when you think it is relevant.

A final point. I think you are doing a good and noble thing. Following this path will be demanding, and maybe quite difficult, but I believe and hope it will also be rewarding in many ways, including practical ones. However, getting the education you need to make the best use of your gifts through the rest of your life is also an important value. You should not participate in activities that you believe are morally wrong, but there may be times in your life when preparing yourself for your future takes priority over making a visible testimony. There will be time and need for that later, you can be sure.

With my best wishes, Ben Kuipers 

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Physicist William Davidon and the Media FBI break-in

 

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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

 http://theburglary.com  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, http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/32356.html

Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows. Mark Mazzetti, January 7, 2014. The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/07/us/burglars-who-took-on-fbi-abandon-shadows.html?_r=0 

Recalling Haverford professor’s role in 1971 FBI break-in. Ben Finley. January 14, 2014. The Inquirer. http://articles.philly.com/2014-01-14/news/46153180_1_fbi-agent-burglars-engineering-professor 

Burglars who took on FBI abandon shadows. Mark Mazetti  The New York Times, January 7   2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/07/us/burglars-who-took-on-fbi-abandon-shadows.html?_r=0

What new revalations about the Media, PA FBI break-in teach us about intelligence reform today   Slate  Beverly Gage  January 9, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2014/01/media_pa_fbi_break_in_revelations_what_we_can_learn_from_them_about_intelligence.html

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Chemist Bob Boikess: Condoleeza Rice should not give the Rutgers Commencement address

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Bob Boikess, Rutgers University organic chemist, was instrumental in preventing Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State under George W. Bush,  from speaking at the Rutgers University Spring 2014 commencement.

The Board of Governor’s of Rutgers University voted in February, 2014, to award an honorary Doctor of Laws degree to Condoleeza Rice, and invited her to give the Commencement speech (and receive $35,000).

Organic Chemistry Professor Bob Boikess introduced a resolution to the Rutgers University New Brunswick Faculty Council that they urge the University’s Board of Governors to rescind its invitation to speak at Commencement because of Rice’s involvement in the Iraq War. The Faculty Council approved the resolution on March 2.

But Rutgers officials refused to rescind the invitation to Ms. Rice. But the faculty resolution, and the refusal of Rutgers to disinvite Ms. Rice, was publicized in newspapers and social media across the country.

The students requested meetings with the Rutgers administration, wrote letters, filed petitions, submitted op-eds in the local and national press, but the administration refused to meet with them. Approximately 160 held a student sit-in on April 28 at the Old Queens administration building to protest Rice’s invitation. Rutgers President Robert Barchi still refused to meet with the students or to respond to letters.

Karl Rove, Senior Advisor and Chief of Staff for George Bush, objected publicly to the treatment of Rice by faculty and students, and called the Rutgers faculty and Boikess out as a “nutty organic chem professor” on Fox News, saying that the pressure against Rice was “politically motivated, poetically aimed, ideologically driven and stupid.” “Shame of the little totalitarians on the left and their faculty agent who perpetuated this.”

On May 3 Ms. Rice informed Rutgers President Robert Barchi that she had decided not to give the Commencement address.

There have been repercussions for Boikess through mail, email, and phone hate messages. His scientific “objectivity” (Aren’t we yet done with the idea that this is possible?) has been questioned, as has his science. Many faculty and students have publicly disagreed with the Faculty Senate action. But Boikess has been an activist all his life, and hate and criticism are part of the package, not important in the bigger scheme of things. The verbal attack by Karl Rove was actually a positive in the eyes of Boikess’ friends and family.

“I’m certainly not personally offended because I learned a very long time ago to ‘always consider the source,’” he said in an interview by Politico. “the senior advisor to arguably the worst president in American history is not a very reliable source.”

Boikess has been an activist since his teens, with a commitment to social justice. He was brought up to be an activist, but was only really propelled into activism by the U.S. war on Vietnam. His activism has taken different forms.

At Stony Brook University, during the duration of the Vietnam War, he was overtly antiwar. For example, when recruiters from Dow Chemical (the manufacturers of napalm) came to the Stony Brook campus to offer deferments to those who took jobs with them, Boikess and Dr. Goldfarb, both members of the Chemistry department and the Organization for Progressive Thought, held a class to discuss the chemical structure of napalm and its effects on people. While at Stony Brook, he also was also invoked in the court decision Boikess vs Aspland, which concerned faculty privacy.

He practiced academic activism through various positions in the University Senate and other campus organizations and committees. He participated in the Student Judicial process and was an advisor to several student organizations. He was also active in the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a group that functions as a union as well as a foundation and a professional organization. That Boikess is is obviously a committed member of the community and a full participant in university life has no doubt helped in being taken seriously as being someone with more than a personal agenda, and has served perhaps as some protection.

He is involved in Big Pharma and climate change issues, in which his expertise as a scientist is part of the the activism. Most of his activism has not stemmed from his research, but has gone on- side by side- with his scientific work. Bob does not feel that activism has helped or hindered in his scientific career. But he does recommend that scientists wait until after tenure to really get into activism mostly because activism takes so much time.

Bob’s bottom line for young scientists who are considering taking on controversial issues-

“If you don’t do and say what you believe to be right, you’ll regret it later.”

May 28, 2014 email interview

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Margaret Palmer: Actionable Science

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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) (http://www.peer.org), 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.

 

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Notoriety pays: Cliff Mass

Cliff mass 1 Influenced by mentors Carl Sagan and Steve Sneider, University of Washington atmospheric meteorologist Cliff Mass has always happily considered himself to be an activist. As a university professor, he already saw himself as more than a scientist in being an educator. His list of outreach activities- and especially, his very public firing by radio station KUOW – has made him quite well known in Seattle.

The reasons Cliff was fired are political and comical.

For 15 years, Cliff had a segment on public radio station KUOW, where he gave the weather forecast and discussed Pacific Northwest weather, climate, and education-related topics. His show had a large following, and audience response to his descriptions of the need for coastal radar played a large role in the establishment of that system. But then Cliff made a big mistake- he spoke about math.

Through the years, he had notice a diminution of math skills in the K-12 schools and in entering freshman at the university, which he blamed partially on the discovery math curricula that was recommended by many Schools of Education, including the University of Washington School of Education. The problem here was that the University of Washington School of Education was a big donor to KUOW. So KUOW issued a no-math warning.

Cliff complied reluctantly, having other avenues (such as a popular blog) where he could discuss math. But on another show, a Seattle Times article about the rejection of in-state A student applicants (the University of Washington is a state university) in favor of higher-paying out-of-state students came up. As a faculty member who was an undergraduate advisor with colleagues on the admissions committee, Cliff knew this urban legend to be untrue, and said so. And the next day, he was fired, primed by speaking out about math. You can read Cliff’s account of this here. http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2011/05/no-more-weather-on-kuow-weekday.html

Another radio station, KPLU, picked up Cliff’s segment, and there he enjoys free rein of expression and a larger audience. Another windfall is that many people cancelled donations to KUOW, sending them instead to Cliff, for his lab, or to KPLU. He is yet better known, and this notoriety can be very, very useful.

True citizen, Cliff is constantly involved in one civic issue after another, often controversial. As part of his crusade for better math education, Cliff has worked on the elections of 3 pro-math Seattle Public Schools board member elections, and has seen all 3 candidates win despite money poured into opponents’ elections by business interests in town.

He is also activist in his field, speaking out publicly on science issues. Early in his career he began advocating for better weather prediction in the USA, which was seen as criticism of NOAA. On April 1, H.R. 2413, The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act passed a vote in the House of Representatives and has gone to the Senate, a gratifying and long-coming result.

While a believer in anthropogenic climate change, Cliff is outraged that many people, including scientists, overhype and overstate data, and has publicly dissected scientific literature that exaggerate the data. He is particularly annoyed at scientists and media who attribute specific weather events to long term climate change. (See http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/07/15/texas-tall-tales-and-global-warming/ on the Texas heatwave and  http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2011/06/scary-snowpack-stories.html on snowpack association with climate change.)

“Careers are made and lots of research money comes to the ‘right’ position,” he says. “And the media loves global warming. But if you don’t know the facts, you can’t fight it. It isn’t worth it to do the right thing with the wrong information.”

An unfortunate side of Cliff’s responses to exaggeration is that climate change deniers quote him to demonstrate lack of scientific consensus on climate change, or even as a disbeliever. But being as honest and accurate trumps the occasional misuse of words.

(This is a very important point, and I like Cliff’s take on it. Many scientists refuse to speak with media representatives, as they fear being misquoted. This is a shortsighted fear of little actual significance. Your credibility can ultimately be more hurt by staying silent.)

Still, Cliff says, you have to protect yourself, and you can’t let activism get in the way of developing your career. He advises academics to get tenure before taking on too much controversy. Universities can, as Cliff’s did, put pressure on a faculty member because of their own vested interests, and won’t always protect their faculty in public conflicts.

Update: On June 3rd, Cliff’s choice for elementary school curriculum was voted in by the School Board, throwing over the District choice.

 

 

 

 

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Suicide- Turning grief to action.

suicide 2 On February 18, 2011, Matt Adler, a successful lawyer and father of 2 young children, killed himself.

His wife, Jennifer Stuber, was stunned. Although Matt was suffering with a dark bout of depression, he was being treated, and Jennifer assumed he was being treated thoughtfully. But when she sought Matt’s medical records to try to understand what had happened, she ran into difficulty. No one wanted to give her the records.

As Jennifer herself points out, she was in a position to find out more. An academic and sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, she had plenty of experts to consult when she finally did obtain some records. She found that the medical personnel knew Matt was a suicide risk, and actually labeled him as a “risky patient’ as a lawyer with a potential lawsuit, but did not act to prevent suicide.  7 suicide prevention experts Jennifer consulted sadly said they were sorry, but were not surprised: few mental health professionals had training in suicide prevention.

This was not acceptable. Not only had Matt’s death been avoidable, but other people would be left at risk. How could what seemed to be a systematic hole in the medical system be fixed?

As a sociologist, Jennifer had a background in policy, and knew how the legislative process worked. (Lobbyist? for what?)  In July, a time when the state legislature was in recess and representatives had time to speak locally with constituents, she made an appointment with State Representative Tina Orwell, who represented the 33rd district. Jenniifer chose Orwell because she was a social worker, and so would know of the devastating effects of suicide on families: she was also a University of Washington alumnus.

Along with Sue Eastguard, a suicide prevention advocate, and with a lawyer from her husbands firm, Jennifer met with Orwell- and after they explained to Orwell what they had learned about the treatment of people who were suicide risks, Orwell said, “Let’s work on a piece of legislation.”

The legislation was written by Orwell and her colleagues with the help of Jennifer and her collaborators and was submitted for its first reading in the House in January as HB 2366- Requiring certain health professionals to complete education in suicide assessment, treatment, and management. The bill went through the House Health Care & Wellness, was passed by the House in on Feb 10, an amended version passed by the Senate on February 28, and was the Matt Adler Suicide, Assessment, Treatment and Management Act of 2012 (ESHB) was signed into law by the Governor on March 29, 2012, not even a year after its conception and initiation.

This bill required mental health professionals to receive training every 6 years in identifying and treating those at risk for suicide, which might have saved Matt, and would undoubtedly save other people. But the more one looked at the hugeness of the impact of suicide- over 36,000 people in the USA kill themselves every year- it was clear that there were many other pipelines to stop. Washington is one of only two states (Kentucky is the other)  that require that mental  health professionals be trained in suicide prevention.

Jennifer and her collaborators, with allies Tina Orwell and other state representatives, passed 2 more bills in the next 2 years: HB 1336, Increasing the capacity of school districts to recognize and respond to troubled youth, and HB 2325, concerning suicide prevention, which requires primary care medical professionals, among others, to be trained in recognizing and treating those at risk for suicide.

It was HB 2315 that was the most difficult to pass.

Approximately 50% of people who commit suicide have been to their primary care doctor in the month before they died. Surely, training would improve knowledge of suicide and would reduced the suicide rate. There was opposition from professional organizations and lobbyists serving doctors and nurses, who protested that they did not want anyone telling them how to use their CME (Continuing Medical Education) hours. There was opposition in the Washington State Senate, as the chair of the Healthcare Committee was aligned with the medical professional associations.

Because the bill would have have more trouble in the Senate,where there was organized opposition, Forefront focused on the Senate on the February 25th 2014 Lobby Day at the state capital. In that one day, 40 people whose lives had been affected by suicide spoke with 36 state senators. This testimony, which showed the life-or-death essence of the issue, was xxxx, and an amended form of the bill was unanimously passed on March 6. The bill signing by the governor took place on March 27th, 2014, making the bill law.

3 bills through the state legislature in 3 years is astounding activist success.  What enabled this success (and what other activists can learn from this) is, according to Jennifer:

Go local!  While suicide is not just a local issue, addressing the problem in the legislature is much more efficient at the city or state level. You can more easily find collaborators with whom you can work. You know the other issues the legislators face. The local victories have great potential to become other local, or national, causes.

Follow the “textbook” of activism in policy change: Know how the system works. Take advantage of a focusing event (in this case, the suicide of Matt Aler) and run with it. Find an effective champion in the legislature, someone who is sympathetic to the issue and is effective at making and keeping coalitions. Be adept yourself at making and keeping coalitions and collaborators (Over 300 people collaborated on getting the bills through the legislature.)

Know the rules, not just in the legislature, but in the other venues of your activism. For example, Jennifer is faculty at  the University of Washington, a state school. State schools follow state rules, and the University of Washington made it clear that there could be no grass roots lobbying in class or during a “regular” 9-5 day on the issue of lobbying for suicide prevention.

Jennifer continues to work with Forefront (http://www.intheforefront.org), the non-profit organization she and Sue Eastguard began in 2013 at the University of Washington, in developing evidence-based approaches to suicide prevention. Forefront not only works on legislation for suicide prevention, but on developing and setting up suicide prevention curricula, and helping families and organizations find help in prevention of and healing from suicide.

For a more personal look at the frustration Jennifer felt at the stigma of suicide even with the health care system, and her inability to find help for her husband, see http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns-magazine/march-2014/features/stuber/  .

Know where to get help for family, yourself, co-workers.

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2015 update

Campus suicide prevention law passes

Last month, on April 23, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law SHB 1138 to create a suicide prevention task force across Washington’s 54 college campuses. The leadership of Rep. Tina Orwall and the persistence of many Forefront volunteers, some of whom lost a college-age child or a sibling to suicide, were essential to the bill’s success. Read more about the new law and the Husky Help and Hope (H3) initiative for promoting mental health and suicide prevention at the University of Washington in Faculty Director Jenn Stuber’s recent post on Forefront’s Insight Blog.

 

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