Mobilize for Peace

"Young scientists, in particular, need to fight for a peaceful future." Anti-nuclear demonstration, New York City, 1982
"Young scientists, in particular, need to fight for a peaceful future." Anti-nuclear demonstration, New York City, 1982

by Jonathan King and Aron Bernstein

This editorial was published in Science Magazine, March 1, 2019

Fifty years ago, on 4 March 1969, research and teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came to a halt as students, faculty, and staff held a “research strike” for peace. The strike protested United States involvement in the Vietnam War and MIT’s complicity in this engagement through its Instrumentation Laboratory (now the Draper Laboratory), a major contracting lab for the U.S. Department of Defense. The anniversary of this activism by scientists is a reminder that the scientific community must continue to recognize its social responsibilities and promote science as a benefit for all people and for a peaceful world.

By the end of 1968, nearly 37,000 American soldiers had died in the Vietnam conflict and a draft lottery pulled about 300,000 men into the military in that year alone. In the years following the MIT strike, opposition to the U.S. role in Vietnam grew across the nation, particularly on college campuses. Academia condemned the nation’s hand in the war, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science), which, in 1972, passed a resolution denouncing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, stating that scientists and engineers did not endorse such “wanton destruction of man and environment.”

These activities arguably helped to end the Vietnam War, but what the March 4th strike did accomplish was to elevate the voices of scientists urging the use of research and technology for peaceful purposes. Indeed, some years later, as nuclear weapons proliferated and tensions escalated between the United States and the Soviet Union, scientists protested again. They helped initiate the national Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign, which brought more than 1,000,000 people to New York’s Central Park in protest in 1982. The event galvanized public support to curb the nuclear arms race, and limitations were eventually negotiated between the two nations.

Over the last 50 years, science has seen rapid growth in biotechnology, computer science, and telecommunications, among other fields. This has opened up rich arenas for applications of research and technology, and consequently, has raised ethical concerns. For example, advances in epidemiology and biochemistry identified environmental and occupational toxins and carcinogens, which engendered strong resistance from manufacturers. And in documenting accelerating climate change and the potentially devastating social and economic consequences, the scientific community has informed national and global climate policies, which have been met by resistance from sectors of the energy industry.

Such commitment and engagement must now be extended once again to the renewed danger of nuclear war. Last month, President Trump announced that the United States would pull out of the IntermediateRange Nuclear Forces Treaty, threatening a new nuclear arms race with Russia. In return, last week, President Putin issued a warning about bolstering Russia’s nuclear arms. The 1987 pact bans the development of certain ground-based missiles and has been a model treaty for arms control agreements between major powers. Withdrawing from this treaty is a threat to U.S. national security and to Europe. Congress has also supported spending $1.7 trillion over the next 25 years to upgrade land-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear missile–armed submarines, and aircraft armed with nuclear missiles and bombs.

The scientific community needs to remind the Trump administration and the public of the destructive power of atomic bombs and to communicate how federal investment in housing, health care, education, environmental protection, sustainable energy development, and basic and biomedical research will be sacrificed to build up a nuclear weapons arsenal. Young scientists, in particular, need to fight for a peaceful future. And speak out against profound misuses of resources for war. It is time to mobilize for peace in ways that powerfully promote social responsibility in science.

Jonathan A. King is professor in the Department Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, USA.

Aron Bernstein is an emeritus professor in the Department of Physics at MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA, and serves on the national advisory board of the Council for a Livable World, Washington, DC, USA.