How Physicists Can Help the Public Make Better Decisions About Science and Technology – Historical Background

Joel R. Primack
University of California, Santa Cruz

I am very grateful to have been recognized by the Leo Szilard Award for a crucial role in establishing the Congressional Science Fellowships. My Szilard Lecture at the 2016 April meeting started with the historical background on that and some related science policy activities, and then discussed how individual scientists and our professional societies like the APS and the AAAS can do more to create a scientifically responsible future. My entire talk and slides are online [1]. The present article is about my involvement in the “public interest science” movement that led in the 1970s to the creation of the Forum on Physics and Society, the APS public policy studies, and other things in addition to the Congressional Science Fellowships. At the end I discuss how the world of science policy has changed and some new approaches that I think are needed. My Back Page article in the July 2016 APS News discusses these suggestions in more detail.

As a Physics graduate student at Stanford in the late 1960s I became involved in campus activism. This was the same period during which there were major demonstrations at Stanford against the Vietnam War and against military research on campus, including occupation of labs where such research was done. These actions helped end classified research on campus. I participated in some of these demonstrations although not the occupations. In 1967-69 I had been one of the two graduate student resident assistants in the first co-ed dorm at Stanford University. The students who lived there included France Cordova, who is now director of the National Science Foundation. France credits an informal course I led there for awakening her interest in Physics. I was also elected as leader of the Stanford grad students in the implementation of a major faculty and student effort in that led to significant changes in undergraduate education.

I admired the activism of the students, but I thought that Stanford students should use their brains as well as their bodies to cause social and political change. I worked on this mainly with my friends Joyce Kobayashi, who was elected as a co-president of the Stanford student body 1969-70, and Bob Jaffe, another Stanford Physics grad student who like me had been a Princeton undergraduate. We organized ten Stanford classes offered in fall 1969 for credit, taught by grad students as well as Stanford faculty members. The goal of each class was to improve the world as well as to educate the participants. There were classes on computers and privacy, research policy, national and local environmental issues, and other topics. We called this program Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues (SWOPSI). In order to have increased flexibility and to secure the cooperation of the Stanford administration, we wrote a proposal to the Ford Foundation, which gave us $40,000; these funds paid for publication of the studies resulting from the SWOPSI classes for several years, and SWOPSI continued at Stanford for twenty years.

We advertised these SWOPSI classes in a pamphlet that we distributed in the same sign-up process that was used for all the other Stanford classes in those days. All the SWOPSI classes attracted large numbers of students — and some attracted far more students than we expected. The largest number was for a class on Arms Control and Disarmament that was co-led by Prof. Wolfgang "Pief" Panofsky, who was then director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and one of the U.S. government's top advisors on these issues. More than 100 students wanted to take this class, which is still team-taught at Stanford every year. Ultimately this course led to the creation of the Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), which has become an internationally important institution. Bob Jaffe’s and my PhD advisor, theorist Sid Drell, then SLAC deputy director, was also a top Presidential advisor on these issues, and he subsequently co-led this center.

The Congressional Science Fellowship program grew out of another of the first SWOPSI courses, which I organized and led with Bob Jaffe, Frank von Hippel, and Martin Perl in 1969-70 [2]. Our workshop was focused on improving U.S. decision-making on science and technology issues. One of our projects was to prepare a questionnaire for Congress, which we got California Senator Alan Cranston and Berkeley Representative Jeffrey Cohelan to circulate. Of the several ideas we suggested, the two that were most popular with Senators and Representatives were a science advisory agency for Congress (much like the Office of Technology Assessment, created in 1972), and a fellowship program for scientists serving for a year on Congressional staffs.

Our workshop wrote an analysis of the Congressional questionnaire, and Frank von Hippel and I wrote a more general report, The Politics of Technology. I then set out to try to get our recommendations implemented while I began my scientific career. When I was a Harvard Junior Fellow 1970-73, Senior Fellow Ed Purcell was very supportive of these ideas, and as President of the APS in 1970 he got me appointed to relevant committees of APS and AAAS [3]. I sought out other receptive officers of these organizations, and worked with other young activists. Among my important allies in the effort to create the Congressional Science Fellowship program were AAAS Treasurer William T. Golden and Carleton College physics professor Barry M. Casper (who was also an early leader of the APS Forum on Physics and Society).

Bill Golden challenged me to give him a list of Senators and Representatives who would like to host a Fellow, and a list of excellent young scientists who were interested in applying for such a program. Although I was initially hesitant to employ the buddy system to do the latter, I did as he asked. The three people that I recruited — physicists Ben Cooper and Michael Telson and biologist Jessica Tuchman [Mathews] — became members of the first group of AAAS and APS Congressional Science Fellows. Golden responded by writing a personal check to provide initial funding for the AAAS Congressional Fellowship program, and he persuaded the AAAS leadership to support it [4].

At that time the entire Congressional staff included only two PhD physicists, John Andelin and J. Thomas Ratchford. I had consulted them, among many others including several members of Congress, in designing the program. A supportive 1973 Physics Today editorial pointed out that “A modest-size business corporation faced with making million-dollar decisions typically has more specialists in science and technology on its staff than are available to Congressional Committees reaching decisions on billion-dollar questions.” One of my arguments for establishing the Congressional Fellowship program was that it would give scientists experience and connections that could empower them to succeed in a wide variety of careers. APS Executive Secretary Bill Havens was initially hard to convince, but he ultimately became one of the strongest supporters of the Congressional Science Fellowship program – and APS joined with AAAS and other professional societies in initiating the program. Havens was persuaded that it would be a good thing for APS to help legitimize activities for physicists other than traditional research in universities and industry.

The career paths of the several thousand Congressional Science Fellows have indeed been diverse. Rush Holt went on to serve in the State Department and as deputy director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. From 1999 to 2015 Rush was the Congressman from the New Jersey district that includes Princeton, and he is now the AAAS CEO. Others went on to serve on Congressional staffs or in the Executive Branch, and many others are at universities or laboratories, in industry, on professional society staffs, and at public interest organizations. AAAS helps to place the Congressional Science Fellows and provides orientation to the new Fellows each year. The Congressional Fellows were the beginning of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship programs, which now place about 300 fellows per year in all branches of the federal government.

In addition to the Congressional Fellowship program, during the same period I also helped to organize the Forum on Physics and Society. I suggested the name “Forum” when Bill Havens thought that “Division” should apply only to Physics fields. Now the APS also has forums on Education, Graduate Student Affairs, History of Physics, Industrial and Applied Physics, International Physics, and Outreach and Engaging the Public.

I also played a major role in starting the APS’s program of studies on public policy issues. These are important because other organizations including the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council do authoritative studies, but the APS studies are initiated by scientists rather than government agencies. It started when, on a visit to the Institute for Advanced Study to give a seminar about my research with Harvard colleagues Tom Appelquist and Helen Quinn, and with Ben Lee and Sam Treiman, on what is now called the standard model of particle physics, I also gave another seminar about the safety of nuclear power reactors. I was working on that then with Henry Kendall, a SLAC and MIT physicist and Union of Concerned Scientists co-founder who later shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics. Freeman Dyson was in the audience; he initially disagreed that reactor safety was a concern, but he invited me to explain the background during a long walk in the Einstein woods behind the Institute for Advanced Study. At a meeting at Los Alamos in 1973 to discuss initiating APS policy studies, Dyson and I drafted the proposal for the first of these studies, on Light Water Reactor Safety, and in 1974 I led the group that obtained funding for this study from NSF director Guyford Stever. Among the most ambitious of the subsequent APS studies were those on Energy Efficiency (1975, 2008), Directed Energy Weapons (1987), and Boost-Phase Missile Defense (2004) [5].

In creating enduring social innovations like SWOPSI, the Congressional Science Fellowship Program, the APS studies, and also the AAAS Science and Human Rights program [6], I have found that the first requirement is that it be “spherically sensible” – it has to make sense from everyone’s perspective [7]. The Congressional Fellowship program, for example, benefited Congress, the fellows themselves, their professional societies, as well as their scientific professions and the larger national interest. The second requirement is to recruit excellent people. Dick Scribner, the initial director of the Congressional Science Fellowship Program, played a crucial role in steering the program through its difficult first years – and the Fellows themselves were superb. The final requirement is that initiators like me get out of the way! It is essential that the people who do all the hard work have managerial responsibility and get credit for their successes.

In 1974, Frank von Hippel and I published a book, Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena [8]. Our goal was to improve decisions on technology by improving both advice (from scientists to government) and dissent (policy advocacy by scientists and their organizations). We presented many case studies of technological issues – anti-ballistic missiles, the supersonic transport plane, cyclamates, persistent pesticides, chemical and biological warfare, nuclear reactor safety. We concluded that insider scientific advisors can tell government officials how to do better what they have already decided to do, but that turning government decisions around usually requires outsider activism.

The basic premise of the “public interest science” movement [2,8] was that the solution was providing improved knowledge (for example, through studies) and expertise (for example, Congressional Science Fellows). To help people throughout the country get access to policy-relevant scientific knowledge and expertise, Frank von Hippel and I worked with Senator Ted Kennedy to create the NSF Science for Citizens program, which began in 1977. Several thousand scientists have now become what former Presidential Science Advisor Neal Lane [9] called “civic scientists.” Democratic decision-making on technological issues certainly improved as a result.

But despite all these efforts, the U.S. has continued to have difficulty addressing the crucial technological challenges of our time, including human-caused global climate change and species extinction. Ever since about 1800, the doubling time for human production of carbon dioxide and other industrial waste products has been about 30 years. In the next thirty years or so, humanity must somehow stop this exponential growth in resource use, and develop a sustainable relationship with the earth. During the past century, the number of people on our planet increased by about a factor of four, but our energy consumption increased by an order of magnitude. Our collective impact on planetary systems is now so great that this growth in resource use must slow very quickly, despite the increasing global industrialization as a larger fraction of the world’s people improve their lives. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand the dangers of exponential growth.

Frank von Hippel and I wrote Advice and Dissent during the Nixon administration, and after President Nixon abolished the President’s Science Advisory Committee, we thought things couldn’t get worse. We did not foresee that the Republican Party would come to wage a war on science and other independent sources of truth. Among the first things that Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congressional majority did when they came to power in 1995 was to abolish the Office of Technology Assessment and the NSF Science for Citizens Program, and fire the only astronomer who ever headed the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Martin Harwit. Twenty years later the attack on science has only gotten worse. Organizations funded by the fossil fuel industry loudly circulate false claims. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, claims that global warming is a “hoax.” And Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump appears to have no regard at all for truth.

We also did not foresee that people’s religious and political identities would increasingly determine their views on scientific issues like human caused climate change — and that in the digital era people increasingly get information from sources, including social media, that confirm their prejudices.

The “public interest science” paradigm presumed general recognition of the privileged status of science as a source of reliable information. Today scientists need to work harder to justify this claim. Among other things, we need to explain better how science works, and the different status of scientific claims in different areas. For example, everyone is aware that claims regarding which foods and even medicines are good for you have changed dramatically. This is partly because rigorous health studies are hard to do, and also partly because much of the research is supported by companies that have large stakes in the outcomes so that results are often selectively reported [10]. Moreover, some prominent scientists, for example physicist Frederick Seitz, National Academy president 1962-1969, became what historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway call “merchants of doubt” [11], attacking the scientific basis for regulating everything from cigarette smoking to ozone to carbon dioxide, claiming in every case that “the science is unsettled so action is premature.” Such efforts unfortunately continue to work: only about one in ten Americans understands that nearly all climate scientists are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening.

To combat anti-science propaganda, individual scientists need to become better at explaining our research and also the scientific basis of public policy choices. Excellent science reporting can help, but scientists themselves — particularly diverse and articulate ones — are needed to explain the scientific background for important issues. We need human examples, demonstrating by their presence how a scientist thinks and acts. The APS and other professional societies should encourage this by establishing new annual awards to recognize exemplary efforts of this sort by scientists at all stages of their careers.

The present era seems to be ripe for student involvement in hopeful causes. Scientists at colleges and universities can encourage and help our students to organize a new generation of SWOPSIs — “Science Workshops on Social and Political Issues” – to study important issues and help improve the world.

When scientists become advocates, their colleagues and the public may perceive them as biased. But scientists have a right to express their convictions and work for social change, and these activities need not undercut rigorous commitment to objectivity in research. But beware that it can be counterproductive for scientists to advocate about personal issues like atheism at the same time as public policy issues. If scientists imply that people have to choose between science and religion, most Americans will not choose science. And it’s often a false choice, since many religiously affiliated scientists and non-scientists interpret scriptures metaphorically [12].

Don’t be discouraged by the tremendous challenges we face. Feynman advised that in choosing projects, we should maximize the product of (importance) x (probability of success), and it is important not to underestimate the probability of success!



2. Jaffe is now Morningstar Professor of Physics at M.I.T., and he was chair of the M.I.T. faculty 1992-95. Perl received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1995 for the discovery of the tau lepton. von Hippel, a theoretical physicist, was for many years chairman of the Federation of American Scientists. From 1993 to 1994, he was the Assistant Director for National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is now Professor of Public and International Affairs and co¬-director of the Program on Science and Global Security in the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. One product of our Stanford workshop was an article: Martin Perl, Joel Primack, and Frank von Hippel, “Public Interest Science – An Overview,” Physics Today, vol. 27, no. 6, pp. 23-31 (June 1974). I helped to organize a conference on “Public Interest Science” that was held September 7-9, 1973, at the Snowbird Ski Resort in Alta, Utah; a report on the conference is in Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Nov. 1973), pp. 10-12.

3. During this period I served on the APS Committee on Problems of Physics and Society, 1970 71; Forum on Physics and Society Organizing Committee, 1971; APS Nominating Committee, 1971 72; Committee on the Future of the APS, 1972; Ad hoc APS AIP Committee, 1972 73; APS Committee on Summer Studies in Energy, 1973; AIP Committee on Physics and National Problems, 1973 74; and the Forum on Physics and Society Executive Committee, 1974 76. Also on the AAAS Youth Council, 1972.

4. For more on the early years of the program, including analysis of the impacts on Congress, the fellows, and their professional societies, see Jeffrey K. Stine, Twenty Years of Science in the Public Interest: A History of the Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship Program (AAAS, Washington, DC, 1994).

5. Some APS reports are at, including those on Reactor Safety, Directed Energy Weapons, and Boost-Phase Missile Defense. Reports of the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) are listed at In addition to helping manage major studies and reports, POPA also does smaller studies. I served on POPA 2002-04 and I organized and chaired the APS special committee that in 2004 wrote a critical APS report on President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration

6. At the first meeting of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility in 1976, I pointed out that human rights of scientists were then under attack both in the USSR and in Argentina. This led to my initiating the AAAS program on Science and Human Rights.

7. In testifying against the proposed Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system, physicist Marvin (“Murph”) Goldberger said that it was “spherically senseless. It makes no sense no matter how you look at it.”

8. Joel R. Primack and Frank von Hippel, Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena (Basic Books, 1974; New American Library, 1976), online at

9. In his article “Benjamin Franklin, Civic Scientist” (Physics Today, October 2003), Lane defined a civic scientist as one who uses his or her special scientific knowledge and skills to influence policy and inform the public.

10. David H. Freedman, Lies, Damn Lies, and Medical Science, The Atlantic (November 2010), John P. A. Ioannidis, How to Make More Published Research True, PLOS Medicine (October 21, 2014),

11. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

12. The book A God That Could Be Real (Beacon Press, 2015) by my wife, Nancy Ellen Abrams, with forewords by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and physicist Paul Davies, suggests a new way of thinking about God that is fully compatible with science.

Joel Primack

Joel R. Primack

Ed Purcell

Ed Purcell
Professor of Physics & Senior Fellow, Harvard
Nobel Prize 1952

Barry Casper

Barry M. (Mike) Casper
Professor of Physics, Carleton College
Co-Organizer APS
Congressional Science Fellowship Program

William Golden

William T. Golden
AAAS Treasurer

Henry Kendall

Henry W. Kendall
Professor of Physics, MIT
UCS Founder, Nobel Prize 1990

Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson
Institute for Advanced Studies

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.