An early activity by BSSRS was at the 1970 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), held that year in Durham. BSSRS had only been founded the previous year, and had seemed set to function as a normal elite scientific pressure group. The unconventional nature of the Durham intervention was important in announcing a new kind of scientific activism, and in defining the group’s trajectory.
The intention of the intervention was to draw attention to the social dimensions of scientific activity, both in what was seen as legitimate scientific enquiry, and in terms of the social implications of scientific choices. The slogan of the BSSRS activity was “Science is Not Neutral”. BAAS was an annual jamboree attracting some thousands of mostly lay participants. The BSSRS group, about 10-strong including several children under 10 years old, stayed in 2 miners’ cottages, and had an organisational base of sorts in the University’s Sociology department.
The intervention got off to a flying start on the first evening. The President’s Address of Lord Todd was to take place in Durham Cathedral. The group had been supplied with an advance copy of the Address by a friendly journalist. Copies annotated with barbed marginal notes were distributed to the entire audience, who could be heard tuning over in unison. As the audience emerged from the Cathedral they were greeted by a street theatre performance portraying people dying of the effects of chemical and biological warfare.
Throughout the BAAS meeting, BSSRS members raised pointed questions about the non-neutrality of science with speakers who had been expecting only to address the technical aspects of their topic – and the bright lights of primed TV crews captured the exchanges. Many sessions were leafleted with a stream of relevant position papers. A rather disjointed American psychologist wrote, duplicated and handed out poems about the experience.
Finally an inaccurate and arguably defamatory internal memo from a BAAS official (whose day job was with the Chemical Industries Association) who had paid a consultant to infiltrate the summer’s planning meetings for the intervention was passed to the group. Three of those attacked in the memo initiated libel proceedings, and BSSRS terminated the intervention. Other campaigns...