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Fifty years ago this week, a sizable fraction of the students and faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, abetted by their colleagues at Harvard University and other institutions in the Boston area, participated in an event that a number of us had been working very hard for months to organize. It was identified by the date of its occurrence, March 4, and, as part of the protest against the Vietnam War then engulfing the nation, was a day on which scientists stopped their research to examine their role in the war effort and the broader social context in which they were immersed. In commemoration, MIT Press has just issued a 50th anniversary edition of March 4: Scientists, Students and Society, which reprints all the speeches, by students and eminent scientists alike, that were at the core of the March 4 event.

The March 4 movement at MIT began, in the fall of 1968, with a conversation in a smoke-filled room among three physics graduate students. Anyone familiar with the history of the period knows that activism, especially anti-Vietnam War activism, was in the air. The question before the three participants was, what role could MIT play? The answer that emerged: hold a research strike. Scientists should withhold their service from the government, and especially the military, until the war came to an end.

Of the three of us, only one, Ira Rubenzahl, was actually an MIT student. The other two, Joel Feigenbaum and myself, were visiting from Cornell University because our adviser, Kurt Gottfried, was on sabbatical at MIT. We recruited a fourth student, Jonny Kabat (now Kabat-Zinn) to help us branch out into biology. At first we thought the event should happen in January, but it soon became clear that we needed more time. The specific date, March 4, was chosen for its exhortatory quality, attested by the slogan “March 4th is a movement, not a day.”

There was a lot of support for our idea among the faculty, although the two groups, students and faculty, diverged both temperamentally and substantively. Rather quickly the movement spawned two independent groups, the Science Action Coordinating Committee (SACC), run by the students, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), for the faculty.

One bone of contention between students and faculty was whether to call the effort a strike, a word that, for some, was too fraught with threats of confrontation. The faculty drafted a statement that effectively set the parameters for the March 4 event.

Instead of a bona fide strike, it was to be a one-day research stoppage, during which participants would gather to examine the involvement of science in the war effort and discuss how scientists could take action to end the war. Broader issues were also on the table, related to how society in general and the university in particular needed to change.

The strike versus one-day work stoppage issue became public in an unexpected way. One of my responsibilities was handling media relations for SACC. I had been working with Bryce Nelson of Science magazine, promising him a scoop on March 4 if he would hold the story until we were ready to go public. But then we got word that a local paper was about to break the story, so I contacted Nelson and told him he’d better get his story into print quickly, which he did -- but the person who wrote the headline used the word “strike.” General consternation. Three eminent MIT professors hurriedly wrote a letter to Science explaining that no, March 4 was not a strike, but rather a day of discussion and contemplation.

Incidents of this kind fed the inherent wariness between students and faculty. The students were inspired by the general societal unrest (it helps to remember that the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the disruptions of the Democratic convention in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon were all recent events) whereas the faculty leaders knew that many of their colleagues would participate only if March 4 was billed as a day of discussion and not of overt protest. Some of the faculty were very encouraging to us. Others were openly hostile; at one meeting, a professor of chemistry wagged his finger at me across the table and accused me of outright lying.

March 4 the day was snowy and cold, but Kresge Auditorium was full nonetheless. The program, which had begun the evening before and which also spilled over to the following weekend at different venues, was a mix of eminent faculty and various panels composed both of students and faculty. A goal of the students was to use March 4 to build an ongoing political movement. My involvement with the media, who were there in considerable numbers, meant that I did not have much time to sit and listen to the speakers. I remember Hans Bethe beginning his talk on the futility of the antiballistic missile program saying something like “you have been protesting against the ABM; I’m here to tell you why” and thinking that, although accurate, it was somewhat demeaning to his audience.

I thought that, after March 4, SACC would continue as an important vehicle for student activism, whereas UCS would likely wither away as faculty members returned to their laboratories and classrooms. As it turned out, the exact opposite was true. SACC did survive for a few more months but dissipated as students graduated and moved away. By late spring, I was back at Cornell, working on finishing my thesis and planning ahead to a postdoctoral position.

Meanwhile, UCS benefited from the dedicated leadership of Henry Kendall and Kurt Gottfried, who shepherded it through its early years and helped to develop it into the influential organization that it still is today.

My year at MIT was devoted almost exclusively to politics; I made close to zero progress on my thesis work.

But it was personally valuable in many other ways. I met large numbers of students (including my future wife) and faculty across the entire institute, which would never have been possible if I had stuck to my alleged purpose for being there. Normally graduate students would see their advisers by appointment and wait their turn at the office door. But we marched into meetings with faculty for serious discussions as equals. We didn’t seize buildings, as happened on other campuses, but it was a time when the organizational hierarchy was unusually flat. Whether justified by hindsight or not, we students felt that the tide of history was with us. I was fortunate to be part of that remarkable time, even though, with the passage of 50 years, I can’t be as confident as we were then of the lasting significance of what we achieved.

Today’s political climate has given renewed intensity to the question of the role of science and scientists in public life, awakening distant memories of March 4, not just as a historical event but also as a precursor of current relevance. To my mind, though, there are key differences. The feeling in 1969 was that scientists were complicit in a great evil, and the thrust of March 4 was how to change it. Science itself was not under siege -- the Cold War was in full swing, and the moon landing was only a few months away. Scientists were respected and in great demand. The one-day research stoppage was meant as, at least, a symbolic warning that the nation would suffer if scientists withdrew their support.

Fifty years on, however, science really is under siege. Politicians routinely disregard scientific evidence, most prominently in the area of climate change. Scientists face an inherent disadvantage when they engage in political debate. If they tell the truth, they lose sharpness and focus, because scientific truth is always accompanied by disclaimers about probability and possible sources of error. If they try to match the fervor of their opponents, they sacrifice their credibility. Some years ago the American Physical Society issued a statement referring to the evidence for anthropogenic climate change as “incontrovertible” and were upbraided by climate skeptics for ever using that word in a scientific argument. The statement was sheepishly toned down.

The lesson of March 4 is the perhaps obvious one, that a scientist’s work has impact far beyond the laboratory walls, and that scientists need to participate as responsible citizens in the issues of the day. But the tactics and strategies that seemed relevant in 1969 are not the ones that will help extricate us from our current predicament.

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