Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded

A faculty-student strike and teach-in against university scientific research focused primarily on military technology instead of environmental and social concerns resulted in the founding of the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS. Although better known for its work in nuclear safety and arms control, the organization also addresses global warming, pollution, and genetic engineering, among other problems.

Summary of Event

In December, 1968, two graduate students of Kurt Gottfried, who was at the time a visiting professor from Cornell at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), showed him a proclamation they had drawn up protesting U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy, in particular the coopting of university research efforts in military technology. The students called for a research strike to dramatize their concerns. Union of Concerned Scientists
Nuclear weapons;disarmament
Nuclear energy;safety concerns
[kw]Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded (Mar. 4, 1969)
[kw]Scientists Is Founded, Union of Concerned (Mar. 4, 1969)
Union of Concerned Scientists
Nuclear weapons;disarmament
Nuclear energy;safety concerns
[g]North America;Mar. 4, 1969: Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded[10220]
[g]United States;Mar. 4, 1969: Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded[10220]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 4, 1969: Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded[10220]
[c]Science and technology;Mar. 4, 1969: Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded[10220]
[c]Environmental issues;Mar. 4, 1969: Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded[10220]
[c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 4, 1969: Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded[10220]
Gottfried, Kurt
Feshbach, Herman
Kendall, Henry W.
Weisskopf, Victor

Gottfried reworked their statement into a form that he thought “might be acceptable to the more senior faculty” and presented it to Herman Feshbach and Francis Low Low, Francis , both members of MIT’s physics faculty. As Gottfried put it, the statement “struck a chord: the Vietnam fiasco was at its apogee, Johnson’s decision to deploy an ABM system was seen as yet another disaster, and Nixon had just been elected president.”

Within a short time, a large number of science students and faculty signed what came to be called the Faculty Statement, and plans for a day-long research stoppage and teach-in on March 4, 1969, were promulgated by the Science Action Coordinating Committee Science Action Coordinating Committee , a student group, and the nascent Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Although much of UCS’s early activity centered on nuclear power and weaponry, the Faculty Statement made it clear at the outset that this was only part of UCS’s concern, which also included examination of federal policy “in areas where science and technology are of actual or potential significance,” and redirection of research “away from the present emphasis on military technology toward the solution of pressing environmental and social problems.” In fact, the first major effort of UCS’s environmental committee was an investigation of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s performance in air pollution control, meat inspections, and pesticide regulation, which captured public attention and brought about changes in the department’s operations.

Nuclear safety and arms control, however, are the issues for which the organization is probably best known. In the mid-1970’s, two of UCS’s members, Henry W. Kendall and Dan Ford Ford, Dan , developed a plan that proved to be a boon to reporters who could not counter the assurances of government scientists that the nuclear power industry was safe and well managed. Using the Freedom of Information Act Freedom of Information Act (1967) , Kendall and Ford turned up documents showing that the Atomic Energy Commission Atomic Energy Commission, U.S.;corporate regulation had covered up news about technological failures in the industry. Subsequent investigative reporting by The New York Times and others led to tightening of regulation.

For many years, UCS has monitored the physical condition of the aging nuclear power plants as well as the performance of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nuclear Regulatory Commission (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission). UCS investigations exposed safety hazards at the Yankee Rowe plant in Massachusetts and the Trojan plant in Oregon and ultimately led to their closings in 1992 and 1993, respectively. UCS also provided expert advice in the investigations following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 and provided information to the public after Chernobyl in 1986.

UCS arms control efforts began with the organization’s resistance to the antiballistic missile (ABM) program and reached their height during the 1980’s with the fight against the B-2 (Stealth) bomber, and above all, with opposition to the Strategic Defense Initiative Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or Star Wars) program announced in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald . In the end, both proponents and critics claimed victory, but SDI was reduced from an enormous deployment of hardware to a small, relatively inexpensive research program, before being revived in the 1990’s and early twenty-first century, when fears of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union eased with its collapse but emerged again with concerns about attacks by rogue states and terrorists.

UCS’s range of environmental concerns include renewable energy sources, conservation and efficient use of existing energy sources, and transportation planning as related to energy use, among other things. It is also concerned with global climate and greenhouse gas emission, sustainable agriculture and biotechnology, and even environmentally conscious architecture. UCS’s own recently constructed headquarters building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one example of this type of “eco-friendly” architecture.


UCS has functioned over the years principally as a source of information, evaluation, and legislative advocacy. Its program of physical, on-site inspection of nuclear power plants is a rare exception to UCS’s usual occupation of gathering and presenting information, which is carried out at all conceivable levels. UCS members receive, in addition to the quarterly magazine Nucleus, regular briefing papers, fact sheets, and action guides on topics of ongoing concern, such as the global environmental crisis; U.S. consumption and the environment; women, population, and the environment; population, development, and the environment; and actions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that affect developing economies and the impact of these actions on the environment. UCS’s membership of more than 100,000 is mobilized to provide input in environmental matters on an increasingly global scale.

In one of its more striking efforts, UCS organized an arms control satellite summit in 1986, in which U.S. scientists and policy makers faced their counterparts in Great Britain, West Germany, and the Soviet Union to discuss positions and principles via international television hookups. This type of international conference has also been applied to UCS’s global warming campaign.

Approximately 20 percent of UCS’s members are physical scientists. Other members represent academe, many from the social sciences, and a sizable proportion from the humanities. Critics have suggested that, for this reason, the name of the organization is misleading and that UCS cannot legitimately claim to speak for the scientific community. To this objection, former board chairman Kendall presented a two-point rebuttal: First, he said, “We’ve been very careful to make clear what we do and who our supporters are. Our statements are carefully drafted and circulated within the scientific community for support.” Further, he noted, although research must remain neutral, the problems that science raises within society affect everyone, and “scientists are the best people to address” those problems when they are technical in nature. Indeed, he added, “they have an obligation to do so.”

UCS’s concerns have changed over the years. For nearly twenty-five years, the primary activity centered on nuclear matters, both energy production and weapons; in the mid- to late 1980’s, arms control consumed as much as three-fourths of the UCS budget. Later, the emphasis shifted toward worldwide negative and positive effects of technology. Union of Concerned Scientists
Nuclear weapons;disarmament
Nuclear energy;safety concerns

Further Reading

  • Bethe, Hans A., et al. Space-Based Ballistic Missile Defense. Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 1984. The original report from which the article and book that follow were derived.
  • Bethe, Hans A., Richard L. Garwin, Kurt Gottfried, and Henry W. Kendall. “Space-Based Ballistic Missile Defense.” Scientific American 251 (October, 1984): 39-49. Article-length version of the anti-SDI report.
  • Hively, William. “Profile: Union of Concerned Scientists.” American Scientist 76 (1988): 18-20. A brief but informative picture of UCS when it was emerging from the SDI debate and on the verge of broadening its self-defined mission to include global technology.
  • Kendall, Henry W. A Distant Light: Scientists and Public Policy. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2000. Written by former UCS board chair, this collection outlines the challenges faced by scientists who are politically active especially on issues of science and public policy.
  • Lochbaum, David. Walking a Nuclear Tightrope: Unlearned Lessons of Year-plus Reactor Outages. Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2006. A brief report that discusses “extended nuclear power reactor outages” and outlines how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can avoid a catastrophic nuclear accident.

  • Nucleus 16 (Spring, 1994). This entire issue is devoted to a brief history and reminiscences of founders and present-day researchers on the occasion of UCS’s twenty-fifth anniversary.
  • Tirman, John, ed. The Fallacy of Star Wars. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. One of the books that started the SDI controversy, based on studies by UCS members Richard L. Garwin, Kurt Gottfried, and Henry W. Kendall.
  • Union of Concerned Scientists. http://www.ucsusa.org. The organization’s Web site includes outlines of its history and mission and a wealth of information on science, technology, the environment, and nuclear energy, among other topics, in general.
  • Watson, Traci. “Petition Warns of Pending Global Environmental Crisis.” Nature 360 (November 19, 1992): 200. A brief description and discussion of the “Warning to Humanity” issued by UCS and signed by scientists, including ninety-nine Nobel laureates, from around the world.

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