Alice Bell is a London-based freelance writer focusing on the politics of science and technology. She has degrees in the history of science and sociology of education, as well as a PhD in science communication.
She was previously Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College where she also set up an interdisciplinary course on climate change. She’s also worked as a bookseller, as Head of Public Engagement at the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit, and setting fire to bubbles in the children’s galleries at the Science Museum.
What is your feature about?
I looked at the Radical Science Movement. Active in the 1970s, they asked questions about the role scientists played in war, pollution and inequality, as well as how science itself might be reformed to be less sexist, for example, or better at communicating with the public.
The UK end of this centred around a group called called the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. It all sounds quite establishment — and, indeed, the inaugural meeting was held at the Royal Society, with all sorts of the great and the good present — but this were a bit of a front group for something much more radically left wing. As one of their members told me, they were the scientific wing of the revolution. They wanted to change the world, and felt we needed to change science as part of that. They loved science, but didn’t like how scientific energies were being applied, and wanted to change that.
What did you learn that you didn't expect?
I guess it was discovering they existed in the first place. I’ve worked in the politics of science since I was a teenager but hadn’t heard of them until a couple of years ago. We were clearing out an old library at the University of Sussex and a colleague turned up at my office with a load of slightly faded magazines called Science for People and manifestos for this thing called the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. “You might be interested in this” he said, muttered something about how the Americans had a slightly different approach from the Brits, and wondered off.
Honestly, I cringed, expecting it to be some stuffy attempt to explain science to the uneducated masses. I’ve seen a lot of publications like that, they’re well meaning, but usually pretty crass. I was wrong. The magazines were honestly trying to open up debate on science. It was also openly political, which I’m not used to seeing in scientific debate. And they were funny! The pages were full of jokes and cartoons, poking fun at the scientific establishment.
Intrigued, I started to dig around and find out more about who these people were, and where they went. The best bit was talking to people who’d been involved, hearing the life stories, ideas and arguments behind what had ended up printed in the magazines, and how diverse they were. I soon realised that, although the organisation had largely dissipated, they had quietly had quite a bit of impact, and several of their fights are still relevant today. Whether you're relieved or disappointed that the revolution they called for never happened, we can learn a lot from tracing their story.
Read Alice’s feature in Mosaic, publishing 27 January 2015.