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'Disrupting Science' Tackles 'Relevant and Rich' Research Area

Assistant professor of sociology Kelly Moore explores the political activism of mid-20th-century scientists in her latest book.

Date: 10/22/2007
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
It has been a busy, challenge-filled two years for Kelly Moore. An assistant professor of sociology, she joined the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences faculty in 2005, just before her co-edited book, "The New Political Sociology of Science," was published in 2006.

Just in time for her second A&S anniversary comes the publication of her latest book, "Disrupting Science," due out at the end of November through Princeton University Press.

In it, Moore – whose research areas are science, the environment, organizations and social movements – explores the political activism of mid-20th-century scientists. It's a topic, it turns out, she's been exploring in one way or another for years.

Kelly Moore
Kelly Moore, assistant professor of sociology


"I am fortunate to be working in a flourishing research area that is both relevant and theoretically rich," she says. "Sociologists of science are examining the effects of censorship on science, how the built and natural worlds intersect, how rules for the inclusion of minorities and women in biological research lead to unintended consequences, and the economic effects of nanotechnology, among other things. I was recently elected chair of the section on Science, Knowledge and Technology of the American Sociological Association, and this has given me an opportunity to both learn more about the diverse ways that science and technology and the social world intersect, and to help shape some of the future debates."

Q) What first drew you to this area of research?

I grew up in Rochester, N.Y., an area that was home to the reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Joseph Smith, and Frederick Douglass, among others. During the time I grew up there, there were active labor, women's, civil rights and "back-to-the-land" movements – and countermovements – taking place.

Knowledge of these groups and people shaped my intellectual interest in understanding how and why ordinary people gather together to try to collectively change the world they live in. My interest in the intersection of science and power came from coming across an old copy of a "radical science" magazine. It raised questions for me about how and why a relatively privileged group of people such as scientists would use the tactics and techniques of social movements so often used by more disenfranchised people. At a more theoretical level, this led me to ask questions about the intersections of power and knowledge, particularly about how and why scientific authority has become redistributed through markets, law, and political systems in the contemporary U.S.

Q) How did you choose your models of scientists in public political engagement for "Disrupting Science," and how much of a challenge was it to decide on, and nail down, your in-depth interviews?

A) It took me quite a while to document the varied ways in which scientists in the mid-20th-century U.S. engaged in public activities as scientists. This is in part because most conventional histories and sociologies of science treated scientists as one-dimensional people who worked in labs, and rarely ventured outside except to go home and eat.  The organizations I study in the book represent what I discovered to be the major ways (in addition to government advising) that scientists sought to move their peers into greater engagement with public political debates. As I write in the book, they self-consciously brought ever more aspects of science under political scrutiny, resulting in a shift in the way that scientific authority is used in public political debates today. Much of the work in the book is based on archival research, but the interviews were not difficult to undertake. The scientists in the book had diverse perspectives, and were usually eager to talk about their experiences. 

Q) How daring and/or dangerous were those decades for those who chose to step out and "democratize" science?

A) The end of World War II coincided with a big increase in military-sponsored scientific research. Some scientists organized groups to argue for more scientist control over research. This led to the formation of lively political and public information campaigns by scientists. Yet at the same time, scientists were under very close political scrutiny, in part because they were thought to have access to scientific "secrets" that could be used by the Soviet Union. 

They were heavily investigated by federal and state security committees.  In part as a result, all but a handful of scientists – including Albert Einstein – suddenly stopped speaking out against military-sponsored research. Those who did could expect to be investigated by security agencies and committees. By the end of the 1950s, the situation was much better, and more scientists began to raise questions about the government's claim that above-ground atomic testing produced negligible human hazards. Throughout the late 1950s and late 1960s, more scientists began to work with non-scientist groups around public political issues, but many faced opposition from their peers, who worried that the public was not capable of understanding science, or that their status would be lowered by participating in these debates. Still other scientists faced challenges from their peers for their failure to engage political issues. It was a very contentious time, and the scientists who tried to link science and public issues more closely while still preserving their authority took many risks. In the end, though, what these scientists did was to develop new models of public political activity – information provision, conscientious objection, advocacy and "under the radar" advice to citizen groups – that endure today.

Q) In today's political and social climate for U.S. scientists, how timely is your book and its conclusion?

A) Although I didn’t intend it this way, the book is coming out at a moment when there are many debates taking place about the proper relationships between science and systems of governance. I hope that one of my conclusions – that scientific research and activities are shaped in new ways by markets, law, and political systems, and are unlikely to become "autonomous" from those systems – will generate more discussion about the problems and advantages of having people other than scientists participate in debates over what kind of science should be done.

Q) You've worked on "Disrupting Science" since the beginning of your career at UC, and it came on the heels of editing "The New Political Sociology of Science." Will you dive into another book right away?

A) I have two other projects I'm engaged in at the moment.  Both are concerned with understanding how interactions among scientists, systems of governance, and the public shape the material world.  The first is a study of the creation of urban "nature-places." In this study, I seek to understand how scientists' and nonscientists' ideas about nature contribute to the creation of "natural" areas that are used for recreation, leisure and living. This study focuses on ecovillages, and on areas that have been or are being "restored" to their natural state. The second project is a study of how major 20th- and 21st-century federal nutrition guidelines attempt – not always successfully – to mold citizen bodies and engage the public as citizen scientists. This project will result in a book monograph.



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