About: History & Archives
150 Years of Advancing Science: A History of AAAS
AAAS and the Maturing of American Science: 1941-1970
In December 1947, the Council passed a resolution calling on the president of AAAS to appoint a Special Committee on Civil Liberties of Scientists. The committee's report, submitted in December 1948, contained a strong statement on the importance of open communication in science and on the dangers of "loyalty" tests for scientists in the federal government. Its conclusions and recommendations were published in Science in August 1949.
Kirtley Mather's 1953 presidential address, "The Common Ground of Science and Politics," was one of the most memorable of the period. At the height of McCarthyism, Mather, a geologist, chose to speak out not, as was traditional, on developments in his field, but on the problems of intellectual freedom, freedom to travel, and the need for science and scientists to be independent from politics.
The choice of Atlanta for the 1955 meeting sparked controversy because the city remained deeply segregated. AAAS assured members that all sessions would be open to all races. However, some members insisted that African-American scientists would still have to contend with segregation in dining, lodging and transportation and argued that the AAAS had a moral obligation to boycott Atlanta. Others, including anthropologist Margaret Mead (the first woman elected to the AAAS Board and later 1975 AAAS president), argued for the importance of "using the local opportunity to protest" segregation. The meeting was held in Atlanta without incident. Afterward, the AAAS Council adopted a resolution calling for future annual meetings to be held in places where members would be able to associate freely regardless of race or creed.
During the Cold War AAAS became an important forum for issues of scientific responsibility. A Board-appointed Committee on Science in the Promotion of Human Welfare took on some of these difficult issues. Led by activist-biologist Barry Commoner, and involving Margaret Mead and others, the committee, in 1960, issued a report on "Science and Human Welfare," that received front-page coverage in the New York Times. The following year it issued a "statement of conscience" about the relationship between science and war, calling for the establishment of a new "science of human survival."
Following a resolution introduced at the 1966 Pacific Division meeting, AAAS established a commission to investigate the ecological effects of herbicides in Vietnam. In August 1970, a team of four, led by Harvard molecular biologist Matthew Meselson, went to Vietnam for five weeks. Their report, presented at the 1970 AAAS meeting, documented destruction on a much wider scale than had been previously reported. During the meeting, the White House announced that it was phasing out use of defoliants in Vietnam. One member of the audience was moved to describe the report as "the greatest service the AAAS has ever performed for the human race."