20 years of Scientists for Global Responsibility

Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) was formed in the UK in 1992, from the merger of several smaller groups concerned with science, technology and peace issues. Since then it has grown in size and influence – with other organisations also becoming part of the SGR ‘family’. It has undertaken a wide variety of activities to promote more ethical science and technology – from publishing groundbreaking reports on military and corporate influence on science and technology to playing a leading role in ‘The Climate Train to Kyoto’. This article traces the journey.

21 June 2012

SGR’s roots

SGR’s roots go back to the early 1980s, when tensions between NATO and the Soviet bloc were growing following the election of US President Ronald Reagan, and concerns about the possibility of nuclear war once again became widespread. With scientists and technologists being at the heart of the military machine – but also being key in helping society to understand and challenge the threat that humanity faced – concerned professionals in the UK and elsewhere started to form groups to assist the peace and anti-nuclear movements in their campaigns.

The formation of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA) was a typical example of this trend. In 1981, Open University professor of physics Mike Pentz placed an advert in the New Scientist for a conference to found a new scientific organisation to help challenge the threat of nuclear war. Over 100 people attended and the organisation quickly grew in size. SANA and its various working groups went on to publish numerous briefings and booklets about the scientific and technical issues – in particular, challenging the official government information on the extent of the threats. Perhaps most famous was the book, London after the Bomb, which examined the devastation that London would suffer should a nuclear attack be launched on the city. The book became a best-seller, with about 28,000 copies sold. Another working group exposed the illegal transfer of material from Britain’s nuclear power plants to its nuclear weapons programme. SANA also attracted support from leading scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Nobel Prize winner, Maurice Wilkins.

Several other groups of professionals also set up at this time, including:

  • Electronics and Computing for Peace (ECP);
  • Psychologists for Peace (PfP);
  • Civil Engineers for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND), which grew into Engineers for Nuclear Disarmament (EngND);
  • Architects for Peace (A4P);
  • Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons.

In the early 1990s, as the Cold War ended and concern shifted to global environmental issues, SANA and its sister organisations reflected on their future. Discussions led to a proposal for merger and a refocusing of priorities. At a conference held in London on 21st June, 1992, SANA, ECP and PfP agreed to merge to form SGR, with Philip Webber – one of the authors of London after the Bomb – as Chair. The overall aim became the promotion of ethical science and technology.

At around the same time, members of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science – which had been campaigning on science policy since 1969 – voted to dissolve the organisation and many of its members subsequently joined SGR. To complete the picture at this time, in 1991, A4P merged with Engineers for Social Responsibility (which had evolved from EngND) to form Architects and Engineers for Social Responsibility (AESR), which continued to campaign alongside SGR.

SGR family tree - diagram  [pdf 0.3MB]


SGR’s early years

During its early years, SGR’s most notable achievements were in organising or co-organising several prominent conferences covering a range of ethical issues in science and technology. It co-organised the 'Science for the Earth' conferences at Cambridge University, which were held from 1992 to 1996. With the trade union, Manufacturing, Science and Finance, it also organised a large conference on ‘Science: Ethics and Dilemmas’ in 1993. Speakers at these events included influential figures in scientific and environmental circles such as Stephen Hawking, Jeremy Leggett, Crispin Tickell and Aubrey Meyer. In 1998, SGR’s annual conference included a lively debate on genetic engineering involving government advisor Derek Burke and outspoken critic Mae Wan Ho.

In 1996, the SGR Co-ordinating Committee took the decision to take a leading role in organising 'The Climate Train to Kyoto'. This ambitious project was intended to raise awareness of the threat of climate change in the run-up to critical intergovernmental negotiations that were due to take place in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997. The project centred on sending a group of 36 scientists and environmental campaigners by train (with the final leg by boat) from Europe to the negotiations – en route highlighting the threat from polluting activities, such as flying. Ben Matthews co-ordinated the group’s activities during the journey. A representative of the project, Michelle Valentine, gave a short speech to the high-level plenary of the conference. The project achieved a lot of media coverage – including a leading item on Channel 4 News.


Ethical careers – promoting a positive alternative

Some of SGR’s predecessors – most notably SANA and ECP – had been involved in promoting science and technology careers that avoided military work. In 1991, SANA published a booklet, Your Career and the Arms Industry, which discussed the ethical issues and gave guidance for young professionals seeking alternatives. 

SGR sought to build on this work by producing more general ethical careers guides for scientists and engineers. In 1999, this project began and, over the following seven years, SGR produced ten publications. These included an introductory booklet, a booklet of case studies, and eight subject-specific briefings focused on issues including climate change, space science, cleaner technologies, the arms industry, the chemicals industry and animal experiments. The publications were edited by Stuart Parkinson and Vanessa Spedding.

The publications were – and continue to be – very popular, especially with students and recent graduates. A total of over 33,000 copies have been distributed since the first was launched in 2001. Most have been downloaded from the SGR website, but over 6,000 printed copies have been picked up at university careers fairs up and down the UK and Ireland.


Challenging the power of vested interests

A major concern for both SGR and its predecessor organisations has been the influence of powerful vested interests within science and technology – most notably the military and large corporations. A key aspect of this concern is the degree to which these powerful interests shape the research and teaching agendas, prioritising work that leads to technologies with military and/or short-term commercial applications rather than alternatives. This concern is made especially acute by the long-term UK government policies that support maintaining a large military (and a willingness to deploy it frequently) and that have allowed large corporations to have a dominant influence on society. SGR profoundly questions whether either of these sets of policies are in the public interest.

The situation is made worse by the close relationship that has become deeply established between the professional science and engineering institutions and these powerful interests – and the unwillingness of the professions to question this situation. When SGR has spokenout on these issues, professional institutions either ignore us or dismiss us as politicising their profession...

With these concerns in mind, SGR embarked on a targeted series of activities to challenge the situation. In 2003, we began the first in a series of projects investigating and exposing the degree of influence that the military has on science and technology in the UK and more widely. We launched our first report, Soldiers in the Laboratory to a packed event at the Houses of Parliament in January 2005. ResearcherChris Langley introduced the findings, noting that the Ministry of Defence provided over one-third of the government funding for UK research and development – giving it considerable influence – and that, through a network of advisory bodies and lobby groups, the arms industry also had a major say in the R&D agenda.

We disseminated the report widely – to policy-makers, security analysts, scientists and engineers, peace campaigners and others. The report was followed up by two shorter briefings, including one focusing on the connection between UK universities and the military. Further policy-orientated research is continuing. Over the past seven years, we have given numerous lectures and presentations, including at the Royal Institution in London, the annual conference of the German Institute of Physics, the annual UK Festival of Science, and at many academic seminars, student conferences, and peace events. The work has also had extensive media coverage including opinion articles in the New Scientist and numerous science and engineering publications, as well as wide coverage elsewhere. Over 13,000 copies of our three publications in the area have been downloaded from our website.

One especially prominent activity was a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron signed by 36 leading scientists and co-ordinated by SGR. The letter was sent in the run-up to the announcement of major government spending cuts in autumn 2010, arguing that any cuts in government science spending should come from the Ministry of Defence’s R&D spend – especially that for nuclear weapons – rather than the civilian spend. The letter gained high profile coverage on BBC News online, The Guardian, BBC Radio 5 and numerous specialist media outlets.

In 2007, we broadened our investigations to the corporate influence on science technology. Chris Langley and Stuart Parkinson co-authored an in-depth report, Science and the Corporate Agenda, which highlighted the extent of the influence of short-term commercial interests over the research, teaching and public communication of science and technology. It looked at the influence of five industrial sectors: oil; pharmaceutical; tobacco; arms; and biotechnology. Again, the report received a lot of media coverage on launch, and has been followed up with opinion articles in the specialist press and lectures at many events, including the Cambridge Science Festival. Over 4,000 copies of the report have been downloaded from our website.  


AESR joins the SGR ‘family’

In the early 2000s, discussions began between SGR and AESR about pooling our resources since there was a great deal of overlap in the concerns of the two groups. This led – in October 2005 – to a joint Annual General Meeting and conference in London attended by over 80 people where members approved AESR merging with SGR. Philip Webber remained Chair of the combined organisation, while Kate Macintosh, Chair of AESR, became Vice Chair. Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of SGR since 2003, also retained his post.

Although the range of professions now included in the organisation was wider than that originally envisioned when SGR was formed, there were felt to be important benefits from the new combination of professions, not least in approaches to tackling environmental problems, which increasingly demand integrated multidisciplinary approaches to be successful. To reflect the increased range of professions, the organisation’s logo was modified to include a list of them.

The 2005 conference also marked an upturn in annual conferences – with more speakers and large audiences. Themes for these events included the low carbon economy, sustainable buildings and communities, emerging technologies, and resource depletion and conflict. One issue that repeatedly arose at these events was the potential and need for arms conversion to move to a greener society. This became an increasingly prominent theme in SGR’s lectures and campaign work.

The SGR Newsletter too became a weightier publication, including a larger number of more in-depth articles, and benefiting from a colour redesign. The growing online publication of its articles has led to it becoming an important alternative to mainstream science and technology media.


Commentary and campaigning

SGR’s unique combination of expertise and radical ideas has allowed the organisation to engage both in occasional, detailed commentary on current events and in supporting campaigning coalitions.

Commentary has most often simply been putting together a submission to a government consultation where members have particular expertise and concerns. Sometimes it has been a statement related to a major event – such as the September 11th attacks. At other times, it has been a larger piece of work. One example from 2002 was a detailed critical analysis of proposals to commercial plant the genetically modified maize Chardon LL in the UK. As part of this assessment, Eva Novotny and a Belgian colleague carried out original research modelling GM pollen dispersion. Another example of our commentary work comes from early 2003. As the USA, UK and their allies headed towards a war in Iraq, SGR published a short report highlighting the flawed government analysis that had led to these policy decisions. A third example is the monthly email newsletter on ‘Population, Consumption and Values’, edited by Alan Cottey. This ran from 1999 for ten years.

In order to have an impact on policy-makers, SGR and its predecessors have often worked in collaboration with campaign coalitions, especially on peace and environmental issues. One successful example of this was the Renewable Energy Tariff coalition, whose effective lobbying led to the introduction of the Feed-In Tariff for small-scale renewable energy technologies in the UK. Another notable example was the Rethink Trident campaign, which was the focus of a front-page article in The Independent in 2007 in the run-up to the parliamentary vote on replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system. The article listed prominent supporters of the campaign, including Stephen Hawking, Richard Rogers and 11 other senior SGR members.


Now more than ever...

Over the last 20 years, SGR has made a critical contribution to debates on the use and misuse of science, design and technology. Sometimes our role has been that of a think-tank – proving new research and analysis. At other times, it has been the provision of education materials to students – to fill an important gap in what is available from other groups. Sometimes we have been campaigners – whether on nuclear weapons, climate change, or emerging technologies. And sometimes we have just acted as a network, creating a forum where ethically concerned science, design and technology professionals can make new contacts and explore ideas that mainstream fora overlook. In general, we have demonstrated that significant numbers of scientists, engineers and other professionals are willing to stand up for peace, social justice and environmental sustainability – and are not content to accept that powerful, unaccountable interests can pull the strings of the professions to suit their narrow, short-sighted priorities.

While we have not been successful enough to argue that SGR is no longer needed, we do think we have been an agent of change and can claim a contribution to some of the positive trends seen in recent years:

  • UK government R&D spending by the military has halved in the last decade;
  • The renewable energy sector in the UK has grown exponentially in recent years;
  • Interdisciplinary research centres – especially those related to environmental or peace issues – have become numerous at universities in the UK;
  • Several leading UK professional science and engineering institutions now have ethical codes that cover social and environmental responsibility.


This article was a collective effort, including contributions from Stuart Parkinson, Philip Webber, Kate Maloney, Alasdair Beal and Eva Novotny.

Many of the publications mentioned can be downloaded or ordered from the publications webpages. Likewise, reports on some of the events can be found on the conference webpages.