History of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

Center for Science in the Public Interest


A Brief History

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1971 by three Ph.D. scientists who had met a year earlier, while all three were working at Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law.

The scientists -- chemist Albert J. Fritsch, microbiologist Michael F. Jacobson, and meteorologist James B. Sullivan -- shared the vision of a public-interest advocacy organization run by scientists (a fourth founder and trustee, Kenneth Lasson, was an attorney who did not work at CSPI).

Part of that vision was to serve as a role model for other scientists. CSPI's founders believed that many scientists, if given the encouragement and opportunity, would devote their careers to public-interest activities, much as some lawyers and physicians do.

Unlike many organizations that are launched with the aid of a blue-ribbon board of directors and major foundation funding, CSPI definitely had a homespun beginning. The founders lived off of savings or small stipends (Fritsch was a Jesuit priest living in his Capitol Hill church) and worked in borrowed office space.

CSPI's early work was eclectic. In keeping with their respective disciplines, Fritsch's projects focused on toxic chemicals, strip mining, nuclear power, and oil. Jacobson's work focused on food additives and nutrition. Sullivan focused on highways and air pollution. The three co-directors wrote CSPI's newsletter and met frequently to discuss the emerging center's policies and activities.

Initially, CSPI was run jointly by the three founding scientists. The departure of Fritsch and Sullivan in 1977 had two major impacts: First, CSPI focused almost exclusively on food issues; second, Jacobson became the organization's executive director. Since then, CSPI's staff has gradually increased from fifteen to fifty, and its annual budget from less than $1 million to more than $13 million.

Five veteran CSPI staffers have played especially vital roles in the organization's growth and evolution.

CSPI is ultimately overseen by its board of trustees, whose size has varied between six and ten people from various walks of life, including scientists, attorneys, celebrities, and activists.

Financially, CSPI has traditionally depended upon several sources of income: foundation grants, the sale of publications and other products, and subscription fees and donations. In the early 1970s, those three sources provided roughly equal amounts of income. Work on nutrition and food safety was especially dependent upon book and poster sales, while the other projects enjoyed greater foundation support.

Beginning in the early 1980s, however, CSPI began earning more and more of its funding from subscriptions and donations. Between 1980 and 1997 the circulation of Nutrition Action Healthletter, CSPI's flagship publication, increased from 30,000 to 950,000. Many of those subscribers provide donations in addition to their annual subscription fee.

In 1996, subscription revenue from Nutrition Action Healthletter provided roughly 75 percent of CSPI's annual budget (total budget: $13 million in fiscal year 1996). Other revenue sources include donations from subscribers (12%), sales of products and publications (9%), royalties (3%), and foundation grants (1%).

Also in 1996 CSPI introduced Nutrition Action Healthletter into Canada. By early 1997 the newsletter was reaching over 50,000 subscribers, making it the largest-circulation health newsletter in Canada. To help serve its Canadian subscribers, CSPI began several policy-oriented projects, such as showing that Heinz's baby foods in Canada were less nutritious than in the U.S. and that U.S. food companies provided far less nutrition information on the labels of their products marketed in Canada than in the U.S.

From its earliest days, CSPI has recognized the value of producing educational materials. For example, CSPI's Alcohol Policies Project has produced several publications that generated an immense amount of discussion. Those groundbreaking reports helped expand the national alcohol agenda from the treatment of alcoholism to include preventing alcohol abuse and alcoholism. The Booze Merchants, Marketing Booze to Blacks, Marketing Disease to Hispanics, and a report on federal alcohol taxes provided the public and journalists with cogent analyses of alcohol advertising and taxes. Those reports helped generate reforms in alcohol advertising and alcohol taxes.

In addition to Nutrition Action Healthletter -- the largest-circulation healthletter in the United States -- CSPI has produced a wide range of other publications concerning food. The book that first brought CSPI to public attention was Nutrition Scoreboard, which was published in 1973 and focused attention on the amount of fat and sugar in many foods. A simple scoring system devised by Michael Jacobson was one of the first efforts to make nutrition more understandable to the public.

CSPI has also distributed millions of copies of colorful, fact-filled posters on nutrition and food additives. The Fast-Food Guide -- in book and poster versions -- helped focus the spotlight on nutritional drawbacks of the most popular foods offered by fast-food restaurants. Books for children (Kitchen Fun For Kids) and for parents and teachers (Creative Food Experiences for Children, Eat, Think, and Be Healthy) reflected the Center's concern that good nutrition begin at a young age.

Part II of the History of CSPI


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