Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs)

Early in his career as a consumer advocate, Ralph Nader struck on an idea for a new type of organization. "How about a law office that worked for the public's interest—not that of corporations or just individuals?" he thought.

Out of this concept evolved the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). It began its genesis with a staff of twelve lawyers and a physician, each bringing his or her expertise in a different field to the effort.

"It was like a law office, but for public interest," Nader said in Ralph Nader: Battling for Democracy, an authorized biography written by Kevin Graham. "We broke open a lot of new areas for several years. For instance, we were the first to bring action to create nonsmoking sections on public transportation. We presented the idea that nonsmokers had prior rights to those of smokers, which was unheard of back then."

In PIRG's early days, Donald Ross and Jim Welch—two of its original members—focused on organizing students on college campuses across the nation. With Nader's help, they created a student-led movement that still exists today. In its efforts, PIRG spread the notion that young people could make a difference in government and corporate America.

Nader's appearance at the University of Oregon in the fall of 1970 helped launch the idea of student activism and provided a successful example for other campuses to follow. Soon, all seven schools in the state college system approved the establishment of the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group, known as OSPIRG. Students in other states then followed Oregon's lead.

Each student PIRG was financed and run by students, but guided by a small professional staff of attorneys, scientists, organizers, and other workers. The PIRGs distinguished themselves from many other movements at the time by actually participating in government processes, not by simply protesting against them. They became important players within the framework of the existing system and quickly discovered they could affect the outcome of government decisions.

For example, in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Student Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG) placed an initiative on the state's ballot in 1986 aimed at reducing the use of toxic chemicals. Voters approved the measure by the largest margin of any initiative in the state's history. In 2002 a national set of laws and system of regulations are in place to deal with this same issue.

Other PIRGs tackled issues such as recycling, pollution, and public health and safety. The groups also provided training for thousands of students—training that continues today, producing wave after wave of students working to solve numerous environmental and other societal problems. PIRGs currently exist in twenty-four states, and seventeen more operate in Canada. Each is independent in operation, yet all share similar agendas and goals.



Isaac, Katherine, and Nader, Ralph. (1995). Ralph Nadar Presents Practicing Democracy: A Guide to Student Action. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Internet Resource

State PIRGs. Available from .

Kevin Graham

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