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On Science and Politics

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The ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency, the selection of his cabinet and senior advisers, and the actions of the GOP-dominated legislative branch have all raised new serious questions and concerns about the role of science, research, and analysis in national law and policy. These concerns have been worsened by elements of the new administration’s proposed budget that severely cut or eliminate core federal science efforts, Congressional hearings and actions that have been perceived to promote ideological viewpoints over scientific findings, presidential executive orders that attempt to override scientifically determined regulations and laws, and the failure of the administration to appoint qualified people to key science advisory and oversight positions.

These questions have led to growing public debate over the role of science in policy and politics. The recent outpouring of support for the March for Science and the Climate March in cities around the country is a manifestation of this growing public concern, but another is the expanding discussion about the proper role for science – and for scientists – and how politics may affect the integrity of science and scientists. Some commentators have argued that by getting involved in politics, scientists are becoming just another interest group.

Lost in this discussion is a key distinction, between the integrity of science itself and the ways in which scientists interacts with policy and policymakers.

The scientific process requires that scientists separate their biases and politics from their research in a way that ensures their work stands up to independent scrutiny and review. Bias may determine the questions individual scientists choose to tackle, but if scientific findings are tainted by politics (or economics or other factors), the very nature of the scientific process, independent peer review, and the competition inherent in advancing scientific knowledge will weed bad science out over time.

Many scientists have little or no interest in connecting science to public policy or getting involved in messy public debates. But scientists are people too, with opinions, political views, and biases. And when their work has implications for the quality of life, health, environment, and the economy, scientists should be encouraged, not discouraged, from participating in policy discussions, communicating with the public, educating policymakers, and working with journalists and the media.

We have the right – and some argue the responsibility – to raise our voices. History offers numerous examples, such as when an international group of scientists published the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955 to speak out “as human beings” against the threat of nuclear war:

  • “In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction, and to discuss a resolution in the spirit of the appended draft… We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt…We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?… We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”

As is true of anyone in our society, it is the right of scientists as citizens to participate in the policy process. Reflecting this reality, the American Geophysical Union recently released a new statement “On the Rights and Responsibilities of Scientists.” That statement identifies three key responsibilities for scientists: demonstrating excellence in the conduct of research, adhering to the highest professional ethics and integrity in their scientific work, and supporting a diverse, inclusive professional environment. But in addition to these responsibilities, the statement identifies key “rights” for scientists, including the right to conduct science without fear of attack, to work with colleagues independent of political affiliation or opinion, and to freely and openly communicate their findings. It also explicitly identifies the right of scientists to respond to inaccurate portrayals or use of science.

  • “The right to oppose unethical or illegal actions, policies, procedures, or other directives that impact the conduct and publication of science, without fear of retaliation.”
  • “The right to respond to inaccurate portrayals of science by any individual or group including, government and institutional administrators, the media, private companies or industry representatives, and political entities.”

There comes a time when the dangers of inaction, or the wrong actions, become sufficiently threatening to individuals or the planet that scientists will have to enter the public arena and bring their voices to debates of critical societal importance. We see this now with the threat of global climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, risks of pandemics, and more. When scientists do speak up, they should be welcomed, not vilified, as servants of the public interest and as informed voices raised in defense of knowledge, informed policy, and humanity.