Even now, on the heels of the March for Science, we see some scientists hesitate to acknowledge the fact that science is political. Why wouldn’t they? We hold it up as the golden standard of objectivity, and synonymize it with words like ‘unbiased’ and ‘rational’, divorcing it from our human capriciousness. It’s quite natural to associate those notions with science. After all, you’d be hard pressed to find a more objective way of discovering the true nature of nature than by utilizing the power of the scientific method. But there’s an important distinction to be made between science and the scientific method.
We use the scientific method to minimize bias and maximize objectivity. That is what’s rational and unbiased. The scientific enterprise, however, is not, and it’s nothing short of clinging to a fanciful myth to suggest that it ever was.
The reality is that engaging in scientific research is a social activity and an inherently political one. Imagine for a moment that you were going to start a new country today. There are things you’d be compelled to do by default; coming up with laws, for example. Funding science is not a default position when creating a country, it’s a decision we made once as a society, and continue to revisit as we make new policies and pass budgets. Science has been linked to the politics of society since the first person thought it was a good idea to do research, and then convinced their neighbors to give them money to do it.
Scientific research doesn’t take place in a vacuum, it can only happen with society’s blessing. In this way science is a political institution de facto, governed by society and beholden to its political will.
Society controls who
But it’s not just the decision of whether or not to do science that’s political, society has also historically wielded the power to select who is permitted to become a scientist. We see, now, the sexist and racist obstructions that have allowed science to be dominated by white males. To many African Americans growing up in a prejudiced society, the path to becoming a scientist is among the paths of most resistance. In the case of women scientists, they could only work as “volunteer” faculty, leaving accolades for their male counterparts to collect. Extraordinary scientists like Esther Lederberg, who discovered the lambda bacteriophage, or Lise Meitner, who literally split the atom, were written out of the textbooks as they watched their male collaborators accept Nobel prizes without them. Such is also the story of Rosalind Franklin, a personal hero of mine, who changed the entire field of biology and was instrumental in discovering the double-helical structure of DNA that we know today.
So, let’s keep in mind society’s ability to control who can become a scientist today. Moving towards Muslim bans and mass deportations not only weakens the talent we can import, but also robs many immigrants of the opportunity to fulfill their potential, and becoming the great contributors to society that they would have otherwise been. These actions threaten America’s leading position in research worldwide.
Society controls how
There’s also the matter of society’s control over how science is conducted. Scientists, the normal humans that they are, are just as susceptible to being swept up by the cultural currents of their society as anyone else. There was a time when naturalists and anthropologists found that their ‘science’ justified the subjugation of what were considered inferior races. It wasn’t too long ago that the CIA funded mind control studies, subjecting unknowing patients to hallucinogenic drugs and harmful chemicals.
Lest we forget, the US Public Health Service also conducted the Tuskegee syphilis experiment which denied black men treatment for the disease in order to study its effects, despite its availability. The true nature of the experiment was kept secret from the subjects, and the public at large, and it spanned four decades. Studies like this were allowed to take place until society, through the vehicle of politics, decided to make a change (institutional review boards, etc.). These changes are ethical and moral ones, which place the well-being and safety of the individual over the need to answer a scientific question, and they should always take place with conversations that include scientists and lawmakers.
Keep this point in mind today, when you see trends of muting federally-employed researchers and preventing them from communicating their research to each other and to the public. Science and secrecy don’t work very well together.
Society controls what
When we cast our vote in an election, part of what we’re doing is determining what will be prioritized in scientific research. Our elected officials control our money, and therefore control our scientific pursuits.
Society decides what kind of knowledge scientists are permitted to obtain and disseminate. The Vatican famously imprisoned Galileo and forced him to recant his scientific assertions that the Earth revolves around the Sun to avoid being burned at the stake. Under Stalin, the Soviet government supported the science of Lysenko, a pseudoscientist who rejected basic principles in biology, because his theories supported the principles of Marxism. This gave rise to Lysenkoism, a term used to reference the manipulation of the scientific process to achieve ideological goals. This term seems more and more relevant today.
Of course, control over what research scientists can conduct isn’t some arcane phenomenon that ended with the collapse of communism. Our elections decide our science. In 2001, President Bush imposed a ban on government funding for research on embryonic stem cells – halting the potential development of cure to scores of illnesses. He explained why he did this: “My position on these issues is shaped by deeply held beliefs”. Yet, the entire NIH budget didn’t suffer because of it. Funding was mostly allocated to research projects not related to stem cells or the environment. Priorities change elections. Likewise, during his terms, President Obama made it a priority to allocate funds for his favorite initiatives like translational science, the Precision Medicine Initiative, and the BRAIN Initiative. At the same time, NIH funding still fell short of what was requested from Congress during the course of his administration.
Today, the impact of elections on scientific research is palpable. Since his election, President Trump wasted no time before he began to launch attacks on clean air and water, on climate science, and on basic medical research. His proposed budget puts the public’s health in danger and slashes billions from the budgets of the NIH, the EPA, and other research institutions. Of course, it’s not only the president that we elect, but also Congress. A recent hearing on the scientific method and climate change devolved into an embarrassing public exercise in bickering and name-calling. In an intense exchange with climatologist Michael Mann, the Chairman of House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, no less, claimed that Science magazine was not an objective source.
An entanglement of society, politics, and science
In a thriving democracy, society forms politics, politics controls science, and science informs both society and politics. This isn’t new information, we all know it, yet some of us refuse to acknowledge the intimate interplay between society, politics, and science.
It is fact that scientists are no strangers to activism; there’s plenty of precedent.
In the 1930s, scientists formed the Association for American Scientific Workers (AAScW) with the goal of inviting scientists to take moral stands and involve them directly in political and social issues. At the time, they resolutely stood against fascism and were instrumental in improving the quality of science reporting. In 1946, Albert Einstein weighed in on racism in America in his eloquent essay The Negro Question, which he characterized as a “disease of white people”. Not only that, but he also co-chaired an anti-lynching campaign. Even later, during the Cold War, scientists didn’t all shy away from political engagement. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) expressly opposed the war in the Vietnam, and Carl Sagan was a prominent voice on the dangers of nuclear proliferation during the Reagan era.
Today, John Holdren, Chief Science Advisor to President Obama, refreshingly urged scientists to tithe away ten percent of their time to public service and activism. I can’t remember the last time I heard a prominent scientist make such a statement.
In many ways, the line between science and politics, if there ever was a thing, is already blurred. There are scientific concepts, supported by a robust body of factual data, which are now inherently politicized, not because of a controversy in the scientific community, but because they threaten one party’s agenda. Think climate change or evolution.
The scientific method is a remarkable tool for creating verifiable information, always expanding the boundaries of our knowledge, and challenging our preconceived notions of what reality is. It’s an investigation we’re making into ourselves. We’ve decided to pool our money together and divvy it up to women and men who work tirelessly at the forefront of knowledge to discover more. We decided this because we realized that science helps us live longer, healthier, and more enriching lives.
That’s political change.