The Danger of Making Science Political

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Many more scientists identify as Democrats than as Republicans, but threats to scientific thinking can come from any quarter. What must be preserved is the pursuit of science, away from irrational dogma.

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The Albert Einstein Memorial Statue at the National Academy of Sciences [Hyungwon Kang/Reuters]

Over the past few years, and particularly in the past few months, there seems to be a growing gulf between U.S Republicans and science. Indeed, by some polls only 6 percent of scientists are Republican, and in the recent U.S. Presidential election, 68 science Nobel Prize winners endorsed the Democratic nominee Barack Obama over the Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

As a scientist myself, this provokes the question: What are the reasons for this apparent tilt?

Some of this unease might be because of the feeling that the Republicans might cut federal science spending. The notion is certainly not helped by news-making rhetoric of some Republicans against evolution in favor of creationism; unsubstantiated claims that immunization aimed at preventing future cervical cancer cause mental retardation in young girls; and unscientific views of how the female body can prevent pregnancies under conditions of rape.

These comments might represent heartfelt beliefs of the leaders in question; however, some might simply be statements designed to placate the anti-science sections of their base, as part of the political calculus.

A recent opinion in the leading science journal Nature, written by Daniel Sarewitz, a co-director of the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, suggests that this polarization of scientists away from the Republicans is bad news. Surprisingly -- as he tells it -- most of the bad news is the potential impact on scientists. Why? Because scientists, he believes -- once perceived by Republicans to be a Democratic interest group -- will lose bipartisan support for federal science funding. In other words, they will be threatened with funding cuts. Moreover, when they attempt to give their expert knowledge for policy decisions, conservatives will choose to ignore the evidence, claiming a liberal bias.

The comments of Sarewitz might be considered paranoid thinking on the part of a policy wonk, but he backs up his statement by suggesting a precedent: the social sciences, he feels, have already received this treatment at the hands of conservatives in government by making pointed fingers at their funding. Therefore he says that a sufficient number of scientists must be seen to also support Republicans for the sake of being bipartisan. To be fair to Republicans, no politician has actually targeted science funding in this vindictive manner. But this assessment only goes to show how science is quickly becoming a political football.

I would argue that this sort of thinking might well be bad for scientists, but is simply dangerous for the country. As professionals, scientists should not be put into a subservient place by politicians and ideologues. They should never be felt that their advice might well be attached to carrots or sticks.

Indeed, this is a sure way to taint their counsel with devastating consequences for us all. This subjugation of science to a political agenda is best seen in totalitarian states. In Stalinist USSR, for example, a whole agricultural movement was driven by an ideology that denied scientific genetic theories. Pseudoscientists such as Trofim Lysenko were rewarded with support and influence at the expense of critics who were silenced. Biology in the USSR languished for decades.

We in democracies should make every effort to promote the objectivity of scientists so they can seek and communicate the best approximation of truth in the natural world, using their training and resources. And the approximation, is only because we will never know reality, but we can get amazingly close with scientific evidence and logical thinking.

Political choices can be made after the evidence is presented, but the evidence should stand for what it is. If the evidence itself is rejected by politicians -- as is currently going on -- then the ignorance of the political class should indeed be exposed, and all threats resisted.

This should be the case regardless of where across the political spectrum the ignorance is coming from. This might seem to be a diatribe against conservatives. But really this criticism is aimed at all unscientific thinking.

Just to be sure, there are a number on the left who have their own dogmatic beliefs; the most notable are unscientific theories with regard to the dangers of vaccinations, genetically modified produce, or nuclear energy.

It is also important to note that there have been exceptional Republican champions of science. In the U.S. Senate, the late Arlen Spector and in Congress, John Porter were two who stood out, lauded by scientists as advocates for scientific inquiry.

In other words, threats to scientific thinking can come from any quarter. What must be preserved is the pursuit of science away from irrational dogma. In that sense scientists should be completely nonpartisan. After all, the universe is what it is. The hurricanes, the flu epidemics, indeed all of reality does not really care about our political affiliations, but we distance ourselves from scientific thinking at our own peril.

As citizens, those of us who care about science should encourage policies that promote education to increase the number of scientifically literate people. This includes supporting our currently embattled public research universities, and federal research agencies that fund science education. Slowly this will increase the numbers of a scientifically literate populace. Politicians then will no longer fear the shrinking base of anti-science ideologues; rather they will quake at the backlash of a scientific literate populace.

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Puneet Opal, MD, PhD, is a neurologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, where he is also a director of the Physician Scientist Training Program. He is part of the Northwestern University Public Voices Fellowship of the OpEd Project.

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