The Danger of Making Science Political

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.

Presented by

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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