Who’s Politicizing Science?

By John P. Holdren.

Tens of thousands of scientists and supporters of science poured into the streets of Washington DC and other cities around the world Saturday in a massive “March for Science”, aimed at highlighting the importance of science to society and the need for basing government policies on evidence.

But some thoughtful people, including some very distinguished scientists, have argued that the March is a mistake—that, by marching, scientists will create the impression that they are just one more interest group and, worse, will be seen as “politicizing science.” I beg to differ. Those criticisms will surely continue to be hurled at the March, but I believe they are off the mark.

It is true that scientists, on the whole, represent a common set of interests. Scientists are interested in growing the body of evidence-based understandings about ourselves, our world, and our universe. And most scientists are interested in seeing these understandings applied to advance economic prosperity, public health, environmental sustainability, international security, and good government, among other laudable aims⎯even if they are not themselves engaged in this applied work.

That is a set of interests not to apologize for but to be proud of.

As for personal economic interests, yes, scientists are no happier about the possibility of losing their jobs than any other group of workers. But the intended message of the Science March is not “please save our jobs and let us keep doing what we love.” The message is, rather, “given what science is and does, if funding for and use of science are slashed, all of society will be the loser.”

As for politicizing science, that is hardly possible at this juncture, because science is already politicized, (even if many scientists themselves resist admitting it). In the United States and other democracies, decisions about how much of the taxpayers’ money will be spent on science—and how much on each branch of science—are made through a political process involving intense interactions involving both elected and appointed officials, with inputs from a wide variety of interest groups and from the public at large.

How much to spend on science versus on roads and airports? How much on biomedical research versus space exploration versus pure mathematics? These are correctly understood, by people who have thought about it, as political questions, because the answers depend on balancing a range of interests and values, not on some formula that will give the “right” or “best” answer.

In addition to decisions about the direct claims of science on public funds, the political process must arrive at decisions on a range of other matters that affect the progress of science and its applications for public benefit: support for science and math education, policy on high-skills immigration, intellectual property rights policy, tax policy that affects the level and focus of private-sector investments in research, regulation of the permissible uses of the fruits of scientific research, and policies and practices on the use of scientific information in government decision-making, among others.

Scientists, who are better positioned than most to appreciate what is at stake in these political decisions, surely have no less a right and responsibility than any other group to ensure their voices are heard in the political process. Would it be better if the only interests heard from in that process were the coal lobby, the gun lobby, the prescription-drug lobby, and the like?

So why is a March for Science happening only now, when the necessarily political dimensions of government support for science and its uses have been apparent for many decades? The answer is that, until recently, the scientific community as a whole has been, if not entirely satisfied with the way its interests have been represented and treated by the existing institutions (e.g., governmental science offices, national academies of science and engineering, other scientific societies, universities, and high-tech industry) then at least convinced there were no threats to the role of science in society that warranted scientists’ organizing themselves as a mass movement.

A new dimension of the politicization of science in the United States, with troubling counterparts elsewhere, has changed that. What is new⎯growing over the past two decades and culminating in the first hundred days of the Trump administration⎯is the willingness of an increasing number of increasingly influential politicians to reject well established science (on, e.g., climate change, evolution, vaccines, gun violence), to call into question the value of government investments in research (particularly basic research), and even to dispute the idea that leaders of government need advice from scientists at all.

This faction has been aided and abetted by the effects on the electoral process of dark money from narrow special interests, by ideologically motivated think tanks with seemingly unlimited resources provided by those same special interests, by certain major-media outlets that appear to be wholly owned subsidiaries of those interests, and by the effectiveness of the worldwide web in propagating nonsense. All of these perverse forces have been helped along by an information culture increasingly dominated by tweets and sound-bites, in which a lie told in a sentence requires three paragraphs to rebut⎯but few ever see the three paragraphs.

These relatively new circumstances are what have politicized science in a newly perverse way. The scientific community would be derelict if it failed to protest in the most visible ways available to it. The March for Science is one appropriate response.

John P. Holdren is professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Advisor to WHRC President Phil Duffy. He served as President Obama’s science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from January 2009 to January 2017.