Science and politics
I’ve come across two essays out on the Internet over the past few days that have caused me to think a bit about the public perception of science in the United States. I don’t speak of politics particularly much in BIO230, although I did put up a rant during the Republican primary season last year, and if asked I’ll be happy to talk about public policy with anyone. The first essay was from The Atlantic titled “The Danger of Making Science Political.” In this essay, it is noted that public polls leading up to the Presidential election suggest that only 6% of professional scientists identify themselves as Republicans. This disconnect was certainly made more public during the election season by several high profile candidates in state and national elections, with their comments on female reproductive biology, as well as my example above of a Presidential candidate’s opposition to the Human Papillomavirus vaccine.
The second was from Scientific American entitled “The Liberal’s War on Science” and makes to some extent a counterpoint arguing that the political left can be just a guilty of “bad science” political discourse, and cites groups opposed to GMO foods, vaccination, and nuclear power as examples. While the example of vaccination is valid (and one of my personal ragestroke triggers), it is important to note that opposition to vaccination is not particularly restricted to one political leaning or the other. With the other two examples (opposition to GMO foods and nuclear power), the opposition does not stem so much from a denial of the existence of nuclear reactions, but rather an opposition to the potential economic benefits to the technology.
I think that both of these essay omit one important point. Although science is properly conducted without preconception or bias, the science that does get conducted in the United States does not happen in a vacuum. Although scientists would strongly advocate that scientific inquiry ought to best be accomplished in a sort of search for pure truth, in fact since the public in the end pays for academic research, the public gets a voice in what research gets accomplished. The funding of science does then become politicized.
I think that what continues to be necessary is for scientists to continue to be advocates for their work, and it is further the responsibility of all Americans to work to be scientifically literate, so that we all can participate in the conversation.