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.

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About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on January 26, 2013, in Rant. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. You make an excellent point. Science may strive to be apolitical and motivated by a search for pure, non-biased truth, but it will never be able to shed political and religious influence. Ask Copernicus and Galileo.

    As for scientific literacy, this elementary school teacher is doing her best, but sometimes, it’s all I can do to get my students to find Pennsylvania on a map. Where are the parents, and how can 10 year-olds come to me with so little information in their heads?

    • Fortunately, our Pennsylvania public school district has managed to maintain budgets and keep all of the basic academic programs running with no apparent loss of quality. I’m happy with the education my children have received, and hopefully their peers are developing similar critical thinking skills as well.

      With respect to the intersect between government and the public funding of science, I’ve become convinced that a lot of the responsibility must rest on scientists. I spent about two decades on various forms of US Public Health Service financial support, in the form of investigator-initiated research grants, postdoctoral training grants, and fellowships. It’s great to think that the value of the work should be obvious to anyone, but in the end, it will be non-scientists (the President and Congress) who ultimately determine whether it deserves money. Only in The West Wing do we have a President with a PhD.

  2. This week in ISR, we learned about the funding of scientific research. Not surprisingly the most funding is awarded to medical research.
    We discussed this at home, and the Libertarian with Republican tendencies declared most scientists would be Democrats, because they don’t care about making money; Republicans are more likely to be in traditional professions because of financial concerns…I’m not sure that was a declaration I could support, but interesting nonetheless.

    • Well, I can attest that most people should not go into science “for the money.” Sure, there are 1 percenters in science, but I’ve noticed that with income disparities the way they are across American society, I imagine that the proportion of people with gainful employment and a livable salary to those with a 1 percenter income is likely much the same regardless of career choice. So I would likely call “BS” on the assertion that only Democrats are scientists, because only Republicans are interested in making money. We all want to make money, it’s just that some of us are a bit more realistic about things.

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