Making Science Political.

“Keep science out of politics.”

This is the refrain I’ve been hearing a lot recently, both from scientists and non-scientists. On April 22, 2017, scientists and science-lovers around the country are planning a March for Science in DC and around the the world (including here in New Jersey), to protest the silencing of government scientists, the removal of scientific input into the political decision-making process, the impact of travel and immigration restrictions on the scientific and student community, and to bring attention to the climate change crisis. Given that one party has been pushing these policies (or, in the case of climate change, has been pushing to avoid setting any policy that could address the problem), this march inevitably has become embroiled in partisan politics. 

This has opened a serious and important debate among scientists about the propriety and sense of marching as scientists, for political goals. Shouldn’t we keep politics out of science, and by extension, science out of politics?

I have my answer to that question, and to explain it, I want to look at the question “Is science political?”

The answer, obviously, is yes: science is political. At least, if you think of science not as “a collection of facts about the Universe,” but science as the process by which people try to find out facts about the Universe. 

The former definition — science as a list of facts — is not political. It cannot be; anymore than 2+2 = 4 is a political statement. This is the definition that people are using when they say that science is not political and should not be made political. But it isn’t a useful definition of science when we are discussion science as a process, and frankly it isn’t what people are talking about when the question “is science political?” comes up.

That’s because this science-as-list-of-facts definition is not about the process of discovery. It isn’t reflective of how we experience science in the real world, or what a scientist means when we say “we’re doing science.” Science in real life is built upon a set of hard-won facts about the world, but it is also a continual effort to pry new facts out of an uncooperative Universe. Science is an endeavor done by humans: it is an endeavor done with limited resources by people with competing goals, with input from governments and other organizations. That makes it political. 

To give a concrete example, in the US, my field of science (particle physics) is paid for mostly by two federal agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE). That right there is proof positive that we are engaged in something that is political: our funding comes from the government. How can we not be political? Furthermore, the level of support that particle physics has enjoyed from the US government is also due to political realities. My field counts as its intellectual ancestors many people who were instrumental in the Manhattan Project. That fact has a direct relationship with the level of funding we received, and which institutions receive the bulk of that funding. As the Cold War ended, the level of funding was reduced. All of this is politics. 

Now, we like to think that our results are true and important regardless of that source of funding, and to some extent they are. But we work within a political framework, our leaders take roles within the US (or other governments), we go to Congress to lobby for continued funding. All of that is political. We can hope we are non-partisan (and for much of the post-WWII era, the level of support from the government for basic science has been non-partisan), but the fact remains that we are, and always have been, playing politics.

To step back even further, if you look at science as a process, you must ask some difficult questions. Questions like: who gets to do science? What research topics do those people get to investigate? How are people supported while they pursue their research? The answers to those questions are set by the political history of science in America and around the world. 

To be blunt, science is largely done by white, able-bodied men. This is not because of innate ability, but because of choices that were made by people with power over the course of centuries and choices by the community of scientists which advantage white men in science over other groups. In recent years, this is abetted by the choice not to fully commit to the difficult steps that would be required to correct for these earlier advantages. These are political choices. 

Thus, the current make-up of scientists in America is a result of politics. People are trying to change this, to open science to more people from more backgrounds, but since the reason science is most white and mostly male is political, the mechanisms by which people are trying to effect change are also political. The fact that the effort is political is not of itself a bad thing. Political acts can be good or bad, but politics is just a fact of life. It’s what happens when you get more than one person in a room and ask them to split up resources. Politics as a concept is value-neutral, just like science as a concept is neither a good thing or a bad thing. Politics can be turned to evil ends, but than again, so can science. 

There are also some questions that we scientists cannot pursue because of political choices. For example, stem cell research in America is politically blocked, leading to some areas of American biology and medical science being behind our international colleagues. This is due to politics. Now, in my opinion it’s due to bad politics, and I’d like to see those rules lifted, but that desire is a desire for a political act, based on my political beliefs (driven by my personal morality). I believe that politicians should not micromanage scientific research, and the stem cell ban is an example of that. It’s bad for scientific advancement, which leads to intellectual stagnation, missed opportunities for improvements in healthcare, and in this particular case is an example of fundamentalist religious beliefs triumphing over evidence-based decision making. But all of that is a political stance, originating out of my respect for science-as-process, but political nonetheless.

So even though I oppose the bans on stem cell research or climate change research, I do believe politicians, as elected representatives of the people have the right and the duty to provide some level of guidance to how research money is spent. That is, after all, what happens with the NSF and DOE and the other national funding agencies. When things are working well, those agencies get overall guidance from Congress, they decide which areas to target based on their mission statements, and appoint impartial panels to judge the research proposals they receive. The problem is not that politicians have oversight: after all, when we get public money to do science we absolutely must be accountable to the public for what we do and how we do it. That’s politics, and in our system of government that accountability must and should go through our elected officials. The problem is not oversight, the problem is when politicians use their power to punish scientists for discovering politically difficult facts, or to interfere in the distribution of research grants in order to score points with an anti-intellectual voting base. And so, if we want to fight back against the detrimental effects of anti-science oversight while keeping the good done by responsible, evidence-based oversight and political decision-making, we scientists need to involve ourselves with politics.

All this suggests to me that, when it really comes down to it, we scientists were largely happy with the political organization we had with respect to the American government. We got to do research, we got to be paid for it, we got to ask most of the questions we wanted to ask. We didn’t rock the boat, we didn’t push too hard on the problems we were facing with representation (or when we did, we were careful to firewall our disapproval away from our positions inside the scientific establishment). In return, we more or less were allowed to do what we pleased, within certain constraints. There were problems, but we got to pretend that what we were doing was unsullied by anything as base as politics. 

But really, that was never true: there has always been politics in science, and there always will be.

The question is now, what are we going to do? We face real problems today. We face climate change and anti-intellectualism, and a threat to the political order that worked out so well for so many of us for so long. So, it is time to move past the illusion that what we are doing as scientists is free of politics, to acknowledge that we and our work are part of the world and always have been. 

But when we do that, we need to also acknowledge the difficult reality that our desire to keep things “non-political” left a lot of our fellow scientists and fellow citizens out in the cold. People have been hurt by the attitude among scientists that what we are doing and how we order our academic world isn’t related to politics. People have been driven from science by this attitude, and science is lesser for their absence. 

So, by all means, let us start Marching For Science. Let us march to demand evidence and facts be restored to a necessary part of our political decision-making process. Let us march in support of our colleagues who cannot feel safe in traveling, working, and living in America right now. Let us march to demand a good education for the next generation of scientists. Let us march with the people who aren’t scientists, but appreciate science and what is has done for them and for all of us.

But let’s not stop when things get back to the way they were. We don’t want just a return to the status quo, we want things to be better than they were. We want more people to have the opportunity to be scientists, a greater freedom for people to ethically and openly study difficult questions, and for more Americans and more people worldwide to feel a connection to science and the scientific process.

Science is political. It always has been. Rather than deny it, let’s use that connection and our power as citizens in a democracy to make both politics and science better, smarter, and more free.