Don’t Be Fooled: Science Is Political
For a few years, I’ve heard that science is apolitical because as scientists, above everything, we seek the truth and praise objectivity. This could be why, if you are a STEM major, you may think that politics does not affect or involve you as much as someone majoring in political science, per se. However, science and politics aren’t mutually exclusive. Science informs policy, which is dictated by politics, and science seeks to inform the public, which is responsible for electing our policymakers. Just before the midterm elections of 2018, science had been severely undermined and silenced by the Trump administration. From political appointees removing climate change from Environmental Protection Agency grants to the DOI determining which science can be used to inform policymaking, the list of attacks science has suffered is far from short. In the midterm elections, although the college vote almost doubled, STEM majors voted in lower percentages than students in many other fields of study, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement’s 2018 report. This political apathy that STEM majors experience is affecting not just voting rates but also participation in other forms of civic and political engagement, which is the lowest in this demographic.
Politics has always shaped science
History shows us that science is indeed political. The mere existence of federally funded scientific research is inherently political. Scientific research happens due to the approval of society and the will of policymakers to continue their investment. For the past couple of years, this administration’s fiscal budgets have included cuts in funding for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other agencies. Fortunately, Congress has continued to support and fund science for years. However, politics has determined which science gets to be done. Embryonic stem cell research is possibly the best example. From the Dickey-Wicker Amendment in 1996, which banned federal funding for such research, to President Bush prohibiting the use of many embryonic stem cell lines, politics and society have put limits on the type of research that receives funding.
Furthermore, unfortunately, science is not immune to other social and political influences — influences that have decided who was able to become a scientist in the first place. Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women did not have the same right to education as men, and many of the women who made contributions to the scientific field didn’t do so as scientists but rather as assistants. Movements pushing gender equality and encouraging women to follow their career interests explain why now about half of medical and doctorate degrees in biomedical sciences are awarded to women. However, even today, women do not make up half of the STEM workforce, they still experience pay gaps compared to the earnings of men, and they face a harder path toward scientific recognition.
Additionally, the scientific field has been disproportionately white. Not only have racism and discrimination hindered the chances for members of minorities to become scientists in the first place, they also continue to drive racial disparities in the scientific community. For example, from 2011 to 2015, black scientists received R01 funding half as often as their white colleagues1. Interestingly, the research topics of such scientists tend to focus more on health disparities, adolescent health and fertility than does the work of their white peers1.
Some scientists seem to struggle with a dilemma: embrace diversity or stay apolitical. In 2017, the March for Science happened for the first time, and many tensions arose regarding the issue of diversity. While some praised the value of inclusivity, others warned about the association between science and liberal politics. Scientists do not lose credibility or take “partisan sides” when they oppose a Muslim ban, praise diversity or combat transphobia. They are holding true to the belief that science is for everyone, and that achieving true diversity in the scientific workforce will result in excellence by cultivating new talent and new research perspectives. What is supposed to be our credibility if we can’t stand by our values?
Not only have politics influenced current disparities in the scientific workforce, but politics dictate the impacts of scientific results as well. The consequences of scientific evidence are solely political decisions. What policies do we enact to fight climate change? Do we require all children to get the measles vaccine? Do we legalize safe injection sites to combat the opioid epidemic? We have a responsibility to inform the public about scientific evidence and discoveries, but shouldn’t it also be our responsibility to advocate for policies that are based on evidence?
Scientists need to do more than just vote
Maryland will hold its presidential primary elections on June 2. So, whenever you cast your vote, remember you are also casting a vote for science. Voting is definitely a great way to be politically involved, but you can be politically active all year round — educate others on STEM-related issues, become a science ambassador for a local organization or volunteer for a political campaign. But also, advocate for change in the scientific workforce. Because hiding under the apolitical label just helps perpetuate the silencing of voices that have long been discounted in the scientific community.
In summary, science is political — the faster the scientific community accepts that as its reality, the greater impact science will have on society. We can no longer afford to watch scientific facts and evidence be dismantled and questioned because they threaten a political party’s agenda. Standing for policies that are based on science to improve everyone’s life isn’t partisan. It’s political.
- Mervis, Jeffrey. “Study Identifies a Key Reason Black Scientists Are Less Likely to Receive NIH Funding.” Science, Oct. 9, 2019, sciencemag.org/news/2019/10/study-identifies-key-reason-black-scientists-are-less-likely-receive-nih-funding
- Switching Career Paths: Rediscovering Your Scientific Passion
- When Doing Science Isn’t Enough: Critical Issues in Science Policy
- On How and Why Science Is Political
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