The Sentinels of Truth and Facts: Scientists as Political Activists

by Andrew Zale

During the most recent poster session at which I presented, a freshman biology major abruptly asked me “do you actually believe in what you are doing?” This question startled me at the time. As much as I was prepared to explain ribosome biogenesis, I was unable to offer a suitable defense of the scientific method at-large. I had never reasoned out the purpose of hypothesis-based research because it appeared intuitive. Today, we stand at the precipice of progress and are currently caught in a stalemate: will we as a civilization continue to promote scientific research, which catalyzed into being the Age of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution? Or will we cling onto our prejudices due to fear or ignorance? Against a growing, anti-science climate, scientists remain the most valuable defense for the field and should be lauded as political activists.

The first complaint regarding the scientist as a political activist refers to the profession: “they are just scientists.” The problem with this notion is how it implies that science acts in a vacuum. Science is not endemic only to laboratories but permeates through all of society via an intimate interplay with politics. Was the creation of the atomic weapon—initiated when Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt—not a mixture of politics and science? Was John F. Kennedy’s investment in the space race not a mixture of politics and science? Was the health research that ultimately revealed tobacco as a carcinogen not a mixture of politics and science? Is the government’s funding of environmental research not a mixture of politics and science?

Through an objective lens, there stands a stark connection between the public and scientific realms. According to the Science and Engineering Indicators published by the National Science Foundation, 69% of research and development (R&D) funding came from the private sector in 2016. The remaining 31% of R&D expenditures came through grants offered by federal and nonfederal public sources. Our policymakers ultimately determine the allocation of public grants to ensure that research is timely, specific and relevant.

However, it is important to recognize that scientific research receives significantly less funding from the government than private industries. This fact exacerbates the divide between the public and research, because when most research is funded by industries that have profit lines hinging on the findings of a study, people become skeptical of the results. The dollars that the public allocates toward science backs the investment—or lack thereof—in research.

Considering the historical relation between scientific research and public policy, as compared to contemporary means of funding research, there are inherent reasons why policymaking should be promoted in the scientific realm. Policy interest guides the focus of research and forces researchers to adjust to the needs of the public. Scientists are true public servants: usually overworked and underpaid for their wealth of knowledge, many researchers work diligently towards change in the world. Society stymies its respect for scientists at the laboratory door, whereas what occurs behind those same doors will often affect society in profound ways.

We must accept that it is impossible for science to be unbiased. Although one might argue that it is dangerous to permit an environmental protectionist to study hydraulic fracturing, would that researcher’s fervor not benefit the field? Similar to how that environmentalist is biased towards a certain result, a biochemist hopes equally as much to confirm their hypothesis, regardless of how politically neutral it is. Preventing scientists from entering the political realm attempts to solve an unsolvable problem. All people are decisive in their beliefs, and seeking to separate a scientist from their interests, political or otherwise, is impossible.

This notion is not to say that science is purposefully biased. Labs throughout the world employ the scientific method, an established progression of research, to test hypotheses. Initial research leads to experimental design and execution, which yields results that either support or refute the hypothesis. Any legitimate experiment in science has prior research supporting the methodology that is used; thus the scientific method maintains objectivity throughout progress. Research based on the whims and biases of a professor are more likely to result in a termination of grant funding rather than publishable data.  

Science remains the most conclusive philosophy and adamant defense of logic. It would be foolish to banish some of our best minds from a platform that our Founding Fathers intended to be open to everyone. Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson called the election of scientifically illiterate politicians “a recipe for disaster.” It is time for our generation to prevent a disaster and listen to the science.