Why science cannot help but be political

The Smithsonian Institution’s “castle” in Washington, DC. (Flickr: Robert Lyle Bolton)

What does it mean to say that science is political?

I’ve been contemplating that question since long before November 9, 2016, but it’s gained a great deal more urgency in the light of the current U.S. presidential administration. It’s also been a surprising focus of conversations around the March for Science. It’s mildly astonishing, to me, that serious people think scientific work could be separate from politics in the best of times, and the idea that it might still be is absurd. Science as we know it could not exist apart from politics, and scientific work is inextricably important for political discourse.

Science is a constituency.

In the United States, the single biggest source of funding for basic research — supporting everything from lab supplies to fieldwork to grad student stipends and staff salaries — is the Federal government. That money is awarded via peer-review systems in the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other science-funding agencies, not by direct appropriation to individual labs. That process makes it possible to forget that, to the extent that we’d like there to be more funding available, scientists are a “special interest group” that lobbies Congress for money. (AAAS calls this advocacy.)

Until more recently than you might think, we’ve been a pretty non-partisan constituency, with sufficient support from both Democrats and Republicans that funding via NSF, NIH and the rest has stayed steady — far from ideal, but it could be worse. Now we face an administration and a Republican-controlled Congress that proposes to actively cut research funding, and by a lot. That’s a pretty direct motivation to get involved in politics, and it’s hard to see how to avoid the partisan nature of the threat.

Still, it’s a bad look to be straight-up asking for money, however well that money is allocated and spent. “What do we want? A 25% funding rate!” would be an accurate marching chant, but it’ll just be scientists chanting it. We know the work we do is worth consistent public investment, but there is a political machine devoted to convincing voters otherwise. Making our case to the public is, yep, politics.

Science is done by people.

And people are political. The experiments we decide to do, the methods we consider acceptable to use — these are entwined with the mores and power dynamics of the world around us. Sometimes this has meant bad scientific work is accepted because it aligns with what “everybody knows”, as in the long history of efforts to find a “natural” justification for racial categories and disparities, from the pre-Darwinian theory that different races were created separately to early Twentieth Century eugenics and modern distortions of population genomics. Sometimes it’s meant perfectly valid scientific reasoning applied to human experimentation, justified by a desire for knowledge and a willingness to view some people as no more valuable than lab rats.

This history directly affects the public support that the constituency of scientists can expect to call on. And one of the best ways we have to broaden that support and overcome that history is to make science accessible to people of all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. A more diverse body of scientists can bring the broader perspective to avoid bad conventional wisdom and the creativity to generate new hypotheses — and it has the happy side effect of broadening the diversity of Americans who can say they know a scientist personally.

Science finds facts, and politics is arguing about facts.

Scientists often like to think that data-collection and analysis is fundamentally separate from questions that are clearly in the realm of politics. To use Stephen Jay Gould’s terminology, science is a separate “magisterium” that provides data to inform decisions that are driven by something else — our personal values. Values are clearly political, but science can stay out of that mess if it only offers information.

The fact of the matter is, though, that Americans’ deepest values are almost universally shared. Dig into the Pew Research Center’s American Values Survey and what you’ll find are questions that contrast not the ultimate ends of political positions, but the means to get there. Pew asks participants to rate their agreement with statements like

  • “Business corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest”
  • “The news media should be free to report on any stories they feel are in the national interest”
  • “A free market economy needs government regulation in order to best serve the public interest”

These assume a common sense of a “national interest” and fairness that we all agree should be well served. And it’s probably a safe assumption — ask anyone from your gay best friend to your racist aunt whether children should be cared for, whether everyone should have the same opportunities for education and advancement, or whether everyone should be able to live in a pollution-free environment, and you’ll find (I would think) nigh-universal agreement. Disagreements emerge over how to achieve ideals that are so deeply shared we don’t even think to do surveys about them.

I haven’t looked at C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity since back before my life in science properly began, more than a decade ago, but thinking about the confluence of science and politics put me in mind of its opening passage:

Every one has heard people quarrelling. … They say things like this: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?”—”That’s my seat, I was there first”—”Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”— “Why should you shove in first?”—”Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”—”Come on, you promised.” … Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.

Most of the rest of that book is an exercise in transmuting Lewis’s middle-class English conservatism into theology, but this still strikes me as insightful. Politics is a system of arguing about the consequences of actions. Science is integral to that argument because it provides the tools to document or predict those consequences. A power company that wants to pump carbon pollution into the atmosphere doesn’t say “it makes us a lot of money, and we don’t care what it does beyond that” — they argue that the pollution won’t actually hurt anyone. A school district that wants to dictate which restroom a transgender student uses doesn’t say “we don’t think he has a right to pee” — it argues that he isn’t really a boy. If everyone involved agreed on the facts, the answer would be obvious — mitigate the pollution, let the boy use the boys’ room. Thus the facts, the domain of science, are the focus of the argument.

In that sense, science is political not because we’re divided on questions of values but because we agree on such a fundamental level.

Taking control

Politics is the confounding variable in every experiment. No laboratory door can shut it out, no fume hood can vent it away, and no autoclave can kill it. When you can’t eliminate an environmental variable, your only choice is to address it head on — control for it, standardize it, build it into the experimental design. Now, more than ever, scientists need to admit our entanglement in politics, and embrace its tools. The March for Science can be a public acknowledgement of scientists’ role in politics as well as an assertion of our value to society. It’s vital for all of us that we get on board, and get it right.


About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy Yoder is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia. He also blogs at Denim and Tweed, and tweets under the handle @jbyoder.
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  • UAM Birds

    Agreed, Jeremy. I’d just offer one small correction to “not by direct appropriation to individual labs” — this omits the many Federal labs in numerous agencies, where a great deal of important science is done.