Time to politicize Science Research?

By: Alana Sharp, Penn Biomedical Graduate Student

There has perhaps always been a bizarre disconnect between scientific research, the general public, and politics.  The story of measles is a fitting example.  A highly contagious viral infection first described as early as 68 AD, measles was once “as inevitable as death and taxes” (Babbott Am J Med Sci 1954).  In the 1971, Merck & Co. began marketing Maurice Hilleman’s combined vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella; today, MMRV is a CDC-recommended vaccination, and measles is no longer considered endemic in the United States.  However, due to the reverberations of a now-retracted study linking childhood vaccinations with developmental disorders, an obstinate anti-vaccination movement persists in the United States.  In the past twenty years, enclaves of children unvaccinated due to parental refusal have permitted sporadic outbreaks of the disease.  Such outbreaks have been thus far contained by surrounding vaccination-compliant communities; however, the growth of this anti-vaccination movement bodes ill for the future eradication of measles.  In this way, one of our greatest medical advances has thus been sullied and distorted, to the detriment of both childhood health and the reputation of the scientific community.

Another illustration of the divide between science and politics is that of anthropomorphic climate change.  The now renowned assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 predicted significant changes to global temperatures, weather patterns, sea levels and acidification, and losses to biodiversity.  This report has repeatedly been shown to be overly conservative, as new data suggest faster Arctic ice melting and temperature rises, and reveal broader detrimental impacts to ecosystems, food safety, and political stability.  In the realm of American politics, these warnings are generally unheeded.  With the exception of occasional head nods by Barack Obama and the political left, the impetus to shift toward renewable energy sources and green infrastructure has been weak and unsustained.  Indeed, a significant contingent of our political system and mainstream media maintains that global climate change is a hoax, and an untold network of unreported funding continues to nurture anti-science organizations and promulgate propaganda and misinformation.

The risks in politicizing science are significant.  To the researcher, they may be personal and severe, as demonstrated by the ‘Climategate’ attacks of 2009 and the firing of the NWS scientist last month.  Some believe that the politicizing of scientific discovery will tarnish the reputation of scientists as unbiased purveyors of truth.  Furthermore, bringing research to the general public is a time-consuming pursuit, made worse by an educational climate in which politicians threaten to ban critical thinking and wherein sensitive scientific topics are altogether ignored.  In contrast, it is much easier to research tissue engineering without delving into the controversies over human embryonic stem cell research.  It may seem nobler to publish on the therapeutic benefits of entheogenic compounds without delving into drug policy reform.  The scientist may feel better trained to produce data on climate change, or to develop cancer treatments, than to contribute a voice to the politics of carbon taxes and Medicare reform.  I argue, however, that this reluctance by scientists to address the political ramifications of their research, and confront those that would usurp and pervert it, is at best an act of self-preservation and at worst an act of cowardice.  

This issue will come to a head March 1, when Congress must cut $85 billion in federal spending.  This spending ‘sequestration’ will produce lasting effects to federal funding of scientific research, with cuts of 5.0-8.2% to funding agencies including the NSF, NIH, FDA, NWS, DOE, NASA, and more.  Superimposed on a largely stagnant funding climate, these cuts will produce significant changes to research funding.  The NSF is expecting to award fewer new grants, and the NIH will reduce the size of existing research grants; furthermore, the funding of large projects may be rejected in favor of safer, incremental proposals.  We can expect the career trajectory of young scientists to suffer and for graduating PhD students to struggle to find employment.  Academic institutions with meager endowments will suffer, and the United States will continue to drop in international rankings of education and scientific productivity.  

If there was ever a time for the scientific community to speak up, the time is now.  Congress will not make our case for us.  The public will not make our case for us.  It is for us to contribute to the dialogue and remind the country that science is valuable and inextricably linked to American progress.  We must explain that many of our great intellectual steps forward were initially preliminary projects nurtured by federal grants, most of which were deemed too risky to fund by private corporations.  We must explain the relationship between the scientist in the lab and treatments for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease; we must demonstrate the link between the technologies of our future and the funding that will make them realities; and we must elucidate the economic, intellectual, medical, political, and security payoffs of research.  In the days to come, we must make our voices heard.


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