All Together Now: Science is Political

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For the first time in my life, nearly everyone writing about science in the United States agrees: Science is political. Scientific American and Nature both endorsed Joe Biden for president. The New England Journal of Medicine stopped short of an endorsement, but urged its readers to reject Donald Trump’s policies without actually mentioning the president’s name. Earlier this summer, Holden Thorp, the editor of Science magazine, ran an editorial titled, bluntly, “Science Has Always Been Political.”

Biden himself has elevated scientific authority to a campaign issue:

In the United States, the loudest voices arguing for a wall between science and politics have always known that “Science has no politics” was itself a political claim. Still, that was the claim they made from the end of World War II through at least the turn of the 21st century (even if they were usually making it in the context of domestic or foreign policy disputes). In less than a decade, we’ve moved from “Science has no politics,” to “Science is political but nonpartisan” (the official position of 2017’s March for Science), to “Science Has Always Been Political.” Having written a book that asked why so many scientists in the United States insisted on saying that science has no politics when it’s patently obvious that this is not true, I am delighted at this turn in the discourse.

What happened? Trump and COVID, obviously. The endorsements all cover the same general themes, from the gutting of scientific advisory councils, to Trump’s habit of elevating quacks and conspiracy theories, to visa bans and travel restrictions. They also tend to mention the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the NSF and other research agencies, even while acknowledging that Congress has more or less rejected these cuts (as a recent retrospective in Science pointed out, the NSF’s budget has actually increased by 17 percent over the past three years, rising faster under Trump than under Obama). They all suggest that what American scientists want, more than anything else, is an administration that “restores American faith in science.”

Lest this get lost in what follows, I want to repeat: It’s an excellent development that some of the leading mouthpieces of U.S. science are acknowledging not only the stakes of the 2020 election, but also that scientists will contribute to the outcome. Good on you! Recognizing the existence of your political power is a necessary first step in activating that power!

But now for the harder part: What will scientists use that power for?

If you haven’t already clicked on the Nature and Scientific American endorsements, read the Nature one first, then Scientific American. Read in that order, it becomes clear that these endorsements are arguing for different things. Nature is urging its readers to vote to restore the place of scientific and technical expertise within American institutions. “No president in recent history,” the editorial states, “has tried to politicize government agencies and purge them of scientific expertise on the scale undertaken by this one.” Nature’s endorsement is a call for scientific normalcy, a plea to recreate the conditions that allow even scientists working for government agencies to claim that only now have their agencies been “politicized.” As the editors of Nature put it, “Joe Biden must be given an opportunity to restore trust in truth, in evidence, in science and in other institutions of democracy, heal a divided nation, and begin the urgent task of rebuilding the United States’ reputation in the world.”

Scientific American’s editorial has more inclusive aims. Instead of cataloguing the damages to scientific institutions or American scientific prestige, the endorsement highlights how the Trump administration’s rejection of science has damaged the public at large. The piece lays out how sidelining science has hurt Americans’ health, the economy, and the environment. It uses words like “prosperity” and “a more equitable future” and mentions Biden’s policies for caregiving, because child care should be part of conversations about science. The section on climate change emphasizes the equity components of Biden’s infrastructure plan and notes, almost in passing, that the climate plan would be paid for by eliminating Trump’s corporate tax cuts. Its closing argument for Biden emphasizes that he “has a record of following the data and being guided by science.”

“Trust science” and “being guided by” scientific data are different things. One implies restoring scientists’ ability to work as autonomous professionals; the other implies that a Biden administration will take scientists’ advice into consideration along with other factors, including our obligations to one another and to the planet. In an odd way, these two editorials recapitulate an argument from 1947, when scientific administrator Vannevar Bush and Senator Harvey Kilgore argued over whether a National Science Foundation should allow scientists to set their own research policies or respond to the needs of the people.

As should be abundantly clear from every other issue of Never Just Science, I’m with Scientific American and Harvey Kilgore—we need scientists’ voices, but we also need to hear from other people whose lives are affected by the things scientists say and do, and even from people who don’t think much about science at all. Scientific researchers are not, in fact, the people who should be establishing federal tax law, even if federal research agencies depend on the revenue generated by those taxes. There’s no reason that scientists, as a group, should decide what percentage of infrastructure investments should go to historically disadvantaged communities. And yet, both of these issues are, broadly speaking, part of scientific and technology policy.

But you know what? To even have a debate about democracy versus technocracy, you have to acknowledge that science has a politics, which is something that scientific leaders in the United States have denied for a long, long time. How thrilling that we’re moving into a space where scientists can potentially debate the relative merits of making meaningful change through the electoral system, through labor politics, or mass mobilization in solidarity with other groups! Where scientists could strategize about how best to leverage their roles as federal bureaucrats in the event of a general strike! Where they can hold principled yet honest discussions about people-power versus elite governance! This gives me hope.

This is long, but one last thought: Now is also a good time for scientists to reflect on how their traditional organizing as nonpartisan advocates for science has limited their own ability to participate in the political process. In the United States, federal tax law limits the political activities of nonprofit organizations. Science is published by AAAS, a 501(c)3 organization that seeks to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.” In the eyes of the law, AAAS is an advocacy group, not a political organization. In practice, this means that Science cannot endorse a political candidate without endangering its tax status, whereas both Nature Publishing Group and Scientific American are imprints of Springer Nature, a division of a for-profit publisher. Science can host a debate or issue candidate scorecards, but it cannot actually recommend how you vote. Nonpartisanship, it turns out, has deeply political consequences.

Science always has been, is now, and will always be political. The election is next week. If you’re eligible to vote and haven’t already, please vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

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What will you do November 4? Why not spend some time this week learning how nonviolent mass movements have successfully stopped coups in other countries? Choose Democracy is running free trainings on “How to Beat an Election-Related Power Grab” all week. You can also sign up for alerts about actions near you or commit to hosting one of your own at Protect the Results.

Speaking of “Science has always been Political”: One word: Eugenics. I’m really excited to dive into Elizabeth Catte’s Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia. It’s officially coming out in February from Belt, but the publicity gods have blessed me with a galley. If it’s even half as good as her What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, it will be amazing.

Audra on the Internet: On Thursday, November 19, I’ll be joining Blanche Wiesen Cook, Margaret Peacock, and Patryk Babiracki for a discussion on “ ‘Mind the Gap’: New Directions in History, Culture, and Diplomacy in a Time of COVID,” co-hosted by the Department of International History, LSE, and the Cold War Studies Project at LSE Ideas. Free on Zoom, but you need to register.