Should science and politics intersect? There is a long-running notion that scientists should “stick to science” and not engage in the political arena, so they don’t risk tarnishing their image as objective non-partisan truth-seekers. However, this viewpoint ignores that science has always been political. Scientific research in the United States is largely funded by the federal government and proposed annual budgets highlight which research areas the president and his administration want to prioritize. Officials also appoint science advisors for their input, issue executive orders about how certain types of research are to be conducted and instruct government scientists on how they communicate their work to the general public.
The enterprise of science - gathering data, analyzing the data, and reporting the results - is not in itself a political activity. On the other hand, deciding what to do with the data is. Government officials will consider or dismiss scientific evidence to varying degrees, and will sometimes spread misinformation themselves. Science is crucial for issues such as climate, the environment, healthcare, pandemic responses, and more, and it needs to play a vital role in our responses to these issues.
Evidence-Based Policy and COVID-19
The intersection of science and politics is laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. Government officials are taking scientific evidence into account - or completely ignoring it - in their responses to this crisis.
In the absence of decisive federal action, state governments are addressing the pandemic, with many governors pledging to let science guide decisions about reopening economies and when to lift stay-at-home orders. Some states, however, have already eased restrictions, despite warnings from public health officials that it was too early to do so.
The Trump administration has also been dismissive of science during the pandemic. Funding from the U.S. to the World Health Organization has been cut, along with funding for research studying bat-to-human transmission because of the research group’s supposed ties to China. The White House also shelved the CDC’s guide to safely reopening the country. The pandemic task force prevents government scientists from speaking directly to the public, and officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have pushed a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated from a lab in Wuhan, China.
Trump himself has spread misinformation about the virus and how to treat it. At one point, he hailed the malaria-fighting drug hydroxychloroquine as a “game-changer” and a potential cure for COVID-19. However, there is no evidence that it is an effective treatment. Nonetheless, hyping up hydroxychloroquine led to shortages of the drug, and people took matters into their own hands with disastrous consequences. More recently, Trump floated the possibility of injecting disinfectants into patients’ lungs to treat COVID-19, and he suggested that his science advisors look into that as well as the use of U.V. rays and light as treatments. He later claimed the comments were “sarcastic,” but not before doctors, and companies like Lysol had to rush to warn people not to ingest or inject disinfectants.
Trump’s tendency to ignore science is nothing new, as he and his administration have dismissed or censored science on topics such as climate change and environmental protections in the past. Yet during a pandemic, such a pattern of behavior is a matter of life or death for millions of people, not only in the United States but around the world.
Scientists in Politics
Science has not always been at the forefront of decision-making when it comes to tackling COVID-19. This is a time when it is needed more than ever to inform decisions about containing the spread of the virus, researching it, and developing treatments. Although the American people have to wait until November to either re-elect Trump or remove him from office, scientists can begin participating in politics now. With our training in the scientific method and knowledge of our respective fields, we can make meaningful contributions to how the general public perceives the issues, share our insights with elected officials, and advocate for evidence-based policies. We should do all we can to ensure that science has a seat at every table where decisions are being made.
How can scientists get involved? There are plenty of options available to us, from the local level to the federal government. Some possibilities are:
With our training and knowledge, scientists have a unique ability to guide conversations about important issues and influence policy and law on those issues. Our involvement and advocacy are important: we can ensure that science has a seat at any table where decisions are made, during COVID-19 and beyond for any other challenges we may face.