Politicisation Of Science

Science shaping policy and our livelihoods: 2020 has shown us the great extent to which the way science is implemented in policy can affect our environment and health. However, the way in which policy is implemented and which ones are put forward are can be dictated by political ideology and thought.

2020 was an unpresented year for everyone around the globe, our lives have fundamentally changed in measurable and immeasurable ways. Last year was also the time for science to shine, as much of our livelihoods from health to agriculture, depends on scientific and research backed policy to aid our quality of living.

However, policymaking is inherently a political action presenting that science does not exist in a political vacuum, but instead shapes our lives, health, environment and economy in various ways. However, the use and manipulation of science for political purposes has increasingly been pushed to the spotlight, with disastrous consequences to human and environmental health.

Some sociologists comment that the practise of science is political all the way through, but suggests that using science in the scope of gaining political power, damages the checks and balances placed within science to keep it from external bias1.

Science and politics have a fraught history, as it can be manipulated to gain political power and suppress opposing views, as done by the geneticist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko within the Soviet Union. However, to think that the suppression of scientists who disagree with centralised government is simply a symptom of communism, or something of the past, is very misguided as scientists in the US, under Trump, have also been exposed to this.

It is important to note that scientists of the past and present have opposed actions from centralised government to suppress information, in a variety of ways, from becoming whistle-blowers, publishing their findings onto journal articles, and more recently, getting directly involved within politics.

Lysenko’s Science Or Nothing

Figure 1: Statue built of Lysenko and Stalin in Stavropol in 1952 presenting the political power that Lysenko reached was due to the fact his genetical theory fit into the agenda Stalin was presenting at the time.

The Soviet famine of 1932-33 claimed the lives of approximately 6.5 million people due to political interferences such as collectivizing, a practise where small landowners were forced to give up their farms to join a collection of farms, and the seizing of grain by the authorities2,3. As drought and crop failures exasperated this issue, this prompted Joseph Stalin, the ruler at the time, to promise a new variety of crop within a four-to-five-year period, even when experts said this would take at least twelve years.

Political pressure placed on scientific institutions was utilised by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko to claim that crop plants such as wheat, potato and sugar beets could be genetically altered by using the environmental conditions that they are placed in. His theory seemed to allow farmers to sow grain in the spring, instead of the previous autumn season4. More importantly, he promised the Soviet government that productive crop varieties could be produced in only two-and-a-half years, thereby fulfilling political pressure leading Stalin favouring his plan (Figure 1)5 over all others6.

Lysenko’s theories were not backed by science but instead met demand from the government which caused his steady rise to power.

His hypothesis of environmental conditions dictating genes strongly mirrored that of the French academic Jean-Baptiste-Lamarck. However, Lysenko’s methods for improving crops were incredibly ambitious and in reality, he falsified his results, in order to gain support from the communist leaders. He additionally, undermined the basic principle of genes by claiming that they were introduced by “bourgeois geneticists”6. This not only set the stage for a complete ban on the teaching and practices of genetics, but also lead to the imprisonment, deaths and firing of many scientists who disagreed with Lysenko or his theories.

The effect of Lysenko and the Soviet Union’s actions to ban the practise and teaching of genetics not only lead to the incredible decline of soviet genetics, evolutionary and developmental biology but also, exasperated food shortages, and deaths, within the region, as everything grown to his methods died or rotted7. This presents a harrowing story when politics is used to influence science, it has the potential to do irreversible human and institutional damage.

Agenda Trumping Science

Figure 2: Suppression : Dr Rod Schoonover (left) was a prominent analyst who was repeatedly blocked from giving testimony on the effects climate change had on national security efforts as the findings did not adhere to the government’s view on the issue. His story is not an isolated event within Trump’s America.

At the start and the end of Trumps time as president he has at every turn minimised or placed climate change deniers at the heart of his administration. Not only has Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, a global effort to combat climate change, but he has recently placed a climate change denier in charge of appointing writers to the National Climate Assessment report8. Therefore, it is very clear to comment that his administration is hostile to the views of human induced climate change even when there is “no doubt left” that the planets climate is changing at an alarming rate9.

Dr Rod Schoonover (Figure 2)10, a prominent analyst was repeatedly blocked from not only testifying, but for submitting a report about various national security implications climate change may pose. The administration stopped the report giving the reason that the findings did not agree with the government’s position on climate change. Although he was able to testify, his written statement was not included in the official record of the hearing. He later stepped down from his position as an intelligence analyst.

Within the US, it is important to note that this is not an isolated case as there have been many other instances where scientists have lost their job for refusing to bury facts either about climate change or even the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic11,12.This presents that scientists who present contrasting information from the states views and agendas are currently vilified but that also, governments of all types can be guilty of such practise.

Since the recent win of the House and Senate by the Democrats, there is hope that climate science and discourse around the pandemic will be dealt with experts and that suppression of science is a thing of the distant past within the US13.

Diverging: Science And Politics

Separate Roads?: Within history and the present day, it has been shown that science and politics have been treated as separate entities as misinformed science has shaped policy or science has been suppressed, as it did not cohere to the views of those in power.

These two cases where science was manipulated for political agenda eerily mirror one another, with anyone who disagrees with centralised government being jailed, as in Soviet Russia or being removed from their roles, as demonstrated in Trumps America.

Both of these cases show instances where science clearly presented a direct conflict with the position the government took when regarding agriculture, climate change or the scale of the pandemic. 

However, it is important to note that there are differences between these instances. In Soviet Russia, Lysenko was a “scientist” himself but used falsified results in order gain political power to silence his opponents. However, many scientists in the US are using honest practises to come to their conclusions, which were being suppressed by the government through firings and refusals to chair experts at meetings. This presents that centralised institutions can manipulate science for their own political gain in order to push their own agenda forward by disregarding or burying conflicting information given by scientists.

Politicians must remember that biology and the environment for that matter do not bow to the whims of their agenda or theory, but instead, follows the dictated rules of nature which we scientists aim to understand as much as possible.

Converging: Science With Politics

Figure 3: Speaking out: The March for Science in 2017, in anticipation to a climate-denying administration aimed to present that scientists would not be silenced on a major issue which millions of Americans face every year,

In anticipation of Trumps administration which widely rejected the principle of human caused climate change, there was already a growing mobilisation of individuals from a STEM background. Shortly after his inauguration, there were wide scale protests (Figure 3)14 and the formation of the  314 Action group, which aids and encourages those with a background of science to run for political office15.

In the House of Representatives 2020 election, candidates endorsed by the 314 Action group won 12 of the 14 contests however, they were defending their place after many of them were elected in 2018. The gains, however, were disappointing, especially as health and science issues played a large factor in this election cycle as only two challenges to a seat, out of eight, were successful16.

Losses aside, if this enables voters and their representatives to take a more evidence-based approach to policy making and debates then it is a step in the right direction. However, this group is not without its critics, with some individuals voicing the 314 Action group should be a bipartisan effort, instead of endorsing solely Democratic nominations17.

More drastically, some even suggest prominent journal editors from Nature should not comment or endorse presidential candidates, as done in the American 2020 election claiming that it adds to the politicisation of science18,19. However, it is important to note that the prominent group bending science to their will, is politicians. There is no group more qualified to scrutinise the handling of the pandemic and the suppression of climate science in America than scientists who study and comment on this phenomenon.

Critics who blame the recent politicisation of journal articles might not know at its inception in 1869, Nature, was calling for science and its principles to be taught at schools in the UK20. This presents the interface of science and its impact on society, is inherently political, and scientists have the ability to drive policy which betters human, environmental and societal health.

The resistance

March for Science slogan which highlights the importance of science in society and in everyones lives.

Politics and science are intimately linked with one another with one shaping the other through history , and the present. However, there is a worry when political agenda shapes science, not the other way round, irreparable damage is done to society and scientific progress.

This is demonstrated through history through Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union which fired, interrogated or jailed researchers whose work opposed the “acceptable” scientific agenda at the time. Worryingly, similar tactics have been utilised under Trumps America to halt climate and pandemic data from being published as it did not cohere to the views of the administration.

Personally, the politicisation of science is not a symptom of either communist or even democratic institutions, it is, however, a hallmark of fascism21.

To think that however, that scientists are accepting the blatant disregard for the scientific process and their eventual findings are unproven, and if anything has helped researchers to mobilise.

Prominent journal editors have in the past and continue to, provide pressure and critique to governments and institutions which dismiss and minimise the findings of reports commenting on the health of both the environment and society. To silence or discourage scientists, of all calibres, away from talking about governments who plainly suppress or politicise scientific findings is a dangerous practise to the foundations of democracy.

However, there is a wide resistance, to bring science informed policy back into politics, which provides hope that by edging closer to closer to scientific truth that we can improve the health of the people and the environment. Looking forward to 2021, we must continue to provide much needed pressure to institutions that disregard or politicise aspects of science to their agenda.

Note: The phrase communism used throughout the article is used to describe Stalinism but in the interest of simplification have been conflated with one another. My understanding of political theory and different government types are rudimentary at best so if there is any one more versed than me, I would be more than happy to engage in a constructive discussion

Image sources:

Policy collage: Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels + Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

Lysenko: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/12/trofim-lysenko-soviet-union-russia/548786/

Science and Politics sign post: https://medium.com/@priyology/surviving-the-science-politics-interface-8be2b3898252

Science not silence slogan: https://marchforscience.org/science-not-silence-march-for-science/

Spacers: Pipette Icons made by Eucalyp from www.flaticon.com + Politics Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

References:

1.         Brown, R. H. & Malone, E. L. Reason, Politics, and the Politics of Truth: How Science Is Both Autonomous and Dependent. Sociol. Theory 22, 106–122 (2004).

2.         The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. collectivization | Definition & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/topic/collectivization.

3.         R.W. Davies & S.G. Wheatcroft. The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture.

4.         Kolchinsky, E. I., Kutschera, U., Hossfeld, U. & Levit, G. S. Russia’s new Lysenkoism. Curr. Biol. 27, R1042–R1047 (2017).

5.         Borinskaya, S. A., Ermolaev, A. I. & Kolchinsky, E. I. Lysenkoism Against Genetics: The Meeting of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences of August 1948, Its Background, Causes, and Aftermath. Genetics 212, 1–12 (2019).

6.         Soyfer, V. N. The consequences of political dictatorship for Russian science. Nat. Rev. Genet. 2, 723–729 (2001).

7.         Kean, S. The Soviet Era’s Deadliest Scientist Is Regaining Popularity in Russia. The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/12/trofim-lysenko-soviet-union-russia/548786/ (2017).

8.         Waldmann, S., E, NewsNov. 10, E., 2020 & Am, 11:45. Trump to put climate change denier in charge of key U.S. report. Science | AAAS https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/11/trump-put-climate-denier-charge-key-us-report (2020).

9.         Watts, J. ‘No doubt left’ about scientific consensus on global warming, say experts. The Guardian (2019).

10.       Davenport, C. State Dept. Intelligence Analyst Quits to Protest Blocked House Testimony (Published 2019). The New York Times (2019).

11.       Caffrey, M. I’m a scientist. Under Trump I lost my job for refusing to hide climate crisis facts | Maria Caffrey. The Guardian (2019).

12.       Luscombe, R. Florida scientist says she was fired for refusing to change Covid-19 data ‘to support reopen plan’. The Guardian (2020).

13.       Tollefson, J. Scientists relieved as Joe Biden wins tight US presidential election. Nature 587, 183–184 (2020).

14.       Stark, H. The March For Science: Why It Was Really Successful. Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/haroldstark/2017/04/23/the-march-for-science-in-dc-and-around-the-world/.

15.       Foley, K. E. Obama’s former science advisor says there are four things scientists should do to fight Trump. Quartz https://qz.com/914280/obamas-former-science-advisor-says-there-are-four-things-scientists-should-do-to-stay-relevant-under-trump/.

16.       Daley, J. New Scientist-Candidates for U.S. Congress Fared Worse Than Expected in 2020. Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-scientist-candidates-for-u-s-congress-fared-worse-than-expected-in-2020/.

17.       Berezow, A. 314 Action Wants to Elect Scientists, But Only if They’re Democrats. American Council on Science and Health https://www.acsh.org/news/2018/02/22/314-action-wants-elect-scientists-only-if-theyre-democrats-12612 (2018).

18.       Kanter, G. P. Science journal editors shouldn’t contribute to politicizing science. STAT https://www.statnews.com/2020/10/23/science-journal-editors-shouldnt-contribute-to-politicizing-science/ (2020).

19.       Why Nature supports Joe Biden for US president. Nature 586, 335–335 (2020).

20.       Tuckwell, W. Science-Teaching in Schools. Nature 1, 18–20 (1869).

21.       Cliff, J. S. Science Under Fascism and Democracy. Nature 152, 306–307 (1943).

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