Politicizing Science


By Maya Durvasula.

Q: What does a single-stranded, negative-sense, enveloped RNA virus (genus Morbillivirus) have in common with the Koch Brothers?

A: Both are critically poised to impact the field of candidates for the 2016 presidential elections. The prospect of either (or both) doing so ought to terrify us.

While it’s relatively straightforward to figure out why the Koch Brothers, with their $889 million campaign spending goal for the 2016 elections, are in a position to influence the race, the political significance of the ongoing measles virus outbreak is less obvious, though certainly no less threatening to our country.

Every day, for the past week or so, newspapers and blogs have run new headlines about politicians who have weighed in on the Disneyland measles outbreak, in which more than 100 cases have currently been reported. It is tempting to skim these articles and walk away thinking that national leaders disagree about the best way to go about containing and addressing the outbreak, based on advice from the pros; they do not.

The primary point of disagreement among politicians, rather, is one about the propriety of vaccinations in general. That is: should we require vaccinations for all children?

In the interest of promoting the health and well-being of all American citizens, it is time we put an end to this scientifically baseless debate with a strong and resounding yes. Then we can deal with the broader issue of politicians who frequently quip “I’m not a scientist,” but proceed to offer opinions and openly challenge scientists on issues that fall far beyond the scope of their expertise on a daily basis.

The measles outbreak is currently demonstrating the precise issue that arises when we allow our leaders to politicize science. As the Economist wrote in a commentary on the outbreak, “when scientific disputes are politicized, the truth suffers.” The headlines that we skim about vaccines suggest (“Vaccine debate presents a political minefield,” “As measles spread, so does vaccine debate,” “Vaccination debate intensifies as measles outbreak spreads”) that, instead of unequivocal scientific fact, there exists a meaningful debate about the safety and importance of vaccines. The issue is only compounded by the involvement of politicians – on both sides of the aisle – who become the spokespeople for objectively incorrect or misleading stances on crucial issues, as a consequence of their easy access to microphones and news cameras.   

The high stakes of vaccination make this a particularly cogent example of the politicized science problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, among children born from 1994 to 2013, vaccinations prevented 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and 730,000 deaths. The issue is much broader, however, than merely public health. Other issues like climate change, which is also substantiated by clear, empirical evidence, are constantly pushed into the political fray, jeopardizing scientific research and bringing into question our ability to deal with objectively pressing issues in a timely manner.

Recently, proposals have circulated that would give Congress oversight over federal funding for scientific research, from groups like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2013, proposals suggested that, in order to receive funding, political science studies would have to demonstrate a direct benefit to U.S. security and economic interests, with similar criteria outlined for broader scientific research. By putting forth these proposals in the first place, legislators suggested that political feasibility and immediate, short-term benefits ought to take precedence over intellectual merit and potential.  The ramifications of allowing unqualified politicians to regulate funding for scientific innovation, perhaps in accordance with the wishes of those groups that populate the rows of their campaign finance reports, and to dominate the news cycle with unwarranted personal opinions about medicine and science are almost indescribably profound.

In 2012, John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, posed a question in the New York Times about why Americans don’t elect scientists to high offices. Internationally, he argued, there is nothing remarkable about the scientist-politician. Eight out of ten government officials in China have educational backgrounds in science, Angela Merkel earned her PhD in chemistry, and before becoming Britain’s “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher worked on x-ray crystallography as part of her degree in chemistry.

In addressing the question of why scientists, engineers, and physicians are poorly represented within the American government, Paulos suggests that our system is not amenable to the types of thinking that those professionals would bring with them: “Both Republicans and Democrats massage statistics, use numbers to provide decoration rather than information, dismiss, or at least distort, the opinions of experts… equivocate, derogate, and obfuscate.” For the time being, then, if there is no room for scientists to comfortably join the ranks of politicians, we ought to call upon our politicians to stop selectively masquerading as scientists. As long as we continue to value health and innovation, we cannot afford to continue tolerating this game.

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