A discourse on the disconnect between science and politics
Laura Burn considers the relationship between politics and science, and how this relationship might shape both disciplines.
What makes science so fascinating as a subject is that it simultaneously satisfies our curiosity and empowers us to continue the search for answers to our most enduring questions; however, the advancement of scientific fields cannot continue without collaboration and communication. Science often appears as an ivory tower of logic and reason, disconnected from a politically dominated society, yet it remains crucial to question whether this is truly the case and if this is beneficial.
While on the surface advancing scientific knowledge separately from a political reality may seem favourable, it is important to recognise a vast majority of research relies on government funding. Ultimately then, it is the government who decides what research is the most important, especially in high profile cases such as the Manhattan Project, which produced the first nuclear weapons. The control governments hold over scientific research is frequently overlooked. Therefore, in democratic nations where the political party is elected the public have a role in influencing their nation’s use of science, but how often do we consider this before voting?
The perceived separation of science and politics has resulted in severe consequences. Principle among these is the worsening climate crisis, despite many within the scientific community speaking out about it. Bill Nye has conducted many speeches on the topic, including a major one on behalf of National Geographic, as well as speaking out about Donald Trump’s denial of climate change while he was president. In addition, the coronavirus has presented another global crisis where governments acting contrary to scientific advice has potentially led to avoidable deaths. Nevertheless, these kinds of contentions raise questions about the degree to which scientific advice should be an influential factor in political decision making.
Accurate scientific knowledge is something that should be shared, not monopolised, and yet there are many instances throughout history of nations racing for advancement. The first which comes to mind is the Space Race, the competition between the Soviet Union and United States to achieve firsts in space exploration. Although this did indeed forge the way for advances in space flight, it would also prove a dangerous game for both sides. In 1967, both the US and USSR experienced fatalities due to inadequate construction and safety, likely because of the speed at which these spacecrafts were being developed. This calls into question, especially given the modern-day threats of nuclear and biological weaponry, how much control scientists should have over the type of research that is conducted and what it should be used for.
Accurate scientific knowledge is something that should be shared, not monopolised
Another aspect to consider is how the control which politics exhibits over science perpetuates discrimination, regulating who can become a scientist in the first place as well as whose research gets funded and who gets credit for cooperative work. For example, it has been over 100 years since the first woman won a Nobel Prize in Physics: Marie Curie, yet since 1903 there have only been three more women to win the same prize. Not only this, but women in the field have had to face being written out of history, with their male counterparts instead claiming the limelight. To name just one example of this, Rosalind Franklin, who played an important part in the discovery of the double-helical shape of DNA, was not included in the Nobel Prize along with her male colleagues. It is vital we evaluate the part politics has to play in this prejudice within science.
Although the notion of science being objective and unbiased preserves the idea that science is divorced from politics and on a larger scale human nature, this is not truly the case. It is indeed important that the scientific method, that is the way we conduct research, remains unbiased and free from politics, but the scientific field and community will always be intertwined with the politics of its time. If science cannot be separated from politics and societal influence, then it is important that scientific advice is listened to, making the connection between the two disciplines two way, rather than one.