Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Do Science and Politics Mix?

Here at New Voices, we talk a lot about ways that scientists can get engaged in advocacy and communicating with the public. However, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that there is some controversy in the scientific community over whether or not scientists should be advocates. We pose the following questions to get this point/counterpoint started:

Do scientists - especially those who receive federal funding - have a responsibility to communicate to the public about the research that funding supports?

Should scientists be involved in public policy?

Can scientists maintain their objectivity and be involved in politics?

Let the discussion begin ...


  1. Scientists who receive public support DO have a responsibility to actively communicate their research with the public. In my opinion, this communication doesn’t have to be difficult or extensive. It can simply be having a conversation with friends and neighbors, writing a letter to elected officials telling them how you are using public research dollars, being available to the media, or opening your lab for a public tour. I see it this way—if the public is at least helping to pay a scientists’ salary, the scientist should make an effort to share their discoveries with the public. Unfortunately, appropriations for scientific research haven’t exactly been stellar in the recent past. It should be up to scientists to let the public (and policy makers) know the good work they are doing with pubic research dollars.

    The Recovery Act is the perfect opportunity to engage the public. Some sectors of the public and the media are starting to call the effectiveness of the Recovery Act into questions. Scientists who have received Recovery Act funding should make an extra effort to inform the public that the money is being well spent. Informing the public could be as easy as posting on a public blog, writing a letter to the newspaper, or calling government representatives.

  2. The problem is that strong advocacy will invariably create opposition. I think it is this opposition that most scientists are concerned about as they have no desire to see science politicized. Most people prefer to see science as being above the political fray, the recent controversy over President Obama’s call for more cancer research showed how strongly people feel regarding science’s neutrality.

    While acknowledging these concerns, it’s important to question whether or not it’s already too late for neutrality. In the last decade we have seen questionable science involved in political debates of all stripes. Whether it’s global health policy, sex education or drug approval, science is used and misused all the time in the political debate and staying quiet to protect a theoretical neutrality means that only questionable science (and questionable scientists) will have the floor. In a country where creationism is on the comeback, isn’t it the responsibility of scientists to weight into political battles?

  3. This is a critical point to consider when looking to advance science advocacy. I do feel that the scientific work done utilizing tax dollars should be communicated with the public, not only to inform them of the scientific advances that have been taking place as a result of research funding, but also to include the public in this type of thinking - wondering what is happening with their tax dollars, and feeling like it is okay to ask these sorts of questions, and not just within the scientific realm. Any steps to help develop an informed and engaged electorate are worthwhile.

    To get back to the responsibility of tax dollar funded scientists to communicate their research results, I am not sure we can expect all scientists to go out as individuals to talk about what they're doing (of course there should be tools made available to support those that are interested in doing so, and this should be encouraged), but perhaps individual efforts could be coordinated at the university or state level, to communicate what type of research is being done at their institution(s) and conveying the big picture importance of such work to the residents of that state (including economic impacts and workforce development for the region, etc.). I do like the idea of having some kind of 'open lab' day on a campus for people to come in and tour around, working to break down the barrier between the public and scientific work, and hopefully striking up a bit of interest in supporting scientific endeavors.

    While outreach components of some grant awards are written into an application, investigators aren't really held accountable for how well they achieved the 'broader impacts' of their work (it is also unclear how we can quantitatively measure this). Perhaps a funding agency might consider strengthening this aspect of funding, working with either funded investigators or institutions.

    Yes, my suggestions would require more work on behalf of a funded investigator/institution/state; however, the scientific community needs to understand that the outcome of inaction is far greater. The scientific community needs to have a broad appreciation of science, beyond any particular field of research, to support the efforts looking to address the critical questions that face our nation and ensure our ability to regain global leadership in science, engineering and innovation.

  4. Carly, good points. Yes, it will be more work--but that may have long terms pay-offs for science if the public supports more tax dollars going to promising scientific research. Like you say, the consequences of inaction are far greater. I know there a lot of scientists who currently hold 'open lab' days. The open labs I've been to have been well attended and the public is always shocked by the awesome knowledge that coming from the labs.

    In my opinion, the small investment of time (1 hour tops) to write a letter to the editor about what type of research is being done with public funds is worth it.

    As I envision this, sharing the outcomes of publicly-funded research is COMMUNICATION, not ADVOCACY. Scientists can objectively share the type of work they are doing without creating an opposition.

  5. Before I started working for Research!America I never gave this any thought. So I'm not sure if I can truly answer from a non-scientist perspective ... but at the same time I am in no way a scientist.

    I am, however, interested in hearing about the work of scientists I meet, and as a taxpayer I'd like to think those carrying out the work paid for by taxes, including research, would be willing to talk about that work.

    Scientists should definitely be involved in public policy, and from the outside I would say they could keep scientific objectivity even while taking part in policy discussions.

  6. I agree that scientists can't be expected to bear the full burden of trying to communicate the importance of thier work to the public. The institutions they work for, who get a large share of the grant money, should take the lead here, along with other stakeholders who already have effective methods of public communication already in place (or have the capacity to develop and implement them). What can an individual scientist possibly do to effectively reach the public, with what little extra time they may or may not have?

    As for scientists (as representitives of the scientific communitity) getting involved with politics directly (say, via a PAC), I think this could be a very bad idea as it is unlikely that such activities would stay outside of the partisan fray. The absolute worst thing that can happen is for the public to start viewing science as just another political tool.

  7. On the policy front, there are ways that scientists can get involved that are not inherently political--think serving on government advisory committees or responding to agency requests for public comment.

  8. Erin, that's a good point! I think responding to agency requests for public comment is one of the most important forms of outreach scientists can do. Take the recent request for stem cell comments as an example. Opponents of stem cell research responded at overwhelmingly higher rates than supporters and scientists. Luckily, the NIH only recognizes relevant comments. But still this makes a point--scientists have to make the effort if they want to be heard.

    I'm curious . . . how do scientists find out about agency requests for public comment? Is that information distributed by institutions when relevant? Or do scientists have to seek that information out? Would a "clearing house" service be helpful??