Friday, October 5, 2007

Science and Politics

During the U.S. election season, which seems to stretch on forever compared to most modern democracies, it's more difficult than usual to find science in the headlines. I'm fairly certain that good science continues to be produced, with press releases diligently prepared, while presidential hopefuls give stump speeches along the campaign trail. But most of the time, science just doesn't seem to make the cut. The exception to this general rule occurs when science and politics collide -- when the candidates begin to address the issue of government interference in research, where policymakers lose access to unbiased information.

This week, on the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Russian sputnik satellite, one high-profile candidate delivered a speech blasting the current administration's "war on science", and outlined strategies to shield government scientists from political pressure. Recent examples of scientific research being either suppressed or distorted by government managers -- many of whom were appointed more for their loyalty to an ideological agenda than for any expertise in the relevant discipline -- are most obvious in the area of climate change research. But other research areas have also been politicized, including the science of food safety, air quality, and forest management, to name just a few.

As with many issues, politicians are following rather than leading public opinion. The campaign to restore "scientific integrity" to decision making has recently been championed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. This grassroots organization has sponsored surveys of government scientists and circulated a petition, now with more than 12000 signers, to keep politics out of science. On the specific issue of embryonic stem cell research, which has had limited federal funding imposed by the current administration since August 2001, several prominent celebrities have also played an active role. One of the current group of candidates promises a return to "evidence-based decision-making" in the next administration, something most scientists would undoubtedly welcome.

Like oil and water, science and politics simply do not mix. The government might shake things up for awhile, but -- honoring the finest traditions -- science will eventually rise to the top.