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Ask a Scientist: Should Scientists Shy Away from Politics?

, senior writer | September 11, 2019, 10:00 am EST
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This post is a part of a series on Ask a Scientist

We recently received a comment from Dennis M, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) supporter who lives in Chicago, about what he perceives to be a barrier between science and politics. Dennis believes that science and politics are like oil and water and should not mix, and that it is critical that they remain separate.

“Scientists should not seek approval of their work through politics or politicians. It devalues science,” Dennis wrote. “Political decisions are made differently and scientists make decisions on a different basis. This separation is essential.”

Dennis’s position provoked some pushback here at UCS, which is, after all, a science advocacy organization. I asked ecologist Anjali Kumar, the head of our scientist and analyst group, to explain the relationship between science and politics as we see it. Prior to joining our staff in June, Anjali was a science and technology policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science working with the US Agency for International Development, where she managed an international science awards program. She has a Ph.D. in behavioral ecology from the University of Washington.

EN: Dennis N. says politics and science shouldn’t mix. But aren’t they interrelated? Don’t we want public officials to base their decisions on the scientific evidence?

Anjali Kumar, PhD, is the head of our scientist and analyst group.

AK: Scientists have traditionally been uncomfortable discussing or even acknowledging that science is political, but truth be told, science has long played a vital role in politics.

The scientific method is commonly viewed as a process of making observations and answering questions. Once scientists ask fundamental questions and develop hypotheses, they gather data and ask whether the collected evidence aligns with their original hypotheses. This process is called ‘the scientific method’ or scientific inquiry. What policymakers decide to do with the evidence-based results is politics.

Think about it this way: Determining whether toxic emissions from an industrial facility harms public health is scientific inquiry. Deciding what action to take in response to that information is political.

EN: Who pays for scientific research?

AK: Scientific inquiry, research, and publishing papers requires funding at all stages, and where it comes from has changed over time. Historically, science was supported by wealthy donors, churches and individuals. Today, most research in the United States is supported by a mix of funding from the government, private foundations, industry, nonprofit groups and universities.

There are three research and development (R&D) categories that receive funding: basic research, applied research, and research development, which are all funded by different sources (pdf). In 2017, the federal government was the largest funder of basic research at 42 percent, the private sector came in next at 30 percent, and the remaining 30 percent came from foundations, nonprofits and universities. The private sector funded most of the applied research at 55 percent, and the federal government funded 33 percent of it. Research development, on the other hand, is dominated by industry funding. Industry funded 85 percent of it in 2017. The federal government only funded 13 percent.

EN: Who decides how much money federal funding agencies get every year? Are there politics involved in how that money gets distributed?

AK: Congressional committees decide how much money to allocate to federal agencies and for what types of research during the appropriations part of the budget process. Voters elect those senators and representatives to represent their interests. Therefore, the science that gets funded is indirectly decided by voters through their congressional delegations. Science and politics are inextricably intertwined.

In 2018, the federal government’s R&D budget was $135.8 billion. Eight federal agencies received about 96 percent of the money (pdf). Congress tends to spend more taxpayer dollars on defense related national security R&D such as hypersonic technology, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. For example, in 2018 the National Science Foundation (NSF) had a $6.3 billion R&D budget (pdf) while the Department of Defense (DOD) budget was $52.4 billion (pdf).

EN: How do scientists influence federal policy?

AK: Scientists are staff members, legislative assistants and policy directors in congressional offices, the White House and federal agencies They are our eyes and ears in the belly of the beast, sitting at the table with other experts, political appointees and elected officials to help those officials make decisions that can affect communities nationwide.

Scientists also sit on federal agency scientific advisory committees to explain what the scientific evidence says about the likely consequences of particular policy choices. There are more than 200 of these committees across the federal government comprised of unpaid experts from academia, government, industry, and nonprofit organizations. Policymakers incorporate their advice in the decisions they make to protect public health, the environment, the economy and national security. For example, the scientific expertise from committees have dramatically improved the health of people over the last several decades by evaluating the impacts of heavy metals and chemicals in our air, water and soil.

In addition, scientists working outside of the federal government routinely comment on proposed federal rules during public comment periods, and federal agencies are required to read and respond to all comments. I can think of a number of examples when comments have has a major impact, forcing agencies to amend final rules to reflect scientific evidence.

One of my favorite stories is particularly relevant now that the Trump administration is trying to gut the Endangered Species Act. In 2010, after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) designated Black Abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) as an endangered species, the proposed rule for critical habitat was opened for comment. During the comment period, 4,800 ecologists deluged the agency with incontrovertible evidence that the proposed critical habitat did not include the ecosystems to protect both the larval and adult stages of the species. In the final rule, which was issued in 2011, NOAA expanded the critical habitat range directly due to comments provided by the scientists who study the species.

Given the Trump administration’s relentless campaign to roll back environmental safeguards, it is more important than ever that scientists participate in the political process, particularly when it comes to making public comments on proposed new rules.

EN: How has the current administration put the spotlight on science in politics?

AK: The Trump administration has sidelined federal scientists and science in general in a variety of ways. In 2018, UCS surveyed scientists at 16 federal agencies and found that the administration has censored scientists, particularly regarding climate change; interfered with research; left key executive branch scientist positions vacant; and pushed scientists off advisory committees, replacing them with industry-friendly members.

The Environmental Protection Agency is a prime case in point. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler—a former coal industry lobbyist—is promoting a rule that would dramatically limit the scientific studies the agency considers when developing rules. If adopted, it would restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions if the underlying data are not public and reproducible, which would disqualify many epidemiological and other health studies the EPA relies on to set science-based public safeguards. Given that EPA health standards often rely on studies that contain private patient information, as well as confidential business information that cannot be revealed, the rule would significantly hamper the agency’s ability to carry out its mission.

The administration has even injected politics into the public comment process, when the general public is supposed to have the opportunity to weigh in on proposed rules. The administration has approved rules that blatantly disregard scientific evidence. The recent proposed rule that undermines the scientific basis for the Endangered Species Act, for example, ignored more than 800,000 public comments that oppose the changes. The extractive industries—coal, oil and gas, hard rock mining—and the agriculture industry have way too much influence over this administration. They are calling the shots, no matter what the science says.

EN: Keeping science and politics separate doesn’t seem possible.

AK: Science and politics are interconnected—there is no separation. The more we understand how they work together, the more powerful scientists’ voices will be. Science creates knowledge, and with that knowledge, there is power. That power can be—and should be—used to inform policies that protect the safety, health and well-being of the people, organisms and ecosystems of the United States.

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