Why science is political

That Profound Moment

I was late that morning to the Precision Health Symposium, having slept in and missed my train, but the first speaker was still talking when I arrived.  Instead of pushing my way around round tables that didn’t quite make sense for a day of presentations, I chose to stand at the back of the room until he finished speaking.  I wasn’t the only person who was at the back.  Several others were leaning on walls or sitting on small tables.  And as the speaker went on about genetic screening, I found myself very engaged in the way he spoke about the need for cheap screening panels for adults.

You see, there are now these panels for infants.  When a baby is born, a panel of genetic markers is obtained to find out if they are going to have health issues such as sickle cell, which can drastically affect their life.  This speaker wanted something like this for adults.  I thought it would be amazing to give this kind of opportunity.

Then, he moved onto a slide with the title “Politics”.  He apologized (#sorrynotsorry) for bringing it up and then said that this type of inquiry is useless if it doesn’t reach the at-risk patients who need it the most.

A profound point for me.  I have no information on the health history of my maternal line, because my mother was adopted.  I have a partner with health issues and no insurance.  I have experienced homelessness and hunger.  And, I truly believe healthcare should be available for all, and individualized as much as possible.

And then it happened…

Nearby, one of the scientists in the back of the room, who had muttered a little too loudly several times already, leaned to another scientist and said “I wish they’d leave politics out of this.  It has no place in science.”  This man, who I happen to know, is a white, cisgendered male.  Given his age and accomplishments, I can only assume that he has never had to decide whether he could afford to take a loved one to the hospital during an emergency.  I can only assume that he has never had to just deal with an infection or the flu or a possible broken bone because he could not afford a doctor.

I was angry at first.  I tried to tell myself that he doesn’t know that politics has helped people with pre-existing conditions gain healthcare (which hopefully won’t be reversed in the coming weeks), that he doesn’t know that politicians define how poorly or well we treat our environment, that politics is intimately involved in what is taught in our schools.  And I joked that he must not know that politics define whether he gets a paycheck or not, as a federally funded employee.

Science and politics can work together

 

The fact is that a societal moral code is decided and upheld with our political system.  Once, it was considered normal to enslave men, women, and children in the US, and this right was upheld by our country’s political system.  Those values have changed in many ways, and I believe it is up to myself and others, as scientists, to continue to combat ignorance about race, about healthcare, about climate change, about education, and more.   Our stake in politics is our stake in improving our world and the lives of everything living in it.

 

So science can get it politics, but should politics get into science?

Science does and should improve lives, both by helping us understand the world around us and by helping to fix problems.  But what are the problems that need fixing?

We live in a world where it’s now possible to alter genes.  We could fund research that would propose to remove any and all detrimental gene variants.  But then who draws the line between medicine and eugenics? Do we really believe that scientists should just get to do whatever they want?  After the Tuskeegee Study, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Amgen’s report on the lack of reproducibility in cancer research, all which led to policy reform?

The world isn’t perfect, and the US certainly isn’t perfect.  And while, in a perfect world, I might consider that politics should get out of science, it is ingrained in what we do.  It decides who gets funded, who gets that post-doc or faculty position, what projects we work on, what gets published, what kind of lab space we get, what equipment we have available…many aspects of our lives as scientists are affected by politics.

But we don’t have to let that be a bad thing.

Politics, despite its many drawbacks, also forces us to think about the impact of our work, how it will benefit the scientific community and humanity and the world and the universe.  Politics is pushing us to treat human and animal participants with respect.  Politics is (hopefully) pushing us to do more robust and reproducible science.  And, most importantly to me, politics is taking scientific ideas and turning them into technology and policy that can benefit the world.

If we stop allowing the two to communicate, we risk falling into silence.  We risk a world where only the most educated have access to science, and where politicians and corporations claim ignorance in order to hold down other people and push their agendas further.

One last note about politics

One thing that I truly believe is that if we choose to cut off certain disciplines, we limit ourselves and our work.  Deciding that a discipline such as politics isn’t good enough for us means that we can’t put it into our toolbox and use it.  Science is already political, and politics needs science.

What are your thoughts?

How has politics impacted your career?  How has it helped or hindered your progress?  What should scientists do to improve the political climate?  How can non-scientists understand how important science is in policy making?

 

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