When science is politicized everyone loses

Rachel Kerestes, Executive Director of Science is US |

The Covid-19 pandemic taught us a lot about science. From appropriate, science-based public health measures to keep us safe, to treatments for those infected, to the quick development of highly effective vaccines, science was our safety blanket.

In a hotly contested election year and with a bitterly divided electorate, however, science was regularly politicized and, most regrettably, trusted scientists were often denigrated. From left to right there was no shortage of candidates and policy makers who used and ignored science to score political points and advance their respective agendas.

Promoting incomplete or exaggerated storylines that favored a particular world view was nothing new in politics, even in 2020. But what was new was the battle to claim or reject science as part of specific partisan ideologies. Politicians and political parties claimed they were the representatives of science and truth (while their opponents were not). Being “pro-science” and “anti-science” became political identifiers, a trend that should alarm anyone who cares about science and its role in the development of sound public policy.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, no political party can claim an absolute allegiance to science. Research has found that many who call themselves Republican and Democrat hold views that are inconsistent with the scientific consensus. For example, some Democrats may accept the evidence of climate change while simultaneously rejecting the science that demonstrates the safety of genetically modified foods. At the same time, some Republicans may strongly support research demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of childhood vaccinations while arguing against evidence which supports the teaching of sex education in schools.

That’s why science and engineering should never belong to one political party—evidence should never be subject to the whims of ideology. If consumed by politics, science would cease to be a useful tool to anyone. Science must be protected because it gives us a way of evaluating and understanding the world. It helps guide our thinking and make wiser choices. It allows us to learn, explore, grow and adapt, as it did over the course of the pandemic.

But science also can’t tell us what to do. Nor should it.

While most of us claim to make science-based decisions, our actual conclusions are informed by several factors. We may consider our history, culture, religion, personal experiences, finances, resources and more. Science and evidence may come into it, but they are not always paramount.

The same is true in public policy. The ideal evidence-based solution may be cost prohibitive. Cultural and religious factors may need to supersede the choice most aligned with the research. The need for compromise to reach a political agreement may require opting for a less scientifically perfect direction.

Political leaders who act in conflict with scientific evidence, however, must provide the public a sound justification for doing so. The public must then judge if those decisions are wise. We may disagree with how a policy maker balanced the evidence against competing interests, but we should not place the burden for the decision on what science alone may indicate. That measured balance becomes impossible when the invocation of science itself becomes a political weapon.

If we want to ensure that sound public policy is made, we must stop politicizing science. We cannot allow ourselves to be dismissive and simply label politicians or political parties “pro” or “anti” science when they make a decision which we view as contrary to the research or when a decision is made that prioritizes another factor above the evidence. Doing so takes away the focus on whether policy decisions were made on a reasonable basis or not and only furthers the us-versus-them posture that is consuming our politics. It also creates an environment where a thoughtful examination of the scientific evidence is not prioritized as part of the policy process.

To succeed—not just in defeating Covid-19—but in every public policy endeavor, we must require our elected officials to consider the scientific consensus and evidence when making policy decisions. If they don’t, we must hold them accountable. But we must also recognize that sound policies may result by prioritizing other factors—from budget to culture—over the most scientifically aligned direction.

Most importantly we must view science as a valuable tool that belongs to all of us and stop seeking to make science the property of any specific political ideology or party. Hopefully, it won’t take another pandemic for us to learn that lesson.

A trained biologist and public policy analyst, Rachel Kerestes is Executive Director of Science is US, a foundation-supported effort that brings together a diverse group of science, engineering, industry, higher education and labor organizations to advocate for science-based public policies.

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