Science and politics; an unavoidable marriage ?

We have been talking a lot about whether or not scientists should be activists (even though our definitions of activism seemed to differ), but we didn’t talk about the role politics have to play in science, and the role science has to play … in politics.

It seems to me that those two spheres can hardly be separated. After all, the major part of funding that scientists receive comes directly from the government. The government itself make statements all the time by deciding to fund some specific researches over others. Thus, if we agree on the idea that science cannot happen without the financial input of politics, are we willing to consider that scientists should implicate themselves in public politic debates to ensure the viability of their funding ?

In September 2008, the journal Nature published an editorial where the total absence of science in the electoral campaign was deplored. In the article, the journal reports that “many Canadian scientists are seeing, and complaining about, an undue emphasis on commercially focused research over long-term basic research” (Nature, 2008). Isn’t it a good example of an appropriate moment for scientists to become activists ? Don’t you think scientists have to react when the quality of their research is jeopardised by bias in the way funds are attributed ? Obviously, some scientists thought it was a real problem cause they signed the petition i vote for science ( where a public statement about their views on environment, health, science and technology was required from politicians.

I personally assume that if scientist depend on the government’s funding, they have an obligation, both as citizens and as professionals, to implicate themselves in political debates.

On the other hand, I am wondering if politics need science. In march 2008, the Office of National Science Advisor, that was previously created during the last liberal mandate, has been abolished by the Conservative government. The role of the office was basically to advise the Prime minister on different issues concerning science and technology, and to counsel the government on how it can “better support and benefit from science conducted inside government” (Industry Canada, 2008). In my personal opinion, the Conservative party sent a message that it does not need science when it got rid of this office. I am asking you this question, colleagues, as researchers, are we willing to accept that science is push aside from politics ? Do you think that scientists should be more implicated on public debates ? Or do you think that science and politics should be completely separated ?

2 Responses to “Science and politics; an unavoidable marriage ?”

  1. shorty says:

    Your comment on when scientific activism is appropriate is intriguing. How do you define commercial use? I believe science should have a use, but one that is not trivial. For example the funding for the big bang machine ( appears slightly trivial with no apparent application. If scientists are involved in political debate they voice what they feel is important. They also bring to the table the knowledge necessary for decision-making.

    I agree that science and politics play roles on each other. I would argue the role of the government is for community functioning. The applications of science involve how society views the earth. However one might ask the question of whether scientists are always thinking of the community when they begin their research? If this is not always true this could be one of the ways science is separated from politics, because its original goal is not to serve the community. It may be curiosity over an unknown bit of knowledge. By funding a research project the government says which projects it views as important. If policy is driven by the knowledge science provides the government always uses science. In this way politics cannot be viewed without science, but science may be viewed without politics.

  2. guesswho says:

    Your comment is really interesting. I realise that I can’t really tell what the goal of science should be. I usually assume that researches should have a utility, whether it is to improve our quality of life, or to protect biodiveristy, and any other good reason. But perhaps science doesn’t have utility, just as we are not asking art to reach any other form of utility than simple enjoyment. Maybe that the research for a greater level of knowledge is sufficient in itself to legitimise the need for science.