This is a reprint of an editorial that I published in May 2019 in the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management. You can find the typeset PDF (OpenAccess) here.
“Science” is not a noun but a verb describing a human endeavor. Scientiﬁc knowledge does not appear out of thin air. The questions scientists ask, the experiments they run, and the conclusions they draw depend on the culture in which scientists work and their assumptions about the world around us.
Science provides crucial input for politics, and examples of the interdependence of science and politics are abun-dant. The Manhattan Project culminated in the deployment of the atom bomb, Lysenkoism devastated advancements in Soviet science, the US government decision in 2001 to ban funding for research on embryonic stem cells impacted medical research, and the current travel restrictions imposed by the US government heavily impede the work of scientists from several Muslim nations. Also the continuous debate on the precautionary principle, that is, the question of the best path forward when scientiﬁc knowledge is lacking, is an indicator of the intimate connection between scientiﬁc knowledge and political decision making.
These and countless other examples should remind everyone that it is dangerously naïve to assume that scientiﬁc knowledge can be generated in an ivory tower without the nitty‐gritty of societal interactions. We need to face the fact that society decides upon and implements politics, politics then controls scientiﬁc work whose results then, in turn, inform society and politics. Or in other words: science produces knowledge, knowledge provides options for politics, and politics then enables and ﬁnances (or impedes and starves) science. As a consequence, science itself is deeply political.
In this context it is important to differentiate between scientific facts (the pile of bricks) and scientific knowledge (the house built from the bricks we collect). Scientific facts are not political per se, but knowledge is, because facts are incomplete and often partially or completely obfuscated by uncertainties and interpreted by human beings in a societal context.
If people in general are driven by deeply personal values, ambitions, and goals, then scientists must acknowledge the same for themselves. Scientists therefore cannot claim to serve as an “honest broker of policy alternatives” (Pielke 2007) in a true sense of the term. Scientists who loudly harp this notion are usually the ones with the strongest — often hidden — political agenda and are often deeply engaged in political advocacy and normative science (Backhaus et al. 2010).
Especially because the notion of an “honest broker” is nothing more than an aspirational goal, it is crucial that scientists also acknowledge that the person in the mirror is as biased as that stupid idiot on the other side of the table. Only then can we have more decent and more constructive conversations on politically contentious scientiﬁc issues. Scientists need to strive for a culture of exciting and controversial debates in which even the subject‐matter experts can openly acknowledge their political bias without being discredited. Who knows? In the end this might yet lead to debates in which even experts can reevaluate their perspective. In any case, we should be deeply suspicious of anyone pretending to be the guardian of the absolute truth. I would argue that society would beneﬁt tremendously if scientists, as a stakeholder group, engaged more in the political debate and contributed more to the formulation of policy options, while acknowledging that, in the end, their perspective is as political as that of other stakeholders. It is difﬁcult to imagine how the global challenges that humanity faces can be solved without an ample dose of science. In that context, it is encouraging to see 11 new members of the US House of Representatives with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, or medicine (Lee et al. 2018).
To foster such developments, and to help counteract the current tendency for postfactual debates that poison the public discourse, it is more essential than ever to make integrated, timely scientiﬁc information widely available. Scientiﬁc communication, transparency of the process, and open debates among scientists, decision makers, and the general public are critical for agreeing on sustainable long‐ term solutions to today’s global environmental problems.
Inspiring role models include Carl Sagan, who was a prominent voice on the dangers of nuclear proliferation during the Reagan era, and, more recently, the climate researcher Michael Mann, who has concluded that “…it is no longer acceptable for scientists to remain on the sidelines…” (Mann 2014). Incredibly, as a consequence, Mann even had to explain to the US Congress that Science is, indeed, a reputable scientiﬁc publication (Columbia Law School 2017).
Environmental scientists have an obligation to raise the alarm on critical issues and contribute to solutions. This challenge has been adopted by the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) initiative of the European Commission, which advocates the idea that all societal actors (researchers, European citizens, policy makers, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, etc.) must work together during research and innovation to optimize their outcomes with respect to the values, needs, and expectations of the society that has largely funded the process (Owen et al. 2012).
If individuals are inherently biased, then scientiﬁc advice is best developed by a diverse group of scientists with different political views and scientiﬁc backgrounds. This is exactly the method by which the Scientiﬁc Advice Mechanism (SAM) functions to support the policy making by the European Commission. The SAM includes the Group of Chief Scientiﬁc Advisors, representing 7 experts with expertise in particle physics, bioinformatics, sociology, materials sciences, geography, genetics, and cell biology. This learned group of scientists, supported by an extended group of experts that served as a sounding board, recently provided recommendations to the European Commission for improving the European system for pesticide authorization (Group of Chief Scientiﬁc Advisors 2018).
Also, the Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA), which is part of SAM, relies upon the combined expertise from diverse groups of scientists to coalesce scientiﬁc evidence and knowledge to support societal decision making. The most recent example of SAPEA’s work is its evidence review report on environmental pollution by microplastics (SAPEA 2019), prepared by a transdisciplinary group of 26 scientists from the social and natural sciences disciplines. Their work has been used to support the scientiﬁc foundation for the current EU plastics strategy.
Scientists can be valuable contributors to politics, both as problem raisers and as problem solvers. Beyond their subject matter expertise, scientists bring valuable analytical skills to the table, including the ability to take and receive honest critique (well, maybe that is yet another aspirational goal), to acknowledge facts (or their absence), to work in time horizons longer than typically short political election cycles and in spatial contexts that transcend national borders. Scientists are also trained to work in the inter‐ and transdisciplinary contexts needed to tackle the “wicked problems” caused by human interactions with their environment.
John Holdren, former senior science advisor to US President Obama, urged scientists in 2017 to become more broadly informed about science and policy issues; to give at least 10% of their time to public service, public policy, and activism; to act strategically and as part of a larger‐scale organization; and to avoid becoming discouraged or intimidated in the pursuit of their science research, because the work is important (Foley 2017).
I could not agree more.
This editorial was inspired by historian Audra J Wolfe, who tweeted on 12 July 2018 that “Science has always been political” (Wolfe 2018) and the indignant outcry that the tweet triggered.
Backhaus T, Brooks BW, Kapustka L. 2010. Chemical risk assessment: Pressures, perceptions and expectations. Integr Environ Assess Manag 6(3):323–324.
Columbia Law School. 2017 Mar 29. Climate science criticized in congressional hearing. Silencing Science Tracker. New York (NY). [accessed 2019 Apr 9]. http://columbiaclimatelaw.com/silencing‐science‐tracker/climate‐ science‐criticized‐in‐congressional‐hearing/
Foley KE. 2017 Feb 18. Obama’s former science advisor says there are four things scientists should do to stay relevant under Trump. Quartz (STEM Activism). [accessed 2019 Jan 22]. https://qz.com/914280/obamas‐former‐ science‐advisor‐says‐there‐are‐four‐things‐scientists‐should‐do‐to‐stay‐ relevant‐under‐trump/
Group of Chief Scientiﬁc Advisors. 2018. EU authorisation processes of plant protection products – Scientiﬁc opinion. Brussels (BE): EUROPA. 76 p. https://doi.org/10.2777/238919
Lee JJ, Maxmen A, Rehm J, Tollefson J. 2018. Science candidates prevail in US midterm elections. Nature 563:302–303.
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Pielke RA. 2007. The honest broker—Making sense of science in policy and politics. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge Univ. 200 p.
[SAPEA] Science Advice for Policy by European Academies. 2019. A scientiﬁc perspective on microplastics in nature and society. Berlin (DE). 174 p. [accessed 2019 Apr 9]. https://www.sapea.info/wp-content/uploads/report.pdf
Wolfe AJ (@ColdWarScience). 2018. “Science has always been political.” 12 July 2018, 2:57 am. [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/ColdWarScience/status/