Ahead of the upcoming election on Tuesday, scientific and medical experts at Yale shared their thoughts on the role of science in politics.
Science has been at the forefront of the current election cycle, with the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change being two of the most hotly debated topics on the national stage. Although most scientists typically prefer to keep their work separate from politics, this year has seen the frequent politicization of science within the national conversation. In the beginning of October, Scientific American — a scientific publication that has not expressed a public stance in an election in its 175-year history — announced its support for Biden in an unprecedented endorsement of a presidential candidate. Other publications, including the New England Journal of Medicine and Nature have since made political statements of their own.
Yale scientists, echoing their peers across the country, called for evidence-based policies to address pressing scientific issues, from public health to the environment.
“I think one of the essential foundations of good governance is to have an evidence base to come up with evidence-based policies,” said Albert Ko, department chair and professor of epidemiology and a key COVID-19 advisor to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont. “We have fragmented responses, we have weak federal responses, and this is really a reflection of poor judgements.”
Ko said that lawmakers should be striving for evidence-based policy, not policy-based evidence. And when the evidence is clear, he believes it is the government’s responsibility to enact appropriate policy.
He acknowledged, however, that when there is no clear scientific consensus, the mixing of politics and science can be dangerous.
“There’s always a diversity of interpretation, a diversity of opinion, within science,” Ko said. “We’ve seen that play out with hydroxychloroquine. We’ve seen that play out with herd immunity. What is potentially dangerous is when the diversity of opinion or interpretation is used for political aims.”
In the context of the coronavirus pandemic specifically, Ko noted that many elected officials in the U.S. do not believe in the science of face masks and fail to set a public health example. He classified this as a “policy failure.”
Professor of Chemistry Gary Brudvig, who directs the Yale Energy Sciences Institute, also emphasized the importance of science-based policy.
“I certainly am a strong advocate that science has to be front and center in terms of how we respond to any situation,” Brudvig said. “Climate change is one, how we’re dealing with the pandemic is another. I think those, among others, need to be guided by science, and not by personal views or politics.”
In terms of the current public perception of science, Brudvig remained optimistic about trust in the field. Although some people “are ignoring science,” he thinks that climate change, for instance, is becoming increasingly recognized as a critical scientific issue.
Brudvig, who describes himself as “not particularly political,” noted that while recent events may have prompted some scientists to become more political, most have continued to keep their work separate from politics.
“I think scientists like to hunker down and do their science mostly,” Brudvig said. “And in fact it’s kind of unfortunate there aren’t a lot of really good spokespeople for the scientific community that can really speak well and reach the general public.”
James Hamblin, a lecturer in public health policy at the School of Public Health and a staff writer at The Atlantic, said that the upcoming election is particularly important for its potential impacts on science.
“I don’t think there has been a more consequential election,” Hamblin said. “I think that any craziest idea of a barrier between science and politics has been obliterated by the current president.”
With regards to the appropriate intersection of science and politics, Hamblin said that there has always been a mix between the fields. Brudvig noted that in addition to science influencing politics, politics can influence science as well, given that that the latter field does not exist “in a vacuum” and is often “colored” by current events.
However, Brudvig said that the more political interpretations of science come from outside of the scientific community.
“I think there has been really a strong effort by some of the politicians to twist science to their political advantage, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Brudvig said. “That’s not scientific, the community doing that, I think that’s the non-scientific community trying to twist the science.”
In terms of the upcoming election, both Brudvig and Ko emphasized the high stakes surrounding two specific scientific issues — climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ko specifically pointed out the need for the next administration to work beyond U.S. borders to combat the coronavirus. He said that the country’s current leadership has attempted to undermine this sort of collaboration.
“I think we’re seeing an administration, which I think has done the worst job in history, dealing with science in general but in particular addressing climate change issues,” Brudvig said. “The United States has not been a leader in general in this direction, but to have an administration that is trying to bring back the coal industry is completely anachronistic.”
The 2020 general election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Zhemin Shao | firstname.lastname@example.org