By Erin Drushel

[avatar user=”ErinDrushel” size=”thumbnail” align=”left”]Erin Drushel[/avatar]The scientific community is under attack.  The desire for political control over science and its findings threaten the integrity of the entire system.

The Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), drafted legislation that would provide political oversight to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process for awarding research grants.  Smith contends that his draft legislation would “add a layer of accountability” to the publicly-supported body and ensure funding for important, original and ground-breaking research. I call it political meddling.

scientific method (n): principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

Here’s the problem: scientific discovery doesn’t typically happen in a silo.  Unfortunately, funding is not infinite.  But, when you start picking and choosing what you fund based on political desirability, you run the risk of discounting a hypothesis which may seem insignificant – but when paired with another’s research – could be astonishingly ground-breaking.  It’s like producing a bunch of locks and dismissing the one person who makes the keys; simply because the keys are not politically “sexy.”

The political desire to ensure scientific results-based funding may seem an admirable one, but it is fraught with limitations and a potential for exploit that ultimately hurts the evolution of scientific discovery.  How does a politician, who knows nothing of science, define what has scientific merit?  Everybody wants, for example, a cure for cancer.  But by deeming someone’s research unimportant because it doesn’t seem necessary, could discount the key for unlocking that discovery.

There’s an excellent book called “Connections” by James Burke, which should be mandatory reading for every politician who is not a scientist.  “Connections” shows how scientific discovery evolves, and how seemingly random discoveries can later result in more relevant-to-society creations – one example being the air conditioner; particularly relevant with summer on the way.

Muzzling Scientists

Sadly, the increasing desire to control science and scientists is not exclusive to the US Congress.

In Canada, specifically under the federal government, scientists are allegedly not allowed to answer media questions without government clearance resulting in exceedingly prolonged delays in access to information on topics relevant to the public.  This “muzzling” situation has persisted enough that it has led to a formal investigation by the Information Commissioner.

Controlling the flow of government information to ensure everyone is on the same page is one thing.  But staunching the flow of facts, data and access to the people who understand both is beyond reasonable comprehension.

It makes you wonder (or at least it should) what the Canadian government is trying to hide.  Perhaps there are a few “inconvenient truths” they’re not sharing.  Maybe the facts are bad for business, so it’s better to muzzle those who know what they are talking about, while only allowing mouthpieces with talking points to comment.  This sounds like another case of political control trumping access to scientific realities.

Scapegoating Scientists

Although the aforementioned attacks on the scientific community are relatively subtle in scope, we don’t need to look too far back to find an example of the extreme.

In 2009, a massive earthquake ripped apart the Italian city of L’Aquila.  Tragically, 309 people died.  Prior to the devastating quake, scientists were asked to assess the situation and predict whether or not a massive quake was likely.  In their expert opinion, it was improbable, but couldn’t be ruled out.  Then tragedy struck.  The prediction was then used against the six scientists (and one other member of the Italian High Risk Commission) in court where they were charged and convicted of manslaughter.  Six months ago, those scientists started serving their six-year jail sentence.

Predictions in science are educated guesses.  Sometimes we guess wrong because Mother Nature has her own ideas.  The natural world will do whatever it wants despite human predictions; scientists do the best they can.  They are not gods.  However, the pain of this tragedy called for someone to be blamed and the scientists were assigned that blame.

This situation begs the question: who in their right mind would want to be a scientist if with every failed hypothesis you could go to jail?  It becomes a no-win situation.

In Retrospect

The short-sighted attempts to manipulate the scientific community cannot end well.

I get particularly annoyed when politicians tell us that they don’t really understand the significance of the data they are talking about; but then proceed to tell us – ‘authoritatively,’ that it’s bunk.

It doesn’t pay to be a scientist when too many people who don’t know anything, are in charge of everything.

– Erin Drushel

1 Comment

  1. Treebeard May 13, 2013at8:40 pm

    Al Gore talks of “an inconvenient truth” in the context of global warming. In Harper’s Canada, climate change science cautions against his agenda for the rapid exploitation of the Alberta oil sands. Therefore, he wants where possible to stop the scientists from speaking out publicly.

    Lamar Smith, whose agenda is apparent from any quick look at his Wikipedia entry, wants to cut off dissenting voices at the source by cutting off their funding. This is the same stunt Harper has used in suppressing any organizations speaking out against Israeli policy or offering charity to the Palestinians.

    This is a common political tactic and is not limited to the right wing. Just look at the current nuclear energy discussion and try to find a greenie who will admit that nuclear power is clean – no emissions at all – and less expensive per kilowatt hour produced than any power source except hydraulic.

    Whether the tactic is used by left or right, whether it is suppression by employer order, financial withdrawal, or simply a campaign of evasion, distraction, logical fallacies and downright lies, it is an abuse of the public trust and, for those in authority, an abuse of power.

    We may and should choose to condemn such behaviour in every case that comes to our attention. But let us also remember we should do so with every manipulator regardless of asocial or political position.