Science has long considered itself to be an apolitical enterprise. But in the midst of a global pandemic and with the 2020 election looming, some scientific institutions and elite journals have suddenly become willing to take a political stance against President Donald Trump and his allies.
On October 8, for instance, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) jumped into the fray for the first time in 208 years with an unprecedented political editorial calling for leadership change. Although it stopped short of endorsing Democratic candidate Joe Biden, the article labeled people running the current administration “dangerously incompetent” and added that “we should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans [from COVID-19] by allowing them to keep their jobs.” This week the journal Nature added similar sentiments in an editorial that did endorse Biden and called Trump's record “shameful.” A month earlier 81 U.S. Nobel laureates signed an open letter that expressed their Biden support. “At no time in our nation’s history has there been a greater need for our leaders to appreciate the value of science in formulating public policy,” they wrote.
And the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine—a pair of notoriously cautious and conventional institutions—issued a statement in late September denouncing political interference in public health agencies, particularly the Trump administration’s efforts to rush the approval of a COVID-19 vaccine before tests for safety and effectiveness are completed. “Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated,” they wrote. “We find ongoing reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming.”
Sociologists say the scientific establishment seems to be making a switch from a long-held condemnation of political interference in science to actually condemning a politician. “In some ways, this is the last stand,” says Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “They have to stand up, at this point, for science because science and its role in society is threatened right now.” Scientific leaders contend that Trump is uniquely unfit for the presidency and has harmed science to an unprecedented degree. But some social scientists worry that aligning the research enterprise with a political party could ultimately backfire, politicizing science beyond repair.
Speaking out against antiscience policies has long been the domain of advocacy groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and others. In 2017, for instance, several such organizations backed the March for Science in Washington, D.C., which was sparked by concerns about the incoming Trump administration’s seeming disregard for evidence-based policies that arose during the 2016 presidential campaign. Although journals and institutions such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine largely stayed out of the debate, “all of the ingredients were there for a showdown at some point,” says political scientist Matthew Motta of Oklahoma State University.
The three years that followed saw a mass exodus of researchers from government, appointments of federal research agency officials with few scientific credentials, the muzzling of government scientists, and most recently, constant statements and policies dismissing the threat posed by COVID-19. Institutions’ new willingness to speak out, Fisher says, “basically shows how far the Trump administration has sunk and how far they’ve dragged down the discourse.”
National Academy of Sciences president Marcia McNutt agrees. Unlike previous infringements on scientific independence, such as suppressing federal reports on climate change, McNutt says, the president’s statements and actions around the COVID-19 pandemic could immediately harm public health, and that is why her academy has acted. “The reason the statement had impact was because we don’t do it very often,” she says. “Rather than being a political statement, it is rather a statement saying, ‘Please don’t be political when it comes to science.’”
Other calls have been more explicit. At the journal Science, editor in chief Holden Thorp has published about a dozen editorials criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic and attitude toward science this year. His September 18 editorial, entitled “Trump Lied about Science,” chastised the president personally for downplaying the danger of the pandemic.
“Before I started [in August 2019], it was the tradition at Science to refer to it as ‘the administration,’ not by [a person’s] name,” Thorp says. “But I felt that when Trump went into heavy denial on COVID, it was time to change that.”
It is unclear whether these kinds of statements will have much impact. At their best, editorials such as Thorp’s can help scientists articulate their own arguments, says communications researcher Matthew Nisbet of Northeastern University. But he points out that because most of the general public already has strong opinions about the election, endorsements from elite institutions will not change many minds. “They’re read and heard about by people who follow Science,” Nisbet says.
Still, Thorp and others see taking this new political stance as a moral imperative. “I think of myself as speaking for the scientists who either don’t have the platform or are in a situation where they can’t speak out,” such as government scientists or researchers at universities with conservative trustees, Thorp says.
While Thorp and McNutt say the response from their members and subscribers has been almost universally positive, the reaction to NEJM’s editorial was more mixed. The journal’s editor in chief Eric Rubin says that one of its regular article reviewers wrote to say he would no longer evaluate submissions because he thought NEJM’s “political stance” disqualified it from judging papers. But Rubin says this attitude speaks to the mistaken idea that facts and evidence are a matter of opinion. “It’s not a matter of ‘he said, she said’; it’s a matter of these stupid things cost lives.”
Rubin, who says he has received some “uncomfortably vile” letters, is not surprised at the mixed response from NEJM’s readership. Although academic scientists are overwhelmingly liberal on average, physicians tend to be equally liberal and conservative—similar to the general public.
Nisbet and Motta worry that taking a political stance could backfire on scientific institutions. “There is an important potential cost to keep in mind: that it may alter the way public thinks about science,” Motta says. Historically, Republican politicians have been at least as enthusiastic as Democrats about funding and support for scientific research—a trend that has contributed to scientists’ general avoidance of politics. If science is seen to have a liberal bias, Motta says, Republican politicians could become less willing to fund scientific research, and conservative students could become more reluctant to enter scientific fields.
Motta has some evidence to support that concern. In a survey of 428 online volunteers, he found that while liberals viewed scientists more favorably after the 2017 March for Science, conservatives’ views of scientists and their research became more negative. Similarly, a 2017 study found that although climate scientists’ credibility is not always impacted when they advocate for specific policies, it can sometimes suffer when they do so.
To McNutt, that is all the more reason to hope that the recent spate of science activism is short-lived. “If I could do anything, I would like to unwrap science and politics as quickly as possible,” she says. “We want to just say, ‘Here’s the science. You political leaders decide.’”