Science is a political act – and it matters for society

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(Albert Einstein advocating for global peace at a NBC speech in 1950. Source: thirdwise/flicker)

This is a blog post I wrote for a cooperative blog on science communication-Making Science Matters

Scientists are usually viewed as neutral and apolitical actors, and scientists also seem to stick to this view. Even the president of the Royal Society, back in a 2010 speech, suggested scientists be behind-the-scene actors but in no way actively taking part in political decisions. However, science regularly brings discoveries that deeply impact humanity as a whole. Scientists should realize that science is a political act, and make their voice heard.

A long way has gone since the scientific revolution in the 16th century. And with it, a great deal of discoveries that changed the course of humanity at its deepest level. We can, for example, think about the development of the Copernican model by Copernicus in the 16th century. Copernicus re-defined how the cosmos was viewed, by discovering that the Earth and the other planets were revolving around the Sun. Before this, it was taken for granted that the Earth was the center of the Cosmos. Of course, this was met with a great resistance from the religious community, as this discovery was contradictory to the religious dogmas. With time, heliocentrism became taken for granted, but it indeed created a major shift in the cosmological model of our civilization, and forced European societies to redefine themselves and their relation to their environment. A closer example to us is the discovery of the mass-energy equivalence by Einstein, the famous equation E=mc2. This equation later brought the discovery of nuclear fission and fusion, with all the wonders and horrors it created – such as the nuclear bomb.

One might argue that the inventor of the tool doesn’t have the responsibilities of the user of the tool. The gunsmith conceives the rifle, but the owner of the rifle ultimately decides if it will be used to hunt and bring food for the family, or killed someone. But when the tool potentially changes the lives of millions of individuals, such as science, moral responsibilities have to be endorsed by the makers of the tool. The scientific community has regularly failed to advocate the humanistic views that underlies science, by being passive in front of how some scientific discoveries has been misused. Coming back to the nuclear reaction, when Einstein and other scientists realized the potential danger of such power, they tried to take action. This resulted in a letter sent to Roosevelt that triggered the creation of the Manhattan project, and as an unfortunate side-effect led to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although they clearly identified the dangers that such scientific discovery could lead to, and took pacifists stand, their efforts remained mainly isolated and never took political forms.

Decision makers and lobbyists are clearly aware of the power science has, and it is not new that governments regularly interfere with the academic world to make it fit their own political agenda. Examples are legion. Copernicus was threatened by death sentence. Einstein was left out of the Manhattan project as his pacifist stand was viewed as a national threat. When the Canadian Harper government (2006-2015) decided to extract oil from tar sands in the Canadian north, knowing that it could have a destructive impact on the environment, it censored its scientists. Did the scientific community stand to protectsits member and advocate its place in society? Not really, even if scientists – and especially ecologists – are well aware of how fragile the environment is in front of our industrial power.

The recent election of Donald Trump as US president, a notorious climate-change denier and anti-science stander, is yet another cold shower for scientists. I am hopeful that this will cause more reactions than just mourning and despair. As scientists, we are designing the blocks with which Humanity builds its foundations. The challenges our societies are currently facing are enormous: climate change, biodiversity crisis, resources crisis,… We have the power to bring concrete solutions to these problems, but it is also up to us to advocate for the use of these solutions. We should not only design the tools of the future, we should as well take an active stand in the decision-making processes and be advocates for a better world. Running for president, anyone?

Gautier Baudry is a behavioral and evolutionary PhD student at the University of Oulu, Finland. He also runs his own blog about behavioral ecology and other ecological and scientific matters.


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