Owing to the incredibly polarizing nature of this year’s presidential election and its surprising results, many of us in science and policy are struggling to answer the looming question, “What now?” With the way the election has dominated the news and social media, it has been hard to escape the somewhat personal way the election has unfolded, and the emotional impact of its conclusion.
As a scientist with a growing interest in science policy, it’s hard to ignore the cloud of worry that has permeated the scientific community. For people across the nation, the presidential election represents change, and many fear that this is a change in the wrong direction.
But even as monumental as this election seems, it’s important to realize that many things remain the same. Science as a whole continues to need advocates, and it needs communicators who can reach out and inspire public trust.
We continue to need political proponents to ensure adequate funding, and we need leaders that can reach across party lines and generate support that spans the political spectrum. The position of science in the realm of politics has not changed, and if anything, current events show that we need to focus on these goals now more than ever.
That’s not to say that this is easy. Shortly after the election I attended a science policy reception, and I observed a scientist expressing frustration at being advised to “not get caught up in partisan politics.” In the viewpoint of this scientist, following the trail of facts and information leads to clear political winners and losers, and policy advocates have a responsibility to make this known.
Many fellow scientists expressed support for this idea, which though I understand, I must emphatically oppose. As entwined as science and politics are, we should not be misled into thinking that they truly exist in the same realm. While the pursuit of science is aimed at revealing facts about the world we live in, politics is not.
Politics operates in a sphere of relative value, and if we allow science to be confused with politics, we run the risk of demeaning the value of our own research. By using science to endorse political parties, we would undermine the perception of our objectivity. The impartiality of science is an invaluable quality that should not be underestimated, and perception of a political agenda would only fuel fears of bias.
This goes beyond securing a government paycheck. There are major gaps between scientists and the public on key issues that effect everyday life. Today, many Americans are uncertain about the safety of GMOs, the use of animal research, climate change, and evolution, to name some of the topics with the largest gaps between science and the general public. These misconceptions impact education, public health, and legislation.
If we as scientists cast aside our objectivity to endorse political parties, we compromise our authority on these topics, and the public will go elsewhere – to their favored news sites, friends, or community leaders – for answers to scientific questions. I think most scientists will agree with me when I say that we should not let this happen.
This is such an important issue because we have a lot to lose. After the military, scientists and health practitioners are the professions most trusted to act in the public’s interest. As government-funded researchers, we must remember that what we do is in service of this public. Despite the ideologically left lean of academia, 64 percent of Americans still view scientists as politically neutral which is key to our ability to step in as an objective third party and give what science has to offer. If we alienate people by picking political sides, this subverts the very mission of our vocation.
So in answer to the question, “What now?” do not lose sight of the bigger picture. Instead of being reactionary, be persistent, because maintaining a clear goal is how we move closer to success. We should remember that science is still a bipartisan issue, and a look at the past shows that funding support is not affected by whichever party has the legislative majority. Instead of reflecting a departure from what we’ve known before, this election has only revealed a reality that we have already been dealing with. It should inspire us all to do more to speak in defense of science and remain objective.
Mika Sifuentes (@neuro_file) is a Neuroscience student working in the lab of Dr. Jim Lechleiter. Her research focuses on the underlying mechanisms of thyroid hormone enhanced neuroprotection after acute brain injuries.She is interested in examining the role of fatty acid oxidation (FAO) in this process. She is currently developing a new optical microscopy approach, super-resolution, to directly study this process in vivo. She is also passionate about science advocacy and science policy issues.
The “Beyond The Bench” series features articles written by students and postdoctoral fellows at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.