Undermining of science requires global response

The new US administration has succeeded in doing something that is rarely achieved: getting scientists to speak with – almost – one voice. On 22 April 2017, hopefully, tens of thousands of scientists and concerned citizens will march in major cities world-wide to remind people and governments that science cannot work in isolation and behind veils.

Science under attack

The threat today is that scientists are being silenced on matters of vital importance to the world and the human race, e.g. climate change. If this were occurring in dictatorships it would be no big news. Authoritarian regimes have always worked hard to control free minds, and scientists certainly fall under that category. But today, these threats come the cradle of democracy, America, of all places! In various federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Agriculture, scientists and employees are blocked from communicating with the public and the press (an important exception seems to be peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals. However, these are accessible to scientists but not to the general public due to significant access fees).

Granted, such restrictions are not entirely new. The George W. Bush administration had also restrained such press access to federal scientists, and former Canadian Prime Minister S. Harper also took similar steps. But it’s the widespread magnitude and brutality of today’s attempts to gag scientists, censor their work, and delete references to issues such as climate change or air pollution that forces us to react and fight back.

As if this were not enough, drastic budgetary restrictions that have been recently announced will seriously endanger research. The problem here is not limited to the USA, although the size of the cuts seems to be enormous there. In Europe, gross domestic expenditure on R&D for the 28 Member States of the EU has been essentially stagnating since 2011 with an average 2% (R&D spending as a percentage of GDP) and even declining slightly between 2014 and 2015. At country level there are strong variations, as can be expected, but only three of the EU-28 countries are above the 3% target of the Lisbon agenda. The picture contrasts drastically with the situation in South Korea (4.2% in 2015) and Japan (3.6%). China is still at around 2% but it has almost doubled this share in the last ten years. The US figure (ca. 2.7%) is higher than EU average but it has fallen significantly from the 2009 level and the recent measures do not augur well for the future.

How we can respond?

Science cannot work in isolation. It requires constant exchange and transparency in order to function and progress. And it is a global issue because the issues it addresses, and helps solve, are global by nature. The acquisition of  new knowledge is a universal pursuit, of course, but environmental and humanitarian issues such as food availability and medicine have a global impact and must be addressed at an international level. When it comes to pressing issues such as these, there is no room for political suppression of scientific outcomes, and suppression in one country, especially one as significant to research as the United States, necessarily has an impact on the entire global scientific community.

In a previous blog post on our “post-factual world,” I indicated that a big challenge ahead was the need for scientists and scientific organisations to oppose the current trend of twisting the facts and silencing the experts, which we can observe in so many fora and with so many public figures. What more can scientists do to face that challenge and how should we act differently?

Well, one way is to learn to better communicate with our fellow citizens and with the political world. Scientists have a duty to the public to explain the significance of what we are doing and to flag issues that are vital for our planet and our species. We need to take the time to better explain what we do, why and how we do it. We must explain that science and the pursuit of knowledge, is by essence apolitical, amoral, neither right not left, neither good nor bad.

The good and bad – the ethics – enter into play when society as a whole decides what to do with the knowledge uncovered by science, and whether to go in one direction or another. Scientists must stop reveling in our ivory tower of neutrality. Yes science is apolitical, and it should not, and cannot stop being apolitical. But at a time where there is an increasing trend to twist, distort or fabricate “facts”, scientists need to take an active role – step out of that comfortable neutrality for a moment – to fight scientific illiteracy and populist campaigns. This can only be achieved through an improved set of communication channels with citizens, politicians and staffers, encompassing scientific advice that is precise, but also immediately useful to decision-makers.

This is the challenge of that April march – we are all impacted and we can all, individually and as a community, resist efforts to silence and suppress science.

Check #ScienceIsGlobal and #sciencemarch on Twitter to acquaint yourself with a planet-wide conversation thread on the subject.

And let’s meet globally on 22 April.

The views expressed by the authors of the Science Connector Blog do not necessarily represent the views of the European Science Foundation as a whole, or of its members.

Image courtesy of NASA



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