New Activism by Scientists Can Lead to Partisan Backlash

New Activism by Scientists Can Lead to Partisan Backlash

Support for science is on the U.S. national ballot in 2020. The decision of dozens of Nobel laureates to endorse Joe Biden for president, as well as that of leading peer-reviewed journals to condemn Donald Trump, highlights a stark November choice: the Trump administration’s aims of curtailing the influence of scientific research on public policy, or a Biden presidency that should prove more receptive. Such editorials express dismay about the Trump administration’s handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. They also describe a broad pattern of hostility toward the scientific community, suppression of government-funded research and attempts at drastic budget cuts, and frequent refusals to allow evidence-based thinking to inform public policy.

Unquestionably, science is becoming more politically contentious. Over the past two decades, both elected officials and political pundits have become increasingly likely to disagree about research on issues such as climate change. Following this high-profile polarization, Democrats and Republicans in the general public have become increasingly likely to take stances that reflect those disagreements. Today, although most Americans trust information from physicians and medical scientists, public trust in the scientific community has become increasingly partisan, and conservatives and Republicans are less likely to hold positive views toward that community. As a counter to this, scientists ran for Congress in record numbers in the 2018 midterm elections, mostly on the Democratic side. Scientists are running again this year.

Mobilized science, however, is not without potential costs. When scientists advocate for their interests in an expressly political way, they risk further polarizing public opinion about research. For example, in a peer-reviewed study on the 2017 March for Science, I surveyed 350 people with various political views two days before before and two days after the demonstrations that took place across the country. Following widespread media coverage of marches, both ideological liberals and conservatives came to hold more extreme views toward the scientific community.

For example, self-identified conservatives were asked how strongly they agreed with the statement that “scientists care less about solving important problems and more about personal gain.” From before to after the March, their agreement increased, indicating stronger negativity toward scientific experts. Self-identified liberals, given the same statement, showed a decrease in agreement and thus more positive feelings. Mapped onto a numeric scale, the gap between liberals and conservatives increased by 11 percent following the protests.

Increasing this divide could have unfortunate consequences for scientific research. To gain reelection, members of Congress need to show they are in step with their constituents on various issues, which may include attitudes toward science. The extent to which the government pursues evidence-based policy and funds scientific research could be influenced by whichever partisan side happens to control the presidency or Congress. In 2013, for instance, the late Senator Tom Coburn (R–Okla.) was able to insert a provision in a 2013 spending bill that temporarily stopped the National Science Foundation from funding some political science research. The restrictions were removed the following year. But if negative attitudes towards science increase in Republican congressional districts, their representatives could become less likely to support funding for government institutions like NSF or the National Institutes of Health.

This raises an important question: what can be done to combat the politicization of science? One place to start is to further spark Americans’ interest in, and curiosity about, scientific research. Studies find that people who take an interest in science—irrespective of whether they consider themselves to be Democrats, Republicans or independents—are more likely to hold positive views toward the scientific community and support federal funding for scientific research. For example, I published research in Nature Climate Changethat indicated that that young adults who are highly interested in scientific topics tend to be more likely to hold positive feelings toward climate scientists decades later in adulthood. This held true whether they self-identified as liberals, moderates or conservatives.

There are several ways that scientists might be able to fan these sparks. For example, partnerships between scientists and digital application developers—aimed at introducing children and young adults to basic scientific concepts through video games—may help stimulate curiosity about science. Researchers have also partnered with artists to produce visually appealing art installations related to science-relevant issues, and these have been shown to arouse public science interest.

History also indicates that partisanship about science is not baked into American politics. We weren’t alwaysso divided about the role scientific research ought to play in informing policy decisions. For example, while a Republican presidential administration is currently leading an effort to reverse nearly one hundred. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, the agency was originally establishedby another Republican administration under President Richard Nixon. This sense of common ground can be seen in the history of public attitudes too.

While conservatives gradually have become more likely to hold negative views toward the scientific community in recent decades, conservative and liberal Americans alike placed high levels of trust in scientists from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. Although Republicans today are less likely than Democrats to support increasing funding for scientific research, the two sides held virtually indistinguishable views as recently as the early 2000s.

So concerns about a backlash against mobilized science do not mean that scientists ought to avoid taking political action. The 2017 March for Science, for example, helped establish an organizing infrastructure for citizens and scientists alike to advocate for evidence-based policymaking, which continues with organized letter-writing campaigns to elected officials and other operations. And, as I show in recent research, scientists running for congressional office were more likely to win if they received financial support from the 314 Action Fund, a political action committee devoted to electing candidates with scientific backgrounds to Congress.

Scientists elected to political office have the potential to be powerful allies for research funding and in championing evidence-based public policy. For example, Representative T.J. Cox (D–Calif.)—an engineer who, in 2018, narrowly won a seat held by Republicans since 1981—has been a vocal advocate for encouraging the Centers for Disease Control to embrace evidence-based wastewater epidimeology policies to track the transmission of COVID-19. Other 2018 winners, such as Representative Chrissy Houlahan (D–Pa.)—who has an engineering background and masters degree in science and technology policy—have fought to secure millions of dollars in federal funding for STEM education.

This means that while advocacy could come at a cost of further politicizing Americans’ views toward the scientific community, there are strategies scientists can follow to mitigate that effect. The potential benefits of mobilized science may well be worth it.


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