Science should be nonpartisan, inform government policy

Ameena Golding/Staff

“I have a natural instinct for science,” claimed President Trump in a CBS interview in early October, as actual scientists across the country cringed. This statement highlighted the administration’s willingness to ignore scientific facts and pursue anti-science policies such as the U.S. withdrawals from the Paris climate agreement and Iran nuclear deal. As members of the UC Berkeley community, what can we do to ensure science has a seat at the table?

For many scientists, the answer was to run for public office. Here at UC Berkeley, integrative biology professor Michael Eisen announced his intention to run for U.S. Senate in 2018 but ultimately was not included in the certified list of candidates. A political action committee named 314 Action formed to elect more scientists and engineers, helping elect at least eight candidates with STEM backgrounds at the federal level and at least 30 at the state level in the recent midterms. When asked why 314 Action did not back any Republican candidates at the federal level, the organization’s founder and president Shaughnessy Naughton replied: “We don’t want to encourage going down that path, that science is somehow a partisan venture. But politics is a partisan venture.” This raises an important question for students and scientists at UC Berkeley, the top public research university in the nation, well-known for its liberal activism. Can science take a neutral, nonpartisan stance and, if so, how?

At face value, the answer is yes. Science is inherently nonpartisan, driven by data and facts. Before the 2018 election, if you included health care professionals, engineers and people with a bachelor’s degree in STEM fields, the number of “scientists” in Congress was near 40 and included both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Historically, scientists on both sides of the aisle have appreciated objective facts and scientific reasoning, helping to promote bipartisan cooperation and make significant scientific achievements. A recent example is the 2018 federal budget, which passed Congress with bipartisan support and represented the largest increase in scientific research funding in a decade.

Unfortunately, when science becomes partisan, no one benefits. Issues that have broad scientific consensus such as climate change, health care, clean energy and environmental protection devolve into hot-button topics and make little progress. An example is a new EPA “scientific transparency” rule that will severely limit the type of data and research that can be used to inform policy. This rule, which was largely criticized by the scientific community but is still on its way to being implemented, would invalidate decades of quality scientific studies and the policies they support. One such study that could be invalidated is the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study, run by UC Berkeley scientists (and partially funded by the EPA), which linked pesticides sprayed on crops with “respiratory complications, developmental disorders and lower I.Q.s” among children of farmworkers. A toxic, anti-science culture also forces out government scientific experts, including UC Berkeley professor Daniel Kammen, who resigned in 2017 after formerly serving as a science envoy with the Department of State.

These changes are dangerous not only because they affect life-or-death decisions for many Americans, but also because we lose the benefits of concrete scientific insight, much of which has been funded by American taxpayers. In the U.S., science has historically enjoyed a broad level of support and trust. A 2018 report from the National Science Board found that Americans have high confidence in the scientific community. A clear majority of respondents agreed that scientists work for the good of humanity, help to solve problems and want to make life better for the average person. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 76 percent of Americans trust scientists “a great deal” or “a fair amount,” as opposed to 27 percent for elected officials.

Knowing this, our incoming legislative class of scientists-turned-lawmakers can’t shy away from controversial legislation and topics such as climate change that their scientific training has uniquely prepared them to tackle. Rather, scientists of both parties are obligated to model the nonpartisan nature of science, making extra effort to reach across the aisle and ensure that these decisions are made (as often as possible) with bipartisan engagement and uncompromised scientific support. Civically minded scientists, such as those at UC Berkeley, should help in this endeavor. Taking advantage of the broad support for science (which is much higher than that for Congress), scientists need to use their knowledge to advance meaningful policy in a way that can be understood by the general public. Not every scientist can (or should) run for political office, but we can all work to ensure that public policy is based on good science. An important first step that universities such as UC Berkeley should take is to better train scientists to communicate with the public and convey how their scientific expertise can inform effective policy.

With the increase in scientific representation in our government, now is the time to take action and ensure that a “natural instinct” for science doesn’t replace real scientific inquiry. As we elect more scientists to political office, we need to be increasingly aware of the public perception of science and protect it as a nonpartisan source that can be trusted to benefit society.

Christopher Jackson is a campus doctoral student in chemistry and a member of the Science Policy Group at Berkeley.