Safeguarding Science & Research from Politics

illustration by Madeleigh Place

With the current political climate so polarized, it can be easy to dismiss many issues as partisan bluster. To those pleading for a far more civil discourse, one can see why they might wish for less vitriol when one side does something to aggravate the other. However, something like science is more than just a political stance.

"Things that are true, are true regardless of political bent," explained Miller

"Things that are true, are true regardless of political bent," explained Dr. Joseph Miller, an assistant marketing professor at Saunders College of Business with expertise in marketing research. He emphasized that keeping subjectivity and politics as far away from scientific research as possible is immeasurably important.

Recently the Republican administration enacted policies that for some time suppressed climate change information (both new and old) coming out of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While the political review of information and gag order may have been temporary measures, they embodied the fear that hasspurred calls to action like the March for Science being held in April.After all, many in the scientific community who recognize the imperative to address climate change have also viewed the new president and his allies' skepticism toward fact-based research with concern.

Separating Science from Policy

In any study or research endeavor, the scientific method is used to validate objectively what is true. 

"The purest thing they teach you when you have a hypothesis: choose the opposite and try to disprove it," pointed out Dr. Laurence Sugarman, a research professor and director of RIT's Center for Applied Psychophysiology and Self-Regulation. We should be mindful of this tenet of the scientific process when comparing research-backed findings to any political stance.

The scientific method is a rigorous standard among scientists, detailing a process of asking questions and finding answers. What is incredibly valuable about the scientific method to Miller, though, is how it fosters a system that leans on previous research. It is deliberately structured to reject old theories when a new one better explains a phenomenon.

"When you have these little scientific revolutions that take place, where what we believe now is not what we believed before, it's based on the scientific method," explained Miller. New questions researchers ask are largely informed by past findings and theories. 

"If we find new information due to answering new questions, we can begin to reject old scientific research and be able to go with the new paradigm — that's the idea," said Miller. "And due to things like peer review, we're able to [have] hopefully unbiased research and research objectives."

For both Miller and Sugarman, the importance — or "duty" as Miller puts it — of striving toward the objectivity the scientific method ensures, is rooted in the idea that most research should advance the collective body of knowledge. Such research is meant for the benefit of everyone, not just one political interest. This can be particularly true of findings from many government studies. No matter the type of government-funded research conducted, there is a broader common purpose they almost always share, Sugarman pointed out.

"In a democracy it's supposed to be that … research has to serve the people or the broadest interest of the people," said Sugarman

"In a democracy, it's supposed to be that ... research has to serve the people or the broadest interest of the people," he said, pointing to researchers for the National Institute of Health (NIH) as an example. "If you get an NIH grant, you have to agree — it's even in the application — that you're going to disseminate this widely and that the NIH can disseminate it. You can't hold on to it, it's not yours."

Keeping Politics at Arms Length

Politics can significantly affect the direction of research, particularly in deciding what gets funded.  Miller explained that considering the government's traditional role in pushing various areas of research, what is or isn't being financed could drastically change what people choose to study.

"If they make changes, then what [researchers] study might not be in the public's best interests," noted Miller.

"If they make changes, then what [researchers] study might not be in the public's best interests," noted Miller. He expressed particular worry over falling behind in increasingly critical fields like climate change. "I mean, if there's going to be someone who wanted to be a career researcher in climate, but suddenly those climate studies are no longer being funded, then that's a potentiality for knowledge that is just forever lost." When pertinent research isn't funded, it's society as a whole that loses out.

Both Miller and Sugarman expressed strong concerns about the potential for certain scientific information being withheld from the general public. They were particularly concerned that the policies initiated at the EPA were precursors of what is to come, given the current divisiveness surrounding climate change.

"If folks in the political realm wanted to do a review of things in the scientific realm, it does not really change the effect of what is true is true," Miller pointed out. However, such an audit could very well impact what the public is aware of or what they believe. Within such a political climate in which there's prevalent bias, divisiveness as well as intolerance of science challenging a status quo, Sugarman believes science needs to speak out louder.

"The [current] culture is getting directly at the issue of the core method of science: which is to attempt to have controls, an attempt to undo our human subjectivity by being objective," said Sugarman.

"It's because the [current] culture is getting directly at the issue of the core method of science, which is to attempt to have controls, an attempt to undo our human subjectivity by being objective," said Sugarman. "I mean, [Rene] Descartes made a deal with the church: 'I won't go looking for the soul if you let me do some dissection.'"

Sugarman noted that throughout history, science's efforts to shift the collective understanding of the way things are have often been politically disruptive. His example of Descartes agreement with the Catholic Church in the 17th century echoes the point that Miller made as well: constraining study or research doesn't change the real truths — just the perceived ones.