Science: A Political Battleground

With the 2016 presidential election in full swing, people are shown once again how our government is policy-driven. As the number of candidates narrows down to just a few contenders per party, each emphasizes and personifies their seemingly stark differences in both policy and personality. Many of these issues relate to and affect psychology, biology, and other scientific fields of research. Public health, for example, is an important field of research that is immensely growing. According to the CDC, the total national health expenditure climbed to $2.9 trillion in 2013, likely as a result of the increased prevalence of diabetes, obesity, and other related illnesses (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013B). With this considerable amount of money invested and with their future political careers on the line, policy makers want to ensure their money is being spent properly, the way that best suits their agenda. However, does this jeopardize scientific research?

Political agendas have influenced scientific research for hundreds of years. In Matt Ridley’s The Agile Gene (2003), Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union exemplifies how influential, and in this case detrimental, political policy can be in manipulating research. In the 1920s, millions of people in the Soviet Union were dying as a result of a wheat shortage. Driven by appealing to government leaders, Trofim Lysenko devised a pseudo-scientific research program that disproved the theory of the gene in an attempt to solve the wheat shortage, regardless of its plausibility or feasibility. The fact that Stalin and Krushchev fully supported this questionable research demonstrates how narrow-mined and overly optimistic government leaders can be. Thus as a result of this political influence, the Soviet Union abandoned a prominent scientific theory that is still held valid even today.

Candidates in this 2016 election also illustrate how politics affect science. While Republican presidential contenders Ted Cruz and Donald Trump plan to cut funding from Planned Parenthood, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders plan to increase subsidies (Planned Parenthood Action, 2016). These funds affect not only the services they offer, but the research Planned Parenthood conducts as well. Fetal tissue can be used for research on epigenetics, stem cell applications, and many other uses (Planned Parenthood Action, 2014). For example, poliovirus vaccines were originally created using fetal kidney diseases (Storrs, 2015). Yet while these discoveries have also been used to better understand neonatal development, the research methods by which these results are obtained is very controversial. As a result, this dispute continually fluctuates, resulting in the funding of services, programs, and scientific research depending on the political party in charge (Carr, 2015).

The reason for examining these instances of political influence is not merely to point out flaws in the way scientific research is conducted; rather, it is essential to note the potential for influence from extraneous sources as a means for the field to remain as objective and methodical as possible. This helps to insure accurate and reliable conclusions. In today’s technological age where people are able to facelessly interact online and anonymously review other’s work, some individuals will nevertheless succumb to allowing their biases to interfere with their impartiality. Despite these cases, it is essential for research to remain driven to address challenging issues that are not always clear-cut or easy to answer. Scientist objectivity and limited political influence help facilitate this.

Concluding question for future discussion:

Rather than politics influencing science, science can also be the basis for shaping policy.

How accountable should scientists be for the political implications/reactions of their work? See the following paper for an example (specifically the second case of the UK Border Agency using genetic ancestry testing to vet asylum claims):

Benjamin, R. (2015). The emperor’s new genes: Science, public policy, and the allure of objectivity. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 661, 130-142. doi:10.1177/0002716215587859

References

Benjamin, R. (2015). The emperor’s new genes: Science, public policy, and the allure of objectivity. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 661, 130-142. doi:10.1177/0002716215587859

Carr, A. (2015, September 27). Planned Parenthood cuts affect students. Florida International University Student Media. Retrieved from http://fiusm.com/2015/09/27/planned-parenthood-cuts-affect-students/

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Health Expenditures. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/health-expenditures.htm

Planned Parenthood Action (2014). Research Papers. Retrieved from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/educators/resources/research-papers

Planned Parenthood Action (2016). 2016 Presidential Candidates. Retrieved from https://plannedparenthoodaction.org/elections/candidates/president/

Ridley, M. (2003). The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture. New York: HarperCollins Publisher Inc.

Storrs, C. (2015, November 30). How exactly fetal tissue is used for medicine. CNN.com. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/17/health/fetal-tissue-explainer/index.html

 

 

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