Navigating science, politics: a rocky relationship

Science and politics, though they seem very separate subjects, have actually been an interconnected system that has recently seen more tension, causing dissent between the two communities. 

Gabriella Paar-Jakli, an associate professor in political science at Kent State, has published a novel on this subject and said the problem stems from a wave of populism centered around ignorance-based politics.

“In the past few years in the United States there has been a problem with a new wave of populism which is basically an anti-science establishment,” she said. “The quality of the democracy suffers if the population is ignorant. The more you politicize science, the less effective and efficient it’s going to be.” 

Paar-Jakli said obstructing scientific advancement in the states can lead to falling behind in the global science community.

“How do you find solutions for global problems without scientists,” she said. “We should recognize the value of it.”

Paar-Jakli explained science diplomacy was developed mostly during World War II and afterward. The National Science Foundation, founded in 1950, was initially established to fill the need of military advancements. 

“Historically speaking, the role of science was at the center of the discussion,” she said. “They found that science and technology could enhance our capabilities in regards to projecting power and foreign policy.”

Paar-Jakli said recently, science research and advancement has been popularly politicized and the division has caused dissent among world leaders and governments. As a result, science has lost the respect and backing it’s had in the past.  

“The first time since World War II in the United States the consensus between the elites that science is good and scientists are respectable is gone,” Paar-Jakli said. “If there is too much politicization of science that someone’s opinion is just as good as scientific knowledge, then science suffers.”

Paar-Jakli said polarization of science has led to funding cuts. In fact, the 2018 Department of Interior has seen cuts to areas of environmental research such as clean water and some wildlife protections and raises to border law enforcement and logging and drilling industries, according to the budget. Proposed cuts for the 2020 Environmental Protection Agency budget was cut by 31 percent, the most of any department.    

Paar-Jakli said commercializing science such as privately-funded and commercially-funded research can also be harmful to the field. 

“With commercial, the scientists don’t have the resources to do independent science with no constraints; you lose the true nature of science,” Paar-Jakli said. “It is about truth finding and seeking and not being biased.”

Tim Assal, a professor in Kent State’s geography department, has worked within the Interior researching with the United States Geological Survey. He said research was threatened to be cut in certain areas and scientists were challenged with fitting their research objective to adhere to changing priorities. 

“Scientists are bending research to fit the new priorities,” Assal said. “Changing administrations makes research difficult and uncertain. You don’t know if the rug is going to be pulled out from underneath you.”

The United States Geological Survey landscapes the states’ geography, taking a census of each state’s health, natural resources and surveying. The administration proposed a 21 percent cut to the program, seeing heavy losses in ecosystem resources, climate and land change research and water resources; there is also a funding increase in energy resources and mineral independence.

Assal said endangered species are an underfunded area and it’s becoming difficult for the United States to keep a diverse federal science profile.

“America is a world player in science research, but we are falling behind,” Assal said. “Other countries are going to have to pick up the slack now.”

Paar-Jakli warns that with politicians using science as a campaign tool and weapon of bipartisanship, it is dangerous to fall behind in the global research sector.  

“Historically, we have been the leaders of science, but you can slip,” Paar-Jakli said. “Money for research is cut back on every level; the environment is not friendly towards it. China has begun to fill the void and the European Union remains supportive to the science community.”

Assal said it is important not to ignore research, specifically within climate research. The National Science Foundation reports that grants that pertain to climate change went down 40 percent between 2016 and 2017, the year between the Obama and Trump administrations.  

“Be wary of someone who says they know everything,” Assal said. “Things are changing and we don’t know what is being affected by the changes.”

There have been arguments from both sides that scientists have political and financial agendas to push certain studies and skew results for a certain leaning; Assal disagrees. 

“Scientists are civil servants, we are not in it for the money,” he said. “We are working together to push what is important.”

Contact Colleen Carroll at [email protected].