Despite years of effort by political scientists to model themselves after natural scientists, the reverse seems to have happened. Science, the disinterested pursuit of nature’s secrets, has become consumed with political advocacy. Ironically, though, this disturbing development presents hidden opportunities for donors.
What is politicized science? It’s hard to imagine a better definition than that offered by Dr. Stephen Schneider, a widely published atmospheric scientist. As quoted in Discover magazine, Dr. Schneider said: “[W]e have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. . .. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”
Now Dr. Schneider didn’t mean for this to be a definition of politicized science, but it’s serviceable enough until a better one comes along. Dramatic statements, suppression of uncertainty, media savvy, and scary scenarios are all hallmarks of politicized science. No smoke screens about “striking the right balance” can disguise the fact that when scientists do the things Dr. Schneider says are necessary, they are no longer truly scientists. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that an internationally-known research scientist could say this kind of thing and not be booted out of the profession. It’s even harder to accept that one would be lionized (for his sins, Dr. Schneider was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant).
What causes politicized science? Dr. David Goodstein, a professor of physics at Caltech, explains that “in the past, science was a competition against nature—could we be clever enough to overcome nature, to find out her secrets by doing successful science? This is no longer the case. Science today is a competition for resources, which makes it an economic rather than an intellectual competition.” Science has become a kind of supplicant, eager to prove that it can do good or prevent evil. It is therefore a political actor that pushes and shapes research into politically relevant sectors.
In Washington, where the premium is on tangible results that can be explained to constituents, basic science suffers while trendy science prospers. Quantum physics and land-based astronomy do poorly while atmospheric sciences (read: global warming) live high on the hog with $2 billion in federal grants. And just try to get research money from the government to discover, say, the impact volcanoes—as opposed to Freon—have had on the ozone layer.
There are several possible ways to alleviate the trend toward politicized science, but the one with the most implications for private philanthropy is in providing scientists with more diverse sources of funding. A shift in funding sources, as fearful as it is to the scientific community, would actually strengthen science and scientific research. The first consequence would be a weakening of the entrenched bureaucracies within the research community, which could give voice to new ways of doing things. Charles Rubin, a political scientist at Duquesne University, reports that SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program—has done well after it was cut off from government funding. SETI has found new sources of money and in doing so has developed new methods of searching the heavens. Smaller private groups have gotten into the act for the first time.
Diversity of funding can mean fewer large centers of influence over science, the possibility that some of those centers will care more about fundamental research than immediate results, and that the political or humanitarian concerns that frequently motivate funding will at least be various and in competition. As government funds less, there will be a greater call on private philanthropy to make up the difference.
Of course, the heaviest burden falls on scientists themselves. Their profession has been politicized to a remarkable and disturbing extent, and they must reassert the importance of the disinterested study of nature and denounce the misuse of science when they see it.
Jeffrey Salmon is executive director of the George C. Marshall Institute, a science and public policy research group.