Getting Political With Science

By Thomas Wm. Mayo

Attempts to control scientists and their work are not new. Recall that Galileo lived out his years under house arrest for promoting Copernican cosmology after the Catholic Church had declared it to be heresy in 1616. In recent years – and more insistently in recent months – scientists are complaining that scientific enterprise in the United States has become more politicized than at any time within living memory.

Just as most political questions in America become, sooner or later, judicial ones, political issues often turn into scientific or technical questions. As a result, the federal government for years has been the nation’s largest single source of research funds, both through its own research and grants to others. Recurrent funding controversies in the arts show that the government on occasion will impose its will on the recipient community through reductions in overall appropriations, the discontinuation of funding for disfavored projects, and the imposition of conditions on the receipt of federal funds.

The consequences of such funding patterns can be particularly damaging in the sciences. Nobel laureate and Rockefeller University president Paul Nurse wrote in the journal Cell that “[s]top-go funding policies are set to damage a whole generation of young research workers, and the negative impact on recruitment of the next generation of research scientists will be seen for years to come.”

Beyond funding controversies, however, compelling evidence exists of overtly political manipulation of scientific research, including the silencing of NASA’s top climate scientist to keep his views on CO2 and global warming out of his published papers, lectures, and interviews; the FDA’s decision to postpone indefinitely action on Barr Lab­oratories’ application to allow over-the-counter sales of its Plan B emergency contraceptive, despite the positive recommendation of two FDA advisory committees; the replacement of members of federal advisory committees when they have differed with core policies of the administration; the decision to limit federal funding of stem-cell research to “Presidential cell lines” that were in existence before the new policy was announced in August 2001; and numerous instances when the administration’s preference for abstinence until marriage has influenced immunization policies for STDs, AIDS research and education, and sex-education and birth-control programs in budgets for foreign aid and domestic educational programs.

The federal government awards more than $28 billion a year in grants through the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health – only two of the more than 20 agencies that fund research in science, medicine, and technology at colleges and universities worldwide, including SMU. When cuts in funding are made for reasons that are more political than science-based, the losers not only are university faculty and students, but the rest of society, which depends upon research in science and technology to protect and preserve its health, safety, economic system, and basic freedoms.

The ability of science to tackle the big issues of our time may well turn on the willingness and ability of political leaders to correct what Paul Nurse has diagnosed as “stagnation in research funding and the failure of the political leadership to take science seriously.”

Associate Professor of Law Tom Mayo is director of SMU’s Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility. An associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, he has been recognized nationally as an expert in health care law. He has written extensively on the legal and ethical implications of AIDS, abortion, right to die, and numerous other issues.

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