Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Let’s Start Teaching Scientists How to Withstand Attacks on Fact

We need to imbue students with a central value: Adherence to the scientific method is, in itself, good citizenship.

By and Henning Åkesson

Science is always under pressure. Moderating the influence of personal, social, and political factors is pivotal for any scientific community to produce trustworthy knowledge that society can benefit from. Although the peer review technique is designed to rinse papers of such unwarranted influence, there are other forces posing a larger threat by exerting a more direct pressure on knowledge.

This threat is on full display whenever climate science is brought into the public sphere. For example, the production and the publication of the five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports have been accompanied by vitriolic attacks on climate science and individual scientists, underscoring that once scientific results interfere with any powerful group’s interests, politicization is inevitable.

The late Stephen Schneider once asked whether the citizen scientist is an oxymoron [Schneider, 2000]. His central point was simple: Citizens are united by common values, and scientists are united by reasoning, which points toward common facts. Can a value-based entity share space with an entity devoted to fact if those values are at odds with fact?

Schneider argued convincingly that the term “citizen scientist” will be an oxymoron unless citizens differentiate between values and facts [see Nature, 2017]. With Donald J. Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Viktor Orbán in power, mentioning but three examples, Schneider’s original question deserves a closer examination.

These three leaders came into office in part because of popular movements with values unmoored from fact. The leaders have, in turn, prioritized the reduction of scientific freedom, further fostering a culture in which reliance on fact is somehow considered unpatriotic. What now can people who identify as scientists and citizens do?

We contend that the answer involves rethinking how we educate future professionals. We need to imbue students with a central value: Adherence to the scientific method is, in itself, good citizenship.

The Trump Administration’s Work to Make Facts Unpatriotic

The Trump administration’s interference with how scientific synthesis and analysis are done is unprecedented [Wagner et al., 2018]. Such attacks on the very nuts and bolts of science may even be a greater long-term threat than attempts to undermine science-based policy by implementing particular individual rules and policies [Center for Science and Democracy, 2017].

A recently proposed policy at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a case in point. The policy would effectively prevent the EPA from using most published medical research to inform decisions on rules aiming to protect human health from water, air, or chemical pollution. There are also unsettling examples of researchers receiving letters and subpoenas from members of the U.S. Congress, attempting to intimidate scientists and politicize evidence-based science [Halpern and Mann, 2015; Goldman et al., 2018].

In a recent survey carried out by the Union of Concerned Scientists, scientists at 16 federal agencies in the United States reported extensive political interference in their work [Center for Science and Democracy, 2018]. Responding scientists revealed that the term “climate change” is being censored at multiple agencies. At the National Park Service, where censorship of climate change was most likely, one respondent said they had been told to refrain from using the term “climate change” in internal project proposal and cooperative agreements.

Another report [Carter et al., 2018] reveals chilling examples of attempts to suppress “politically inconvenient research” by censoring established climate science in press releases, preventing scientists from communicating their work, and ensuring that an appointee with a political rather than science background reviews scientific grants.

Not Just a U.S. Problem

In Europe, there are similar tendencies designed to undermine science’s ability to distinguish values from facts. The recent eviction of the Central European University from Hungary [Walker, 2018], where it had resided since 1993, illustrates how critical science is threatened not by political extremists operating along the fringes of the political landscape but by extremists in power, which in this case is the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán.

In Turkey, students at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul were publicly denounced by the president himself, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for voicing critical opinions. Open attacks on academic freedom and what that entails send signals to students as well as professors that there are boundaries, and anyone crossing them runs the risk of being penalized. This was the case in 2016, when scholars were jailed and prosecuted in Turkey for signing a peace petition (see, for instance, the American Association of University Professors support letter).

Scientists Are Citizens Too

In these new political regimes, we must remind ourselves that scientists are also citizens. The rapidly growing grassroots movements in science across the globe are seeking to do just that.

One example is AGU’s initiative Voices for Science, initiated in 2018, aiming to train scientists in the science policy process and to communicate science to the media and the public. Similarly, the European Geosciences Union has recently started a dedicated journal on geoscience communication. Although the latter is not focused on policy issues in particular or targeted exclusively to early-career scientists, it highlights that the scientific community increasingly recognizes the value of interaction with the public and policy makers.

Bateman and Mann [2016] claim that there is an urgency for scientists grabbing the reins themselves and showing leadership, but this initiative requires both the scientist and the citizen to work in tandem. A group called 314 Action seeks to harness such partnerships; they’re a grassroots initiative promoting evidence-based science, supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) scientists interested in getting involved politically, and training researchers who want to communicate policy-relevant science more effectively.

The existence of these efforts suggests that an increasing number of scientists recognize the value and urgency of engaging with society on more than one level.

We find all these efforts encouraging. But more is needed if we are to successfully reclaim the idea that good citizens can engage in sound science.

We need a new frame of mind. We need to start equipping students with the tools they need to navigate the politicized terrain of their future scientific paths.

Train Students to Be Prepared for Their Science to Get Politicized

With few exceptions, the emerging generation of scientists has not been trained in how to handle the direct and indirect pressure expertly exerted by stakeholders. Being trapped in a political power grip can be discouraging and potentially devastating for a young person in the starting blocks of a career. The worst-case scenario is that young and talented researchers bolt from potential careers in science because of such experiences.

Some effort has been made to bring into the classroom scientists who have sought more knowledge on the political process or who have themselves experienced the politicization of their work. But these examples are so far isolated off-campus initiatives found mostly in the United States rather than extensively implemented training opportunities for young scientists at universities worldwide.

Some coordinated efforts to bring these issues to university curricula do exist, and the Teaching GeoEthics Across the Geoscience Curriculum website provides a good starting point. However, the scale and severity of recent political interference call for action on a broader scale, going beyond the general ethics courses that many universities currently provide at the master’s or Ph.D. level.

Without formal training, it is hard to safely navigate these increasingly politicized waters and to keep one’s scientific integrity intact while interacting with society. As exemplified by the aforementioned surveys of U.S. federal scientists, such training is urgently needed for promising young professionals aiming at an academic career. Training in scientific integrity and how to handle political meddling is equally important for scientists heading to federal agencies, independent research institutes, and nongovernmental organizations and for those running for office themselves.

A New Platform

We foresee a visionary teaching platform addressing the challenges that come with scientific integrity in our new world. Such a platform, to our knowledge, has yet to materialize on a broader scale. One explanation is precisely the failure to recognize Schneider’s oxymoron: It’s only when we try to bridge the gap between science and society that we realize the pressure science is under, as well as its additional value.

An updated teaching platform for aspiring young scientists certainly aligns with the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity [All European Academies, 2017], which states that research institutions and organizations should “develop appropriate and adequate training in ethics and research integrity.” Such training is desperately needed. In the United States, for example, at least 28 federal agencies have policies on scientific integrity in place to safeguard science from political inference and to protect scientists’ rights. Federal scientists are generally well aware of these policies, yet only a minority of scientists would feel comfortable acting as a whistle-blower should these policies be breached [Center for Science and Democracy, 2018].

Universities Should Rise to the Challenge

Last year we wrote “The Nordic Letter on Climate Action and Scientific Integrity” supporting American colleagues and urging the United States to comply with the Paris Agreement. Within weeks nearly 500 scientists from all of the Nordic countries had signed the petition. Fortunately, many engaged climate scientists in the United States continue to enlighten a public served all kinds of preposterous allegations, but among colleagues there are also troubling signs that the new and hostile environment has quieted many.

Exactly how the next generation of scientists will handle a politically challenged environment remains to be seen. For this we cannot wait; universities need to equip tomorrow’s leaders with the tools needed to excel in this new and daunting landscape.

Yet the challenge contains inherent pitfalls: University curricula define education and empower tomorrow’s leaders, but universities are proud and old institutions that habitually are slow to change.

So let’s use Schneider’s oxymoron to our advantage. Our pride in our schools and in our fields unites us with common values. We know in our bones that universities have an obligation to prepare young scientists in how to guard their scientific integrity in all weathers. As citizens within a community of scientists, let’s do what we can right now to protect future fact-based inquiry.

References

All European Academies (2017), The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, rev. ed., Berlin.

Bateman, T. S., and M. Mann (2016), The supply of climate leaders must grow, Nat. Clim. Change, 6, 1,052–1,054, https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3166.

Carter, J., et al. (2018), Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior: America’s Health, Parks, and Wildlife at Risk, Union of Concerned Sci., Cambridge, Mass.

Center for Science and Democracy (2017), Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking: Lessons from the Past Two Administrations and What’s at Stake Under the Trump Administration, Union of Concerned Sci., Cambridge, Mass.

Center for Science and Democracy (2018), Science under President Trump: Voices of scientists across 16 federal agencies, Union of Concerned Sci., Cambridge, Mass.

Goldman, G. T., et al. (2018), Risks to science-based policy under the Trump administration, Stetson Law Rev., 47(2), 267–293.

Halpern, M., and M. Mann (2015), Transparency versus harassment, Science, 348, 479, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aac4245.

Nature (2017), Scientists must fight for the facts, Nature, 541, 435, https://doi.org/10.1038/541435a.

Schneider, S. H. (2000), Is the “citizen-scientist” an oxymoron?, in Science, Technology, and Democracy, pp. 103–120, State Univ. of N. Y. Press, Albany.

Wagner, W., E. Fisher, and P. Pascual (2018), Whose science? A new era in regulatory “science wars,” Science, 362, 636–639, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aau3205.

Walker, S. (2018), ‘Dark day for freedom’: Soros-affiliated university quits Hungary, Guardian, 3 Dec., https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/03/dark-day-freedom-george-soros-affiliated-central-european-university-quits-hungary.

Author Information

Øyvind Paasche ([email protected]; @oypaas), Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, University of Bergen, Norway; also at NORCE, Bergen, Norway; and Henning Åkesson (@HenningAkesson), Department of Geological Sciences and Bolin Centre for Climate Research, Stockholm University, Sweden

Citation: Paasche, Ø., and H. Åkesson (2019), Let’s start teaching scientists how to withstand attacks on fact, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO118499. Published on 25 March 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY 3.0
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