Excerpt from Michael Gough, ed., Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policymaking by Hoover Institution Press. Copyright © 2003 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the Hoover Institution. www.hoover.org/research/politicizing-science-alchemy-policymaking

Politicization is inevitable when governments provide funding for science. The public expects to get something back from the science they support—for example, better health, national security, jobs. This normal politicization does no harm and may even be good for science and society. But politicization taken to the extreme can be very harmful. In extreme politicization, governments or powerful advocacy groups use science and scientists who share or benefit from the politicization to drive science out of technical decisions and to promote a nonscientific agenda.

My discussion of politicization of science begins with what must be its most extreme manifestation, when the Soviet Union used denial of income, imprisonment, and execution to impose its political will on the science of biology. The same desires for wealth, recognition, and power that propelled the politicization of Soviet biology exist in our democracy, but tyranny is absent. In its place, those who seek to politicize science here attempt to divert federal research funds to their ends and to stifle dissenting opinions, using the power of the press, congressional hearings, and appeals to patriotism.

The proponents of cold fusion in the United States used all those means in their quest for money and fame and standing. In the end, they failed because their claims were shown to be based on corrupt or misinterpreted experiments. While the debate was going on, at least one politician testified that scientists who expressed skepticism about cold fusion were unpatriotically inhibiting pursuit of the most important scientific breakthrough since the invention of fire. Worse, those who stood in the way of cold fusion were delaying development of a scientific breakthrough that would reverse many of the world’s environmental problems because it would provide pollution-free energy.

Protection and improvement of the environment are now the siren song of politicians, businessmen, and scientists who claim that their conclusions about global climate change and their proposals to stave off catastrophic change are the only thing standing between mankind and a bleak, blasted planet in the future. They have, to some degree, succeeded in strangling the flow of research money to scientists who question their conclusions and prescriptions.

In my own case, I lost a federal position because of citing scientific research findings that undermined a politician’s rhetoric. I did not suffer for my actions as did the Soviet biologists, but my dismissal surely serves as a warning to other government scientists and, perhaps more importantly, to nongovernment scientists who act as advisers to the government, that politics can trump science even in purely technical topics.

The politicization of science is impossible without the participation of some scientists in it. Politicians in both tyrannies and democracies are susceptible to scientists who say that they can show the way to manage nature without all the complicated baggage of ordinary science. How attractive the bright, adventurous, and brave individuals are who cast off the burdensome limitations of facts and theory that constrain the scientists who disagree with them. But politicians and citizens alike should question scientists who are unwilling to subject their observations and theories to independent tests, and their ideas and conclusions to discussion among technically qualified peers. Unhappily for society, such scientists, with sufficient political backing, can subvert the funding process so that information critical to their claims cannot be developed. At the present time, it is very difficult to obtain funding, either from U.S. governmental sources or from private foundations, for research that does not presuppose impending environmental doom. Suggestions that moderate global warming may actually be a good thing for humanity are treated with ridicule and hostility.

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