Science has long considered itself to be an apolitical enterprise. But in the midst of a global pandemic and with the 2020 election looming, some scientific institutions and elite journals have suddenly become willing to take a political stance against President Donald Trump and his allies.
On October 8, for instance, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) jumped into the fray for the first time in 208 years with an unprecedented political editorial calling for leadership change. Although it stopped short of endorsing Democratic candidate Joe Biden, the article labeled people running the current administration “dangerously incompetent” and added that “we should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans [from COVID-19] by allowing them to keep their jobs.” This week the journal Nature added similar sentiments in an editorial that did endorse Biden and called Trump’s record “shameful.” A month earlier 81 U.S. Nobel laureates signed an open letter that expressed their Biden support. “At no time in our nation’s history has there been a greater need for our leaders to appreciate the value of science in formulating public policy,” they wrote.
And the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine—a pair of notoriously cautious and conventional institutions—issued a statement in late September denouncing political interference in public health agencies, particularly the Trump administration’s efforts to rush the approval of a COVID-19 vaccine before tests for safety and effectiveness are completed. “Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated,” they wrote. “We find ongoing reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming.”
Sociologists say the scientific establishment seems to be making a switch from a long-held condemnation of political interference in science to actually condemning a politician. “In some ways, this is the last stand,” says Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “They have to stand up, at this point, for science because science and its role in society is threatened right now.” Scientific leaders contend that Trump is uniquely unfit for the presidency and has harmed science to an unprecedented degree. But some social scientists worry that aligning the research enterprise with a political party could ultimately backfire, politicizing science beyond repair.
Speaking out against antiscience policies has long been the domain of advocacy groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and others. In 2017, for instance, several such organizations backed the March for Science in Washington, D.C., which was sparked by concerns about the incoming Trump administration’s seeming disregard for evidence-based policies that arose during the 2016 presidential campaign. Although journals and institutions such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine largely stayed out of the debate, “all of the ingredients were there for a showdown at some point,” says political scientist Matthew Motta of Oklahoma State University.