A professor of mine, T.M. Sell Ph.D, once told me that, “politics is economic competition, carried out by other means.” I thought I knew what he was talking about then as I sat in my Poli Sci class. I thought he was talking about how the world of politics is really just governed by money. And while true, I think he meant much more than what I took away. Politics is a method one can use to steer economic competition, it’s a method in which a governing body can “throw its weight around” in the economic arena influencing this aspect or that one at a whim. Why then is it any different when it comes to other areas of society? Like science perhaps?
While still being very much driven by economic influences, the politics of science are fairly easy to grasp when you’re looking big picture. Allow me to present two differing examples and maybe it’ll afford some perspective on this notion. First, let’s hear from the 35th President of the United States. John F. Kennedy.
Aside from the fact that the man is fabulous speaker, did you catch all the politicization in there? He is rallying America behind the idea of going to The Moon, in fact this speech kick-started the Apollo program. Using his charisma – one of his most powerful political tools – Kennedy changed the entire landscape of engineering and development in America for a decade, even after his assassination. But why? Easy answer is: Russia.
In almost every major area of space travel Russia (then the USSR) was beating the United States. What’s a president who fears the spread of communism to do? Rally his people! Shift the focus of the American populace to space. Use the political machine at your disposal to make sure NASA has all the resources it will need to get us to The Moon before the USSR. And it worked. In this instance, politics (and some economic steering) pushed America to the heavens.
But what about the flip side? Where science is forced to give way to politics? Remember this video from a few years ago?
This grandiose gesture from Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe satisfies a few things. One, it is very dramatic, calling attention to the absurdity of the situation with a snowball inside! How silly. But the drama is not lost on those who don’t fully understand the argument, or the political influence behind the gesture. And two it gives him a chance to be seen as a politically charged part of the discussion about climate change, and more importantly makes him look strongly skeptical of “left-wing” scientific proof.
Climate Change evidence has been staring the world in the face for decades, and we are the cause of its acceleration. So much evidence that countries such as France, Germany, and now even China are doing their utmost to shift their societies to cleaner energy practices. But the politics – and again the economics – of cleaner energy are not yet aligned in the United States and thus climate change becomes a back burner issue.
Are either of these two examples morally or ethically correct? No. While I would certainly lean one way and side with how Kennedy did it, I have to point out that he still manipulated events under the guise of scientific achievement. Yes that was a very happy bi-product of his speech, but it wasn’t the whole intent. Science for science sake is in itself enough of a cause. The better understanding of the universe and the natural world is a good enough reason to push for better engineering, better mathematics, and a higher understanding of humanity’s capacity. Science belongs to everyone, let’s help make it so.