Op-ed: Not just against Trump

Donald Trump wants to cut back on scientific research. But, says Stephan Schleim, scientific freedom and independence were in danger long before the American presidential elections.
by Stephan Schleim

Last Saturday, on April 22nd, people all over the world demonstrated for scientific freedom and independence. In Amsterdam, 3,000 visitors came, according to the organizers, to join the 608 other cities in which a March for Science took place.

The event originated in the United States with the primary march in Washington DC. It is also a reaction the Trump administration announcing it would cut the budgets of several national science funding initiatives. The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy would suffer from the highest reductions with 20%, as Science reported.

It is thus no surprise that health and environmental research, such as climate change and alternative energies, received much attention on the Science Marches. Furthermore, April 22nd was already declared ‘Earth Day’ by environmental activists in the 1970s. Trump’s personal image was even seen on banners in the Netherlands.

Importance

Most of the keynotes held on Amsterdam’s Museumplein emphasized the public importance of science. Pearl Dykstra, professor for empirical sociology at the University of Rotterdam, gave an example from her own field: Research on new technologies would often focus on their technical safety and reliability aspects; in addition to that, the social sciences investigated what it means for people to live in a world where they leave digital fingerprints everywhere.

Peter Hagoort, director of two research institutes for neuroscience, emphasised the importance of basic research. As an example, he used Albert Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves 100 years ago that was just confirmed in 2016. It is impossible to predict the utility of future knowledge from the perspective of the present; and such knowledge would be like the ‘immune system’ of a society to react to unforeseen challenges.

However, before the event, researchers critically debated whether they should join the March for Science at all. For some purists, the activity was too political; for others, it ignored many problems of the academic system itself.

Accordingly, Thomas Grohmann, a 35-year old postdoc in chemistry currently working at the Northwestern University in Evanston, USA, raised the following matter: ‘It is easier for me to say why I should rather not attend the march. Because research and teaching at universities are often bad, in my opinion: the exploitative working conditions, the strict hierarchies, the omnipresent nepotism, the bad job perspectives, the disadvantages for women, migrants, and the socially underprivileged…’

Political influence

Nevertheless, Grohmann found the political influence on science so unbearable that he attended the March. It is noteworthy that only one of the keynotes in Amsterdam addressed such problems of the present academic system: It was the head of the Students’ Union, Jarmo Berkhout, who criticized the high working pressure for researchers and teachers in higher education. Representatives of the academics’ union VAWO who are indeed fighting against that pressure were present at the March on Science, but not part of the official program.

‘Science is based on facts, not opinion!’, was written on many banners. For me, as a philosopher of science, this was a bit too naive, as it was already the state of the debate in the 1960s that science cannot simply discover facts but that observations are dependent on theories, available instruments, and further assumptions about how they work and under which conditions they have to be applied.

Speaking about facts in this way does away with Karl Popper’s conclusion that all scientific knowledge is fallible. Just think about Pluto: It used to be a scientific fact that it is a planet. This changed when members of the International Astronomical Union voted to remove it from the official list of planets on August 24th, 2006.

Threatened

In agreement with Grohmann and Berkhout I find it obvious that scientific freedom and independence are not just threatened since the presidential elections in the USA. The working conditions already mentioned are a good example: If third-stream funding is a necessary condition for a permanent position, as happens at Dutch universities, too, then external funders like the government, the industry or private agencies strongly influence academic career paths.

In spite of the initiative for Open Science and the Science in Transition platform that proposed many improvements, I still see many faults in our publication system. Often enough, journal editors are employees of private, for-profit companies, yet they have the first and the last word on which papers to accept and to reject; often such decisions are not transparent and there is no opportunity to appeal.

Decisions

Peer reviewers, an essential institution of the publication process also praised on several March for Science banners, are chosen in a secret procedure and not accountable for their decisions beyond the editors’ discretion. More importantly, they are either our friends or our competitors and thus subject to conflicts of interest. Finding really independent referees probably would come at the disadvantage of lacking technical knowledge for the review of highly specialized research.

This is just a small selection. If scientific facts are essential for policy-makers and society, why  do negative findings rarely have space in scientific communities and their journals? Scientific knowledge does have a special status – but it is both worthwhile and essential to demonstrate for its independency, not just when politicians announce budget cuts.

Stephan Schleim is associate professor for theory and history of psychology at the University of Groningen and also member of the union VAWO mentioned in the text.

Nederlands

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