A physicist once assured me he had trained his research team to be purely objective and neutral when conducting their research. Convinced he was joking, I smiled and asked how. Had he injected them with a bias-free vaccine? Had he provided medicine that stripped them of their values and beliefs? Had he locked them in the laboratory for years to spare them any social interaction?
He was not amused. He believed that his team had achieved objectivity through value-free, emotion-free, and bias-free science, completely detached from socio-political events.
It is probably true that graphene, white phosphorus, and BaF molecules do not care about socio-political events. But, the scientific practices that scientists engage in are inseparable from the political, social, religious, and economic contexts in which we live.
Responses to questions of who does science, who funds scientific research, what industries utilize scientific findings, and which communities profit (or not) from scientific research offer just a glimpse of the fact that science, and hence, knowledge, and hence, universities have always been political and never neutral.
It is probably true that BaF molecules do not care about socio-political events
For example, women were left outside of the system of knowledge production until about 200 years after the establishment of the first European universities which were open only to wealthy, white, Christian men. In some ways, women are still left outside of the knowledge production system.
Nuclear physics whose discoveries are the basis of life-saving technologies, such as radiotherapy, owes part of its prestige to its potential role in nuclear weapons production and war dating back to the 1930s. In many ways, nuclear physics still finds its prestige in current military operations.
The manipulation of the DNA through genetic engineering, and the potential for designer babies priced at only half the selling price of a 40-square-meter apartment in Groningen, has raised many ethical concerns since the 1980s.
Scientists making profits from the intensification of agricultural production to ‘improve’ specific breeds of animals while causing loss of biodiversity is only another example of how science has contributed to yet another political issue, the climate crisis.
Racism has permeated contemporary science
And, racism? Racism has permeated contemporary science. Look no further than the impacts of Covid19, climate change, and AI technologies. Black populations experience disproportionately more diagnoses and deaths related to coronavirus.
Minority communities in the global south experience disproportionately the impacts of climate change, such as bad air quality and toxic waste. Migrants, refugees, and ethnic minorities experience discrimination through algorithmic decision-making in all aspects of their lives, ranging from study ‘choices’ to loan applications, to being perceived as potential threats to society.
Scientists refraining from engaging with socio-political issues in a not-neutral world is not neutrality. It is a political position that avoids responsibility to society.