The recent addition of scientists into cabinet positions and other federal offices has caused me to breathe a deep sigh of relief, and I’m sure I’m not the only Oredigger who feels this way. It has nothing to do with my political affiliation, and everything to do with my identity as a scientist. I have watched in despair as the trust in science has rapidly crumbled over the past few years. It did not happen overnight; it’s been a hidden problem that was driven to the surface by a combination of politics and the pandemic. The sanctity in science has been destroyed along with a simultaneous deterioration in the quality of media and news, which has exacerbated the problem. But the recent slurry of scientists joining the federal government has finally illuminated a light at the end of the tunnel.
The role of a presidential science advisor, to be filled by Eric Lander, has been elevated to a cabinet-level position for the first time. Joining Lander in the White House will be Frances Arnold, a chemical engineer at Caltech who recently won the Nobel Prize, and Maria Zuber, a geophysicist and vice president for research at MIT, who will co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) with Lander; and Alondra Nelson, whose work ties together STEM research with race and social inequality, and who will serve as Lander’s deputy. The immediate focus of their work will of course be COVID-19, as well as climate change, inequality, and the economy; but Biden has emphasized that the health of science and the public trust in science and scientists is an important effort that the team will also focus on during its tenure.
While these appointments are a good sign, they’re not a full solution. Rebuilding trust between scientists and the broader community will require consistent attention and scrutiny to avoid construing trust in science as a partisan issue, and it starts with acknowledging the deeper issues contributing to this problem. The distrust of science and scientists stems from a general wariness towards higher education, and it’s directly and tangentially related to other problems such as academic elitism, disparities in access to and quality of education, and another artifact of political polarization, among others. I have participated in and benefitted from this system for years, and I see its disadvantages: I know that academia and scientific research can be exclusive, and that is a major problem that many are trying to improve. But I am equally certain that having a blanket distrust of scientific results is just as detrimental.
Improving such a tangled problem will obviously take effort from people on both sides, including scientists as well as politicians on behalf of science. I have personally considered exploring a career in science writing or policy once I graduate, but I recognize that if I remain in research, I must still make the dissemination of results and discussion with the wider community a priority. There is no clear-cut path to make this happen, and I realize there are institutional barriers to overcome. But it can also be as simple as initiating conversations with peers and trying to be more inclusive and understanding in arguments, in addition to recognizing that scientists have a responsibility to bridge the gap between their lab work and broader society.
In any case, it’s comforting to know that there is change happening at the federal level. This is an optimistic opinion, but I think it’s also realistic. There has been a clear attack on science during the Trump administration, but there was not a corresponding loss in research funding, because science has always had support from both parties. We need to focus on how science is discussed in the media and have politicians and citizens alike make an effort to fact-check before sending things out into the ether for others to latch onto. It’s going to be a long process because it is interwoven with many other problems in our country, but it’s also achievable, and increasing the participation of scientists in the federal government is a great place to start.