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When Did Science Become Apolitical?

There’s an extensive, controversial history behind scientists’ political leanings.
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Photo showing hands holding up a sign that reads, "SCIENCE IS REAL"

Almost immediately after President Donald Trump took office, some scientists began planning a march on Washington; almost immediately after that, the controversy began. Scientists have been debating whether it’s necessary to keep their research and political lives separate, and whether a demonstration might, in fact, make the public more skeptical of science. But the truth is, the apolitical scientist is a relatively new figure: For most of the 20th century, American scientists were openly politically active.

Scientists Were Considered Conservative, at First

Most early-20th-century scientists were seen by the American public as conservatives, says Peter Kuznick, a historian of atomic science at American University. They certainly fit the bill of a Progressive-era conservative: Scientists then were generally well-off, white men. (American universities didn’t award their first doctorates to African Americans and women in math and science fields until the late 1800s and early 1900s, respectively.) They also had an interest in maintaining the status quo. In the wake of World War I, at a time when many were hoping for chemical weapons to be banned, chemists lobbied to keep the weapons of warfare legal, according to Kuznick.

A Cold War Turnaround

The modern notion of scientists as disinterested, non-partisan figures arose (perhaps counterintuitively) during the Cold War, according to many historians. It’s hard to imagine a period during which the overlaps between science and politics were clearer. The United States and Soviet Union were racing to develop nuclear weapons, drawing outrage when their tests poisoned fishermen and residents of small Pacific islands. The Department of Defense began heavily funding university departments for the first time, developing a relationship between the government and academia that continues today. Meanwhile, some scientists, like chemist Linus Pauling, used the weight of their expertise to argue for disarmament. In 1957, international researchers launched the Pugwash Conferences, which were explicitly designed to be political backchannels, independent of any existing institutions, where people from different countries could settle their disagreements without violence.

In the midst of this politically charged atmosphere, “what developed was the notion that scientific ideas were apolitical and value-neutral,” says Kelly Moore, a sociologist at Loyola University who studies the effect science has on governments. “The scientists were to produce ideas and someone else would play a role in making judgments about how to use it.”

Yet the very act of sorting questions about nuclear physics as either “technical” or “political” was itself a moral choice, argues Audra Wolfe, a historian and author of Competing With the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America. “It’s saying, ‘We’re not going to focus on the moral issues here,’” she says.

Historians still haven’t fully documented why that philosophy of neutrality arose at such an contradictory time, but Moore has a hypothesis: “They did that, in part, because that allowed them — the federal government, social scientists, and a variety of other actors — to use science and social science to justify political decisions as if they were objective,” she says. “As if they were the best decisions.”

As well, maybe some people were just looking out for themselves. In Competing With the Soviets, Wolfe documents how some scientists who spoke out against atomic research in the 1950s later had trouble getting jobs.

Of course, the notion that scientists should keep their personal desires and biases from influencing their experimental results was developed long before Little Boy, and it’s an important part of the scientific process. What was new about the Cold War era was the belief that scientists should stay out of the political process.

How Scientists Became Democrats

After the first decades of the Cold War, scientists began becoming more strongly associated with the Democratic Party, a trend that’s led to numbers like these, collected by the Pew Research Center in 2009: That year, 35 percent of the general American public identified as Democrats, while 55 percent of scientists did the same. Nearly one-quarter of Americans — 23 percent — identified as Republicans, but only 6 percent of scientists did.

Historians attribute much of that shift to the political ascendence of Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964, who ran on a small-government platform. By the time of Goldwater’s campaign, thanks mostly to funding by the Department of Defense and NASA,the federal government had become science’s top financial backer. By threatening the size of government, Goldwater threatened scientists’ work. Indeed, the American government remains an important science supporter on a global scale and one of the policy demands of the planned March for Science is to keep money flowing to research.

Scientists and likeminded folks mobilized for Goldwater’s opponent, incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson, in an unprecedented fashion, Wolfe says. They formed the grassroots Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey, which attracted more than 50,000 members and raised money for advertisements depicting Goldwater as too trigger-happy to be trusted with America’s nuclear arsenal. Afterward, political operative David Garth described the group’s effect: “By the time we were through, any guy in Pittsburgh in a T-shirt with a can of beer in his hand knew the smartest people in this country considered Goldwater unfit.” Although Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey deemed themselves bipartisan, the public has associated scientists with the Democratic Party ever since.

The liberalization of scientists also explains another peculiar feature of American politics today: While scientists and science supporters tend to be Democrats, they’re often at odds with the not-insignificant subset of leftists who are skeptical of technological advances such as genetic engineering and vaccines. That conflict also has roots in the ’60s, when some Vietnam War protestors blamed science for the development of weapons such as napalm. Many of the student protests that swept the nation were against their schools’ Department of Defense funding.

A Retreat From Politics

But as the turbulent ’60s passed, scientists retreated from the public sphere, although historians of science are unsure why, Kuznick says. The idea that scientists are apolitical became entrenched and a generation of newly trained researchers forgot, perhaps, their contentious past. “As the research universities grew up, you see the production of scientists through these doctorate programs that are socialized to believe this,” says Doug Haynes, a historian of science the University of California–Irvine.

So what does all this history tell us about the scientists today who plan to join marches or even to run for office in response to the Trump administration’s policies? We’ll leave individuals to draw their own conclusions, but we will point out one thing. Science has had a long and close relationship with the government that we have seen few scientists reckon with, at least in public. In recent administrations, that relationship was easier to ignore. Nobody asked for lists of federal scientists who had attended climate-change conferences. Nobody put their work on “temporary hold.” The Trump administration laid bare the fact that only tradition and norms kept the fed’s shows of power in science within a “palatable range,” as Wolfe puts it.

Science in the world today is largely a U.S. government- and taxpayer-funded enterprise. People can and should argue about whether that’s good or bad for the production of knowledge. Government funding agencies can aim for the public good, instead of the idiosyncratic causes of wealthy donors, or the corporate interests of major industries. But the government may also shape science to fit its own needs, as the White House has shown. Either way, the conversation can’t be put off any longer.