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Science, Science Publications, and the US Election

Published October 22, 2020

By Nicholas Dirks

Science, Science Publications, and the US Election

There is much in 2020 that has been unprecedented.  In the world of science, one salient example is that three prominent science publishers have stepped into politics by endorsing Joe Biden for president, or by stopping short by just a whisker.

The Academy is a non-profit—and non-partisan—institution.  Accordingly, we cannot and will not make any political endorsements. But we share deep concern, along with many others in the scientific community, about attacks on or basic misrepresentations of science, and the impact of those attacks on our capacity to face global challenges, including, most immediately, the pandemic.

These three recent editorials deserve our careful attention:

  • Scientific American endorsed Joe Biden in its October issue, the first time the publisher has backed a presidential candidate in its 175 year history.
  • The esteemed science journal, Nature endorsed Biden on October 7, saying he is the “best hope to begin to repair [the Trump administration’s] damage to science and the truth.”
  • The New England Journal of Medicine, which has been non-partisan for 208 years, published an editorial on October 8 saying the our leaders have, with their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, “taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.” The Journal did not explicitly endorse Biden. But there is no disguising the thrust of the editorial.

Scientific American

The focal point for these editorials is the Administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The deep expressions of concern, however, do not stop there. Scientific American writes “[t]he evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science.” The editorial also singled out Trump’s attacks “on environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges.”

See the editorial: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientific-american-endorses-joe-biden1/

Nature

Nature writes that the “Trump administration’s disregard for rules, government, science, institutions of democracy and, ultimately, facts and the truth have been on full display in its disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Nature condemns the administration’s dismantling of scientific capacity in regulatory agencies, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control. The journal also condemns Trump for promoting nationalism, isolationism and xenophobia, for his failures in addressing global warming, and for the proliferation and threat of nuclear weapons during his administration.

See the editorial: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02852-x

The New England Journal of Medicine

The NEJM says the Unites States “failed at almost every step” in handling the pandemic and points out that by one metric for testing, the US has “a rate that puts us far down the international list, below such places as Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia, countries that cannot boast the biomedical infrastructure or the manufacturing capacity that we have.”

The editorial points out that the US has bungled quarantine and isolation measures, interventions that are neither technical nor complicated. The journal criticizes the evisceration of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the exclusion of the National Institutes of Health from crucial government decision making, and the politicization of the Food and Drug Administration.  The editors also point out that the failure to take even simple measures has “has disproportionately affected communities of color” and “exacerbated the tensions associated with inequality.”

See the editorial: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMe2029812

My Perspective

Scientists across the country and across the globe are stepping up to make the case that science-based research is the foundation for solutions to the COVID-19 crisis.  With your support, the Academy is working to meet its own responsibilities by providing unbiased scientific information on the nature and spread of the disease, and about the development of therapeutics and vaccines. Since March, we have held almost 25 events focusing on COVID-19, featuring leading experts from around the world. We’ve held programs for the general public, as well as scientific symposia. Topics have included how businesses might safely reopen, food security during the pandemic, the problem of bias in clinical trials, the efficacy of different COVID-19 tests, and vaccine hesitancy.

As we advocate for compliance with the advice of public health experts—who continue to call for the wearing of masks and for vigilance in social distancing, handwashing, etc.—we are also anxiously awaiting the final testing and certification of all-important COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.  We know, however, that distrust of science and the failure of many in our government to heed and champion the advice of scientific experts has already had dire effects.  Those effects may be compounded if we do not have full confidence in the scientific autonomy of our regulatory agencies.  Policies and messages that mix politics and science will likely keep many people from trusting and taking vaccines.

At the New York Academy of Sciences we pledge to do everything we can to reinvigorate public trust in science, and in the people who work in laboratories, hospitals, and clinics to treat us and protect us from COVID-19.  In this election season, our pledge includes encouraging all of our Members and affiliates to keep the importance of science in mind as we exercise our civic responsibilities.