Research politics

How is science political? As a working scientist, but not a political scientist or a scholar of science and technologies studies, I can immediately think of three categories of social relations that are important to science, and can be called ”politics”.

First, there is politics going on within the scientific community. We sometimes talk about ”the politics within a department” etc, and that seems like not just a metaphor but an accurate description. Who has money, who gets a position, who publishes where? This probably happens at different levels and sizes of micro-cultures, and we don’t have to imagine that it’s an altogether Machiavellian cloak and daggers affair. But we can ask ourselves simple questions like: Who in here is a big shot? Who is feared? Who do you turn to when you need to get something done? Who do you turn to when you need a name?

To the extent that scientist are humans living in a society, the politics within science is probably not all too dissimilar to politics outside. And to the extent that ideas attach themselves to people, this matters to the content of science, not just the people who do it. Sometimes, science changes in process of refinement of models that looks relatively rational and driven by theories and data. Sometimes, it changes, or doesn’t change, by bickering and animosity. Sometimes it changes because the proponents of certain ideas have resources and others don’t. Maybe we can imagine a scenario where parallel invention happen so often that, on average, it doesn’t matter who is in our out and the good ideas prevail. I doubt that is generally the case, though.

Second, there is politics in the sense of policy: government policy, international organisation policy, funding agency priorities, the strategy of a non-governmental organisation etc. Such organisations obviously have power over what research gets done and how, as they should in a democratic society — and as they certainly will make sure to, in any kind of society. To the extent that scientists respond to economic incentives and follow rules, that puts science in connection with politics. Certainly, any scientist involved in the process of applying for funding spends a lot of time thinking about how science aligns with policy and how it is useful.

Because, third, science is useful, which makes it political in the same sense that it is ethical or unethical — research responds to and has effects, even if often modest, on issues in the world. I would argue that science almost always aspires to do something useful, even if indirectly, even in basic science and obscure topics. Scientists are striving to make a difference, because they know how their topic can make a difference, when this isn’t common knowledge. Who knew that it would be important to study the molecular biology of emerging coronaviruses? Well, researchers who studied emerging coronaviruses, of course.

But even if researchers didn’t strive to do any good, all those grant applications were completely insincere and Hardy’s Mathematician’s Apology were right that researchers are chiefly driven by curiosity, pride and ambition … Almost all research would still have some, if modest, political ramifications. If there were no conceivable, even indirect, ways that some research affects any decisions taken by anyone — I’d say it’s either a case of very odd research indeed or very poor imagination.

This post is inspired by this tweet by John Cole, in turn replying to Hilary Agro. I don’t know who these scientists who don’t think that science has political elements are, but I’ll just agree and say that they are thoroughly mistaken.