The relationship between two major powerhouses, science and politics, is incredibly important to society. On one hand, scientists are highly dependent on politicians and the government to fund institutions, research and teaching, while politicians often depend on scientists and their prowess to inform policy decisions. Historically, the relationship between scientists and their respective government has often been tumultuous, with many notable highs and lows. In recent years, controversies such as climate change, scientific validity and decreases in scientific funding are topics that have been heavily covered by the media, depicting the current turmoil between the two parties. Many of these issues have arisen from the current political situation in the United States. However, this contentious relationship is ever present in other countries, such as Canada and France, suggesting an international dark age of science.
Since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and the Republican party to both Congress and Senate, tensions between scientists and the government have steadily increased in the United States. Previous presidents, including Barack Obama, relied largely on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), an advisory board mandated in 1976, for advice and counsel for science and technology initiatives. Despite this, President Trump has yet to appoint an OSTP director and has excluded the office from a role in formulating science-related policies and plans. This uneasy relationship between scientists and the Trump administration began during his candidacy, when Trump not only implied a correlation between vaccinations and onset of autism, but also openly debated the validity of climate change. Once elected, his disgruntlement for research persisted, as he cut all climate-science related research funding, reduced roughly 20% of funding to the National Institutes for Health and Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and contentiously abandoned the Paris Climate Agreement. The fiscal decisions made by the Trump administration were one of the driving forces behind the March for Science, an initiative born in Washington, D.C. that sought to publicly defend the vital role science plays in maintaining the health and safety of the world’s inhabitants.
In Canada, Marches for Science happened across the country – spanning Vancouver to St. John’s – demonstrating that Canada is not immune to its own scientific dark age. In March 2017, the Federal Government announced its 2017 budget would not increase funding for the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), an organization that provides the majority of biomedical research funding to labs nationwide. This plateau in funding came after a decade-long stagnation in funding under the Harper government. As a result, many laboratories across the country have been forced to close or lay off essential personnel. In a recent interview conducted by the CBC, 70 percent of mid-career and senior Canadian investigators indicated they will have to decrease the number of trainees in their laboratories due to lack of funding, while approximately a third indicated that they are considering leaving Canada or ending their research altogether. Biomedical researchers are largely dependent on government funding to support their pursuits, but governments will likely only make the long-term investments of these resources if scientific funding takes precedence amongst other competing priorities. It is therefore up to all Canadians to become active supporters of fundamental science, using their voices and votes to hold government officials accountable if they fail to make scientific research a priority.
One country whose newly elected government has proclaimed science as a primary issue is France, under the newly elected President Emmanuel Macron. The newly formed La Republique en Marche won a majority government lead by Macron and his promise of a “revolution” for France. During the election, Macron vowed to raise the country’s research spending to 3% of gross domestic product and to give universities more scientific autonomy. He also aimed to make France a world leader in climate and environmental science. Following Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, the French president pledged to “make our planet great again” by increasing funding efforts to fight climate change. The government then followed this by launching a website geared towards foreign climate scientists, attracting them with enticing 4-year grants up to 1.5 million Euros to bring their research to France. The Macron government’s investment in science is equally evident in the party’s National Assembly members. The Assembly includes many former scientists, such as mathematician and Fields medalist Dr. Cedric Villani. When interviewed, Villani cited that one topic he wants to push through government is the improvement of the science system as a whole. Two other scientists, molecular geneticist Frédérique Vidal and physician scientist Marisol Touraine, also joined the French government as the Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation and the Health Minister, respectively. Despite these positive initiatives by the Macron government, many French scientists remain skeptical of promises for increase in funding, and lashed out at Macron’s attempts to lure international scientists to France. The critics believe that the effort is simply not at the level of what French research requires to remain at the forefront of the international science scene.
Universally, the relationship between scientists and politicians remains contentious. The worldwide March for Science rallies held this past April serve as one example of the disparity between the two groups. More than six months after these Marches, a fundamental question lingers: how do we, as a scientific community, get our voices heard loud and clear in government? To be heard, scientists must be in government. Whether that’s as the head of a Ministry such as Dr. Kirsty Duncan, a medical geologist and the current Minister of Science in the Liberal Cabinet, or through a more advisory role, having an expert in the field voicing their opinion and advising on governing decisions is crucial. However, even with scientists in government, the public must continue to support research funding; signing petitions, writing letters to local MPs, and joining scientists at protests and marches are some tangible measures that anyone can take to engage with their governmental representatives.