Science is one of the few institutions in America that has largely remained above the hyperpartisanship gripping our nation. However, there is a small but growing perception among Americans that scientists are becoming politically biased. Indeed, surveys have confirmed that Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in academia. And, over the last few months, the behavior of high-profile scientific journals has only served to reconfirm these perceptions of bias.
Consider an editorial in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, a journal owned by the prestigious and highly regarded American Chemical Society. The piece, written by Prof Staci Simonich of Oregon State University, was titled "An Inconvenient Administration." She wrote that the incoming Trump Administration is "one of the potentially most challenging United States administrations to our scientific field in years" and that her colleagues are "already feeling threatened."
It is difficult to avoid the perception of bias among the public when editors at journals are condemning a new president before he has even taken office.
Still, Prof Simonich very well could be correct. Given some of his rhetoric and political appointees, Mr Trump may make life more difficult for environmental scientists. The EPA may have a turbulent four years. However, it is rather odd to reach this conclusion well before the man has even taken the oath of office. As a scientist, it may behoove the professor to wait until we actually start collecting data on January 20.
Given the oddity of preemptively declaring war on an administration before it has taken charge, I was curious if ES&T Letters had published any editorials critical of President Obama. After all, he presided over at least two extremely controversial policies that were decided by politics rather than science: (1) The decision to withhold information from scientists following the BP oil spill (as well as the subsequent doctoring of documents); and (2) The decision to shutter Yucca Mountain as a repository for nuclear waste. So I reached out to Prof Simonich.
Despite being the author of the piece and an associate editor of the journal, she declined to answer any questions about her article or the journal's editorial decisions. The editor-in-chief, David Sedlak, also declined to answer any questions about the editorial process. Both declined to answer if their journal ever criticized President Obama.
ES&T Letters is not the only journal to behave in a way that appears to be politically motivated. The Journal of the American Medical Association allowed President Obama to publish an editorial praising his own healthcare policy that was largely bereft of peer review. And the internationally renowned journal Science published an editorial by the president on the "irreversible momentum of clean energy." Absent from the article was any mention of nuclear power, which is considered an indispensable tool in the fight against climate change.
Combined, the message being sent by the scientific community is loud and clear: "We will give preferential treatment to politicians we like, and we will refuse to even consider treating fairly those we don't." That's hardly an attitude befitting a scientist; on the contrary, it is what we would expect from a partisan or TV pundit.
Such conduct is bad for science. The honor and privilege bestowed upon this "secular priesthood" ought not be abused. Currently, science continues to earn widespread admiration from both sides of the political spectrum. And though a large majority of Americans still believe scientists are politically unbiased, that reputation will erode unless the scientific community makes a better effort to behave that way.