Kevin Mitchell is a researcher and Senior Lecturer in Genetics at Trinity College Dublin. He studies the development of connectivity in the brain.
Science should be apolitical. That is its great strength – it is a method for finding out the actual truth of things, regardless of ideology and regardless of authority, indeed often in direct defiance of it. But for science to remain free from political influence, scientists need to engage with politics – now more than ever.
It is not just the free practice of science that needs to be defended, but the values of science. They are the values of the Enlightenment – the belief that through rational inquiry and the rejection of superstition and prejudice, humanity can make real progress, that through a greater understanding of our world and our place in it we can become more peaceful, more prosperous, more just.
Those values are under threat. They have been for years, in truth, but the anti-intellectualism that was only creeping is now surging. We are told that people are tired of experts, that we can all have our own alternative facts, if the actual ones are inconvenient. In this world, climate change is a hoax, evolution is just a theory, vaccines cause autism, homosexuality is a choice and the white race is genetically superior. Any pretence of making decisions based on evidence has been sacrificed to populism, scapegoating, fear-mongering.
And it’s working. Publicly funded scientists are being censored and silenced in the United States under policies of the new administration. Academics are being jailed in Turkey by the thousands. Anti-immigration moves in the UK and the US threaten the practice and the spirit of international collaboration that underpins the scientific enterprise.
It is time for scientists to speak out for the values they believe in, for the sake of society, as citizens of the world.