Why I am Marching: Peter Stafford

Dr Peter Stafford PhD BL is a barrister practicing in Dublin.

The scientific community is right to be worried about the impact of political interference on their freedom to publish the findings of their research. Evidence-based science quite simply saves lives. A culture of peer review and honesty in how experiments are conducted and results are presented, lead to an informed public debate about our knowledge of the world.

Scientists should themselves be free from conflicts of interest, and they should be protected from having their work compromised or suppressed because their findings do not match the political agenda of the day. When governments seek to limit what scientists can publish, or interfere in what they research, they not only hold back the public understanding of the world around us, they cause unnecessary cruelty and pain through lost opportunities for medical advances.

One of the first acts of the Trump administration was to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from talking directly to the media without White House approval, followed quickly by a suspension of its funding. The subtext was clear – toe the party line or face the financial consequences. This is petty political interference with the work of an independent agency, which has the long-term interests of the human race at its heart.

Rather than allowing the evidence to drive environmental policy, the White House sought to ensure that the information received by the public matched Government policy. Policy-driven evidence-gathering, rather than evidence-based policy-making. So while the March for Science is primarily focused on protecting the scientific community from political suppression, other professions should be concerned that they too may find themselves banned on engaging with the public or facing cuts to their funding to punish them for their independence.

As a lawyer, evidence-based research is at the heart of my profession, and so it is for many beyond the door of the science lab. In January, Trump sacked the acting attorney general of the US when she ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend his controversial immigration orders.

The AG’s letter to US lawyers is a classic defence of an independent judiciary and the importance of speaking truth to power: “My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts.”

“In addition, I am responsible for ensuring the positions we take in court remain consistent with the institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.”

“At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.”

On the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin, as on so many courthouses, justice is personified as a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales. The scales represent the weighing up and balancing of evidence for and against the accused. The blindfold means that justice will weigh the evidence objectively, without fear or favour, regardless of identity, money, power, or weakness. When we government to tip the balance of justice by withholding financing or undermining independence, we all suffer. When we allow governments or politicians use political expediency or their own pursuit for power to limit the rule of law, we all suffer.

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