Science and Democracy

Most scientists, I suspect, view the rise of Donald Trump as primarily the work of two competing factions: the financial and political elite, whose failures have fuelled public dissatisfaction, and the sometimes-unruly mob whose complaints Trump amplifies and aggrandizes.

When the history of this era is written, however, a third faction will also deserve consideration: the privileged, middleclass groups that see themselves as detached from much of this sound and fury. Prominent among these are the technocrats: the vastly expanded scientific and technical class that silently prospered during the second half of the twentieth century.

For many researchers, beavering away inside the searing, ivory towers that brighten many a benighted urban landscape, these have been the best of times. They have enjoyed not only a long period of stable, well-paid employment, but also something approaching public adulation. Just the other week, cancer was cured yet again in the pages of Nature, by immunotherapy this time. It was top of the news, at least here in Britain. Good show. 

But behind this drumbeat of “breakthroughs,” how did this group acquit itself, during and after the half-century of expansion that followed the Second World War? When scientists had the world at their feet, and enjoyed generous funding and great public prestige, what impression did they make on our wider civilization?

Although it would be quite wrong to blame them for the current political crisis, there are at least three major areas in which scientists could, and in my view should, have acted differently. Broadly speaking, the scientific community has failed to build bridges with the general public. Its senior members have permeated the policymaking process, but their contribution has been found wanting. And its leaders have long bought into a trickle-down, free-market ideology that justified ever-increasing research and development (R&D) funds without social accountability. But that ideology was discredited in 2008, and is now visibly unraveling.

Building bridges

Researchers often like to talk about engaging the public—the selected theme, for example, of February’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC, was “global science engagement.” But when they speak of “engagement,” too many scientists still think of a one-way street: they want to talk at the public, not hear from it. One result of this is that, having forged a close relationship with the political establishment—many of those who would serve in senior positions in a Hillary Clinton administration were at the meeting—it has very weak ties with insurgent forces, on the left or the right.

Additionally, during their long ascendancy, well funded researchers became increasingly arrogant in their public pronouncements, straying far from the essential modesty of, say, Isaac Newton (“I have only been like a boy playing on the seashore … finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”) Although surveys state that the public prestige of scientists remains high, people are growing tired of its exaggerated claims, particularly regarding health. Tiredness and skepticism are creeping—I would say charging—into the public’s understanding of science.

The flawed relationship between science and the public was well illustrated by a recent scandal surrounding patient care at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland—the largest teaching hospital in the United States and the public-facing heart of the world’s largest research agency. Following a damning external report on patient care, NIH director Francis Collins is going to appoint a team of physicians to take over hospital management from the very senior scientists who, the report said, had rendered patient care “subservient to research demands.” 

The skewed nature of public engagement also explains, for example, why a three-decades-long “dialogue” on genetic testing failed to inform geneticists that the public wouldn’t be wildly excited about receiving genetic profiles that might inform them of hypothetical susceptibility to diseases for which there is no treatment. That wasn’t what geneticists wanted from the dialogue, so they didn’t hear it being said. In too many scientific disciplines, public engagement has been like that: scientists do the talking, and the public does the listening.

It is true, of course, that the meeting space for the exchange of ideas between scientists and the laity has become hazardous territory. We’re in a new communications landscape now, one in which traditional gatekeepers, such as TV networks and big-city newspapers, have been routed. But the response of some scientists to this noisy and sometimes irrational environment has been to retreat. Whenever their voices are heard, they always seem be speaking up for officialdom: in favor of nuclear power, or genetically modified crops, or fast-track clinical trials of potentially dangerous drugs, or more work visas for low-cost foreign scientists.

Advisory role

These voices usually belong to those senior scientists who have gained a foothold in the policy development process, through countless reports, panels, and individual appointments. The resultant process has unfortunately proven to be one of absorption and co-optation, whereby senior scientists get sucked into the service of political and financial elites. Now these elites are under siege—and science has no relationship to speak of with the barbarians at the gates.

The German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht—I’d hesitate to bring him up, but I’m told that socialism is back in fashion in the United States—did most of his writing before scientific advisers were invented. But he had a good angle on “expertise.” In his plays, doctors, lawyers, and others are generally portrayed in groups of three. They squabble haplessly among themselves, each maneuvering into whichever position most elevates them in the eyes of their aristocratic paymaster. 

That, sadly, is the role to which many scientific advisers have reduced themselves, during what should have been their period of greatest influence. On the whole, the community’s leaders have been happy to accept the autocracy of politics and finance. The editors of top scientific journals, and the president of the European Research Council, have even taken to hanging around the Davos summit, hoping to pick up some crumbs off the rich man’s lap. 

I admit that it is difficult for scientists to bring more subtle, varied, and effective political approaches to the table. Individuals with strong opinions and personalities are generally seen as troublemakers, and don’t get chosen for high-profile advisory roles. The major scientific societies have developed into impressive lobby shops behind the scenes, but their leaders steer clear of contentious political issues.

Groups of scientists that do enter such terrain—such as the Federation of American Scientists, for example, and Union of Concerned Scientists—have struggled to gain traction in recent years, despite the vast expansion of the pool of researchers from which they might draw support. Their main problem has been that democratic engagement just isn’t part of the culture of most university science departments. That culture instead focuses on the primacy of obtaining research funding, with the secondary objective of starting or assisting businesses.

Compounding this culture, which relegates major societal issues to the background of researchers’ professional lives, is a natural aversion, on the part of many natural scientists, to genuinely complex problems, whose parameters may be hard to define, still less to measure. This was best put to me by a frustrated renegade physicist, outside the gates of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. His lab watchdog group had limited support in the lab, he said: most scientists worked there in the first place because they prefer well-defined technical problems to messy political ones. 

While recoiling from their own direct engagement with the fickle beast that is public opinion, many scientists also hold the people who do try to do so—politicians—in utter intellectual contempt. Rarely is it acknowledged that it is the scientists that have elected to pursue careers confronting tractable problems, while the politicians wrestle with intractable ones. 

A free market

Insofar as they engage with politics at all, senior scientists have become inextricably linked to the centrist, free-market political establishment that is now falling out of public favor—on both sides of the Atlantic, and on both halves of the political divide. On the whole, they bought into the view of that establishment—that free trade, plus innovation, would assure economic growth and social justice. 

It is sometimes unclear to me whether senior scientific advisers actively share this political perspective, or simply breathe it in, unaware that they are making a political choice. At the AAAS meeting, for example, members of a discussion panel on “future directions of international science advice” seemed to me to struggle to get their arms around the complex global question of public acceptance of genetically modified crops. 

Biologist and former state department adviser Nina Federoff, for example, appears still to take genuine umbrage that a country such as France might turn up its nose at genetically modified food. She voiced clear support for free-trade agreements that require democratic governments to provide hard, scientific evidence before they can regulate things like pesticides or even cigarette advertising, on a precautionary basis. This is a political position—pursued with great dedication by global corporations—and bought into, haplessly or not, by many scientists.

Science’s loyalty to free-market dogma was quite unshaken by the financial crisis of 2008. After then, most of the population could see that the emperor had no clothes. But scientific leaders just kept peddling the same tired nostrums about “technology transfer” and “competitiveness,” and arguing that if public investment in science was maintained—as it was, on the whole—economic growth and job creation would follow. I wrote in Nature in 2011, after a particularly vacuous session at the World Science Forum in Budapest, that I was still waiting for a fresh narrative to justify government R&D spending, which by then had passed $120 billion annually in the United States alone. I’m still waiting. 

Promise of youth

The main grounds for optimism that stand out from this unprepossessing backdrop is that younger researchers are keen to find a new path toward public and political engagement. Whether it is caused by a change in cultural outlook, or by the demands of research agencies that people explain their work in normal English and try to relate it to societal goals, many of them are eager to link their specific research problems to the world outside. 

This change is exemplified by skeptics groups—grassroots groups of young scientists and science fans that have flourished in most major cities in the United Kingdom and the United States in recent years, running meetings, usually in bars or cafes, on every political issue under the sun. The outlook of these groups can sometimes be nerdy and male-orientated—they’re the kind of people who either watch or appear in The Big Bang Theory—but at least they are trying to break out of the straightjacket constructed by their elders. I’ve been to many of their meetings and I detect a pervasive change of tone, and a greater acknowledgement of the role, and the limitations, of science. This spirit comes across at larger scientific meetings too, with PhD students and postdocs asking nuanced and sophisticated questions about communications and pubic engagement. 


Donald Trump himself has many of the worst traits of a demagogue, and the constitution of the United States would, in my view, struggle to contain his election as president. But even if he loses, he remains a symptom of a wider crisis.

It is not just in the United States where a perceptible recovery in living standards has yet to materialize since the 2008 crash, and where the free-market consensus—and, perhaps, democracy itself—is in danger. Poland has just elected a reactionary government that is clamping down on press freedom, France is toying with a Marine Le Pen presidency, and the rest of the world’s elected leaders are each threatened, to a greater or lesser extent, by economic and migration crises. 

Many laboratory researchers perceive all of this, I fear, to be someone else’s problem. But it isn’t—either in terms of cause or consequence. If the West is really in its decline-and-fall stage, its Caligula stage, its Donald Trump stage, then that isn’t just an issue for political and financial elites. It is also a problem for the lazy “experts” who crawl around after these elites, massaging their egos, defending their interests, and happy with the billions thrown their way.

The political structure of the West is in deep trouble and should those troubles deepen, there will be plenty of blame to go around. Most will go to political and financial elites, or to rowdy mobs. But some of it will belong to people in the privileged middle who have taken public funds, defended those elites, and then stood back and watched, as democracy got ridden over the cliff.

Colin Macilwain is a science policy journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Cite this Article

MacIlwain, Colin. “Science and Democracy.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 4 (Summer 2016).

Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Summer 2016