Is Populism a Threat to Science?

American scientists have reason for optimism. A large majority of Americans agree that science has made the world a better place and that federal funding for science is a good thing.

But we also have ample reason for concern. Rising populist sentiments in the United States, though not explicitly antagonistic to science, should make scientists uneasy for two reasons: science is a global establishment, and science can be perceived as elitist. Thus, science stands in opposition to the nativism and anti-elitism of contemporary populism.

Of these two facets of populism, the threat of nativism is more immediate. We can already see the threat of nativism at work across the pond—populist nativism in Britain has taken a toll on British science through the consequences of the Brexit. The United Kingdom (UK) contributes £5.4 billion to research in Europe, but in turn receives £8.8 billion in research grant money from the European Union (EU), a funding source that will be cut once Brexit is enacted. Moreover, non-British European scientists, who make up 15 percent of the research force in the UK, risk getting sent back to the Continent if they cannot obtain visas. European research programs have also become averse to hiring British scientists, which has reduced British scientists’ opportunities to participate in international projects.

Though science in the US is not as entangled with other countries as is science in the UK, rising anti-immigrant sentiments in the US also pose a threat to the health of American science, because science in the US depends heavily on foreign talent. More than half of all advanced STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) degrees in the United States are awarded to foreign-born students. About two-thirds of these graduates stay in the United States to work in STEM-related jobs, and about a quarter of all patents in the United States are filed by foreign nationals. Considering that we are far behind other developed countries in the quality of our K-12 STEM education, the presence of top talent from other countries is vital to the longevity and strength of American science and innovation. The nativist sentiments of American populism haven’t yet been explicitly aimed at foreign STEM professionals or students, but that isn’t much of a relief—such attitudes weren’t explicitly aimed at foreign-born scientists in the UK either.

Though anti-immigrant views could become harmful to science in the United States, nativism is not the only facet of populism that is worrisome. Populist anger of any political leaning is by definition aimed at the elite. And in the US, science is very much an elite institution. The scientific establishment receives massive amounts of federal funding and carries an outsized influence on policy-making. It is precisely this sort of elite status which has drawn resentment from populists, and thereby throws into question the security of science in our current political climate.

Lest it seem like I am overstating the problem, consider how science has fared in the past when populist anger has boiled well past calls for reform.

One such example, though extreme, is the French Revolution. Although the French Revolution was initially spurred on by subversive intellectuals, it rode atop a wave of (very much justified) populist resentment. Calls to give rights to the people were largely ignored by the aristocracy, and the result was a messy, bloody revolution. The consequences for the basic sciences were devastating.

Before the French Revolution, the French scientific community was the most institutionalized in the world, yet the Revolution saw the closure of all French academies by the anti-Royalist Jacobins, who denounced such institutions as antithetical to the ideals of the Republic. Though all academies were closed, the Academy of Sciences was one of their primary targets because of its perceived elitism. Mathematical sciences, like physics and chemistry, which were seen as arrogant because they could only be practiced by the highly educated elite, were vilified—so much so that many scientists in these fields were guillotined. By comparison, more “hands-on” sciences like biology, which could be practiced by common people, were commended.

Similar anti-elitist sentiments crippled the Chinese scientific establishment during the Cultural Revolution. Together with other intellectuals, many scientists were forced into the countryside to learn the virtue of labor and to be cleansed of their elitism. Many other scientists were publicly attacked as counter-revolutionaries, universities were shut down, and the work of science was “transferred” to the masses in an effort to make science a project of the people. For example, large numbers of peasants were marshaled by Mao’s government to observe the effectiveness of various pesticides or to collect information about crops. Theory and basic research were dispensed with in favor of this new kind of science, a science which was conducted by the people and for the people. The result of this “people’s science” was that research was conducted through almost blind trial-and-error, without sufficient prior scientific knowledge to design well-informed experiments. The impact on science in China was catastrophic. For almost a decade, there were no scientific publications, no subscriptions to foreign journals, no new scientists trained, and the entire country was cut off from scientific advances being made in the rest of the world.

We are, of course, nowhere near the level of populist anger that presaged the French and Cultural Revolutions, and neither the French Revolution nor the Cultural Revolution completely paralyzed science in their respective countries. Because they weren’t seen as elitist, the natural sciences like biology did well during the French Revolution, and nuclear physics spurred on by military research continued unabated during the Cultural Revolution.

However, these historical examples starkly underscore the point that science, in its perceived elitism, embodies much of what is resented by populism. If science is perceived as elitist today—and we have good reason to think that it is—then the fact that populism is re-emerging around the world should have scientists very worried.

But there is much that scientists can do to protect the health of American science in the face of populism. First, scientists need to make the non-scientific public aware of how important science is for our economy, for our health, and for our security. Second, scientists need to communicate the importance of immigration and international collaboration for scientific research.

These lessons were learned perhaps too late by scientists in the UK. In the months leading up to Brexit, the British scientific establishment tried in vain through programs like Scientists for EU to communicate the importance of international cooperation for British science, as well as the importance of science for the British public. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, as a majority of the country voted to leave the EU. In trying to adjust to a post-Brexit Britain, Scientists for EU wrote in a recent letter to the editor addressed to The Times: “It is not sufficiently known to the public that the EU is a boon to UK science and innovation. Freedom of movement for talent and ambitious EU science funding programmes, which support vital complex international collaborations, put the UK in a world-leading position. This in turn affects education, skilled jobs, small innovative businesses and our economic future….We urge the newly appointed minister for science and universities, Jo Johnson, to ensure this is communicated robustly.”

Though these measures are crucial, scientists need to do more than just explain their importance. Tellingly, this “science is a practical good” tactic was used by French scientists in the days leading up to the French Revolution. There was, at the time, little to no effort to communicate science itself to the public, nor to stress the importance of science as a basic intellectual good. The result was, just as in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, that science was largely pressed into the service of the military.

Scientists can learn from this mistake and communicate their ideas more effectively to the public. The rise of social media offers scientists unprecedented access to the non-scientific public, but many scientists use such media primarily as a way to network and exchange knowledge with their peers. While this is important and vital to the project of scientific research, it misses out on a big opportunity to educate the public. Scientists need to get on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and other popular online platforms to tell non-scientists what they do and why it is intrinsically interesting and beneficial.

Such measures may not do much to quell radical populism, nor will they do anything to address the justified anger at the political and economic elite that has failed so many Americans. But if scientists take the simple steps of engaging more with the non-scientific public, communicating the importance of science for society, and stressing the importance of international collaboration and immigration for research, then the scientific enterprise will have no reason to fear populism.

If that’s the case, then all of us, not just scientists, have plenty of reason to be hopeful, as new medicines, technologies, and industries continue to emerge from the work scientists do in their laboratories.