The Politics of Discovery

Kevin Guskiewicz

Conventional wisdom is science and politics shouldn’t mix. Decisions about public health, vaccine research, or climate risks ought to be driven by scientists, free from interference by politicians.
That’s all true. But drawing a bright line between scientific conclusions and political decisions is far from easy. The particular genius of America’s approach to research and discovery is in the balance between the dual requirements of scientific independence and massive public support.
“Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown,” wrote Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, in his seminal 1945 report to President Roosevelt called Science: The Endless Frontier. “Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science.”
Bush’s solution for preserving that scientific freedom was to channel public support through research universities like Carolina. By directing government grants to university researchers, Bush believed, the United States could guard scientific independence while also furthering the government’s interest in the health, wealth, and general welfare of the country. The long-established traditions of academic freedom, tenure, and peer review in American universities would ensure that research dollars found their highest and best use, which is why UNC received over a billion dollars in outside research funding last year.
“The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research,” he wrote. “They are the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere.”
We read and discussed that essay in my American Professoriate class last week, and nearly all of the doctoral students in that course agreed that a completely apolitical science simply isn’t reasonable. In a sprawling, raucous democracy of 330 million people, the pursuit of truth almost inevitably leads to political questions — and that’s ok.
“Bush’s argument was deeply political,” said Holden Thorp, one of my predecessors as UNC Chancellor and now the top editor at the journal Science. He joined our class session to offer some modern context for the Endless Frontier and pointed out that all of Bush’s arguments for curiosity-driven research focus on instrumental outcomes. “He’s not arguing knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” Thorp told the class. “It’s better medicine, better national defense, a stronger economy.”
Those are still the things we expect from science, the fruits of diligent investment in basic research that leads to unexpected discoveries and surprising new applications. Thorp pointed out that almost all of the advanced tools being deployed in the fight against the coronavirus — including here at UNC — are the product of curiosity-driven research launched years ago. It was impossible to know how exactly those earlier investments would pay off, but we’re seeing the fruits of that patient approach now.
“Most scientists really just want to understand nature,” Thorp told our class. “But it’s really hard to muster people to put their money into that if you don’t give them an instrumental outcome.”
So that’s the trade, the careful balance we need to strike between science and politics. Public officials must let researchers at Carolina and across the country go where their curiosity takes them, and scientists must embrace their responsibility to advance the endless frontier.


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