Should scientists intervene in politics? Divided opinion among Nobel winners

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Lindau (Germany), July 5 (IANS) Should scientists be vocal in politics and intervene to dispel myths, or should they simply ignore ongoing controversies and limit themselves to fact-finding?

Expressing disappointment and disbelief on subjects ranging from the US administration’s views on climate change, vaccines, the wall, as well as Brexit, a section of Nobel laureate scientists hold they should be more politically active in this “post-truth era”.

Yet there are other winners of the prestigious honour who advocate a middle path: Speak up on global challenges. The majority seem to believe that in the “post-truth era” it is easy to cherry-pick data and come to a conclusion that is influenced by personal belief and appeals to emotion.

Swedish laureate Tomas Lindahl, whose work on DNA repair has increased the understanding of how cells work, and the causes of cancer and ageing processes, asserted he is in “strong opposition” to policies like Brexit and Trump’s statements embracing “discredited theories” linking vaccines to autism.

“Yes, I think scientists should participate in politics, especially given what is happening today. It is quite disappointing — things like Brexit, Trump believing vaccines are dangerous. International cooperation is essential in science and I feel strongly about Brexit,” Lindahl told IANS on the sidelines of the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting here where ‘Science in a Post-truth Era’ was one of the core topics.

The 79-year-old Lindahl says although he can’t spend too much time away from the lab, he signs petitions and expresses his opinion on specific topics from time to time.

Lindahl’s Israeli counterpart Dan Shechtman, however, cautioned against aligning science and politics, but agreed that when it comes to subjects with global consequences, scientists have a responsibility to inform the public.

“I don’t think scientists should involve themselves in politics. Scientists and politicians do not speak the same language. Politicians have their own interests,” Shechtman, who won the Nobel in Chemistry for the discovery of quasicrystals, told IANS.

On the same note, American physical chemist and Nobel laureate William E. Moerner reasoned scientists should stick to doing basic research.

Dutch researcher Bernard Feringa, who won the Nobel in 2016, advocated communicating science to politicians and the public given the present political climate, where there seems to be a schism between science and society.

He said the belief that “science is important to our future” must be reinforced.

“We have to continue to not be frightened to speak out against Brexit,” stated English Nobel laureate Sir John Walker.

But Israeli Nobel winner Avram Hershko had a guarded response.

“We should be involved to a certain degree. We are not politicians. It is not what we know how to do. On the other hand, winning a Nobel prize gives a certain weight to what we have to say. If you see things like global warming or climate change, then we should say humanity is responsible for that and, therefore, we should do something,” Hershko told IANS.

Arturo Borja, Director of International Cooperation of Mexico’s National Council of Science & Technology, however, is of the firm belief that science should not be basis for political action.

“Scientists should not use scientific evidence to propose ideological values,” Borja warned.

(Sahana Ghosh was in Germany at the invitation of the Council for the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. She can be reached at [email protected])

–IANS

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