Standing up for science

07/07/2017 01:40 pm ET

Now, more than ever, is a time to stand up for science. The U.S. administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 calls for severe cuts to several key science-generating institutions, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These cuts would result in a deterioration of the science that has allowed the United States to be the global leader in medicine, public health and environmental science. They would also stall progress in global development, an area which has benefited greatly from the many lifesaving solutions produced through science.

Given the administration’s apparent disregard for science, we should take a step back and ask ourselves what may seem like a simple question: What is science and why does it matter? Of the many definitions, the most basic is the standard dictionary definition: a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular matter. More importantly though, science is a process or way of thinking that seeks to reveal the “truth.” Not knowing the truth about something is like driving through a heavy fog. Science can cut through this fog and reveal the truth.

The scientific process involves observation, questioning, the development of hypotheses, the gathering of evidence, and for some fields, designing and conducting experiments. A critical part of this process is the assessment of bias. Bias comes in many forms and prejudices one’s ability to make an accurate assessment or determine the cause of a problem. The data or evidence collected can be biased, the design of a study can be biased and, of course, people can be biased.

Biases are common and can be profound. In the mid-20th century, there was a major scientific debate about whether cigarette smoking caused lung cancer. The tobacco industry, with a clear bias on the issue, fought hard to refute the evidence indicating a causal link. Today, there is an ongoing debate on whether our planet is warming, and if it is, whether this warming is due to human activity, most notably the use of fossil fuels. Again, biases are influencing the debate: People whose livelihoods or well-being are linked to fossil fuel use often lead the charge to refute the evidence that links fossil fuels to global warming.

Several of today’s most heated debates call for high-quality science to determine truth, and when we fail to take science into account, there can be life-threatening consequences. For example, childhood vaccines have been proven to be safe, yet some parents do not vaccinate their children, which has resulted in a resurgence of preventable diseases. Family planning has been demonstrated to contribute greatly to child survival and healthy families, yet there are ongoing efforts to undermine family planning programs worldwide. The merits of exclusive breastfeeding through the first six months of life are irrefutable and profound, yet some breast milk substitute manufacturers undermine breastfeeding programs in the interest of their profits.

A delay in determining — and agreeing on — the cause of a problem can have devastating effects. In the 1990s, a small group of scientists denied the overwhelming evidence indicating that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) caused AIDS, which weakened the immune system and led to other infections, cancers and, ultimately, death. From the beginning of the epidemic in 1981, AIDS has elicited profound societal reactions, including fear and stigma for persons infected with HIV. The finding that HIV is mostly transmitted among adults by sex or the sharing of illicit drug injection equipment evoked strong emotions and moral arguments. Some policymakers, particularly in South Africa, denied that HIV caused AIDS and promoted false information on the transmission of HIV, which led to a several-year delay in an effective HIV prevention and treatment strategy. Meanwhile, many people became infected and died needlessly. Today, South Africa has more HIV-infected persons than any other country: seven million of the nearly 55 million total population.

Allowing bias to interfere with finding the truth is one problem, but the more profound problem is not seeking the truth at all. The administration’s proposed cuts to U.S. government-supported science are a retreat from the pursuit of the truth on many of the most important questions of the day. This is particularly devastating when it comes to climate change. Limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s generation of evidence on the status of global temperature change and the factors contributing to global warming will yield less evidence to reveal the truth grounded in science. If the United States does not acknowledge the facts on global warming and invest in research and development on renewable energy sources for the future, we will fail to act on an issue that could have serious ramifications for years to come.

The United States has been a global leader in science. Research and development, yielding new technologies and products and guiding healthier behaviors, have been strong contributors to development, improved quality of life and the economy. We must support science to cut through the fog of confusion and reveal the truth on the most pressing challenges of the day.

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