More science, less politics
An elegant editorial last week in Nature entitled “Scientists must rise above politics — and restate their value to society” makes the point that now, more than ever, scientists and researchers need to make their voices heard. A good example it provides is that Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell created a manifesto warning of the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, which led to the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, a meeting of researchers from many countries and political ideologies to discuss the risks of nuclear weapons from a purely scientific perspective.
The depth to which politics penetrates into the decision-making layers says a lot about a country. In a dictatorship, all public offices are occupied by hand-picked personnel regardless of their level of knowledge and technical skills in the subject at hand. In real democracies, after elections, only the top leadership positions (ministers, secretaries of state, etc.) are changed, while below them, good technicians remain in their jobs. There are countries where technicians labour below many layers of “politicians” with no specific erudition or knowledge in their fields. In countries such as Spain and many others in Europe, after any elections, the removal of public servants cuts so deep that thousands and thousands of workers are removed from their positions, regardless of their qualifications. Let’s take an example from the health arena. Politicians select hospital general managers from their own party. Sadly enough, in many cases, the medical director, director of nursing, and even heads of departments are selected without regard to their merits and erudition. The deeper the penetration of politics – and therefore the lower in the decision-making layer – the less cost effective the system, as there are more people in the chain of command without the proper technical skills.
For decades, on the innumerable occasions when I have discussed this topic, I have asked people if the most intelligent person in their class at school became a politician. The answer has always been the same: No, they became engineers, physicians, scientists... If the politicians who run countries, manage economies, and take decisions every day that affect our lives are, with a few notable exceptions, not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, it would be wise to have a good team of advisors that, as with the Pugwash movement, provide the scientific evidence to support one decision over another. Again, sadly enough, in many countries, those advisors are cronies, someone owed a favour, members of the same political party, and even family! An independent board of the best scientists in the country would be a great asset to those who run our lives based on decisions that do not follow the scientific method and are not based on facts. And facts are very important in this era of post-truth politics. Just this week I heard Trump say that the mass shootings in the US had to do with mental illness and not with gun availability. He, or someone close to him, should know that, in countries with the same prevalence of mental illness and no access to guns, such violence is almost unknown. Someone should tell him that his hypothesis can be tested and corrected for different variables (i.e. gun availability, mental illness) to determine where the real problem lies.
Power and ambition are very good for prosperity, but they must go hand in hand with wisdom and erudition; otherwise they are dangerous. If we look around us and assess the level of many politicians who are currently running the world, there is good reason to be scared. We must be prepared to not be heeded by those who have risen to power with values inconsistent with those that we, as scientists, hold dear. We have an obligation to show voters that, when decisions are not based on facts and evidence, the results are disastrous for society. We must show them the value of erudition in solving society’s problems.
I have no doubts that ECNP has been so successful because it has been governed by scientists, according to scientific, evidence-based principles. Those scientists have applied all of their professional knowledge to our College. What’s more, a rich mixture of scientists from different backgrounds, collaborating and working together, is an excellent recipe for success.
I hope to see you all in Copenhagen in a few weeks!
PS: This is my last Presidential message, and I want to thank you for all the support I have received as ECNP President and for the responses and greetings that you have sent me after publication of my previous messages. So to all of you, especially those of you who have persevered to this very last sentence of the message in the middle of August, many thanks!