Letter From Discover

Friday, September 03, 2004

Discover has received quite a few letters recently asking us not to get political. It started in January when we listed Bush’s dustup with scientists over stem cell research and other items as the fifth (out of 100) most important science story of 2003. That spilled over into a lively exchange of opinions on our letters pages. Then a story in our May issue by Stephen Hall— “The Good Egg”—explored what science has to say about when viable life begins. That seemed to arouse slightly paranoid feelings among some readers about abortion. The truth is that the editors of Discover have determinedly avoided politics—and religion—as if they were plagues. But, but, but, some of you will point out, there is a Bush vs. Kerry story in this issue. How can we claim to be nonpolitical when we print that? Here is our explanation:

There has been a great tradition in science of remaining unbiased and nonpolitical. Scientists are reluctant to believe something until the experiment is run and the results are in. We’re all for that. Yet the majority of scientific research in this country is paid for by the federal government, using your tax dollars. The biggest bucks these days go to the military and antiterrorism concerns. What’s left over for civilian concerns is mostly doled out by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Like it or not (and we don’t), when science is dependent on government sources for funding, the result will often be political. Creating tax incentives for privately funded research is political too. And that leaves the door open for ideology. For example, some of us would rationally maintain that scientists should be allowed to use leftover embryos for stem cell research that otherwise would be flushed down the drain at fertility clinics. Others would rationally disagree. To ignore that politics is part of science—and always has been—is Pollyannaish and foolish.  We should all be keenly aware of that reality no matter which party controls the White House and Congress.

So that’s why we chose to look at the presidential candidates in this issue through the lens of science. We chose an author, Daniel S. Greenberg, who has a history of looking critically at national policies no matter who is behind them, and we have bent over backward trying to be fair to both candidates. (You can’t imagine the conversations we’ve had about which policies—Bush’s or Kerry’s—should be discussed first, or whether they should be alternated. We take it as a good sign that we can’t agree.)

We will continue to avoid politics in our coverage of science in the future. But we believe that science is now the most important front-page news in the world. We believe that science will determine who the next superpower will be (watch China). We believe that the commander in chief will ultimately have more of an effect on this nation’s future by wisely commanding science than he will by wisely commanding armies. We accept that politics is part of science, and we intend to look politicians straight in the eye and ask the hardest questions we can think of and do it as fairly as we humanly can.

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