11:10 AM
 | 
Feb 06, 2018
 |  BC Innovations  |  Strategy

#NoneOfYourBusiness

Editor's Comment: Scientists’ political, religious views are #NoneOfYourBusiness

In an era of heightened concerns about the politicization of science, it would be logical to expect peer-reviewed journals, the beating heart of the scientific enterprise, to recognize the need to shield science and scientists from judgments based on ideology or religion. Nature’s new policy on disclosure of non-financial conflicts of interest is a leap in the wrong direction. It reinforces notions that science is a subjective activity and that religious or political beliefs of scientists color their data and conclusions.

It shouldn’t need saying that the most fundamental principle of science is that conclusions must be judged on objective criteria.

Last week, Nature became the latest journal to require authors to “declare any interests that might cloud objectivity.” Financial interests have long been on the list of required disclosures. Now Nature has extended that to non-financial competing interests, which include relationships -- personal or professional -- with organizations or individuals, and membership of governmental, non-governmental, advocacy or lobbying organizations, or serving as an expert witness, qualifying as conflicts of interest.

Under these criteria, the author of a paper about climate science would need to disclose his leadership position in the Sierra Club. A physician publishing research on the safety of a new contraceptive might be expected to reveal that she had advised Planned Parenthood.

The broad criteria for disclosure in Nature’s policy could easily be interpreted to include religious beliefs; some journals explicitly demand that authors provide information about their religious convictions.

The issue isn’t hypothetical. While most scientists who have strong religious faith probably keep their views under wraps, a few discuss religion publicly.

The most prominent example is NIH Director Francis Collins, who has made his beliefs public as a born-again Christian. Collins founded BioLogos, an organization dedicated to reconciling religion and science -- relationships that many scientists might think would undermine objectivity about evolution, genetic testing or use of embryonic stem cells, for example.

Collins has the right to have his work judged on its scientific merit with no reference to his religious beliefs. His position insulates Collins -- he doesn’t have to worry about tenure, grants or getting articles accepted by top tier journals.

“Everyone should refuse to permit inquiry into his political beliefs.”

Linus Pauling

However, a young scientist just starting a career in genetics would be foolish to advertise similar associations. It is hard to believe that peer reviewers and editors, the gatekeepers to publication in journals like Nature, wouldn’t be influenced by an author’s association with an organization they find unscientific, or politically or morally objectionable.

There is nothing benign about being compelled to make such disclosures. Having one’s work tainted by the suggestion of a conflict of interest is devastating, and potentially career-ending.

Judging science on the basis of a scientist’s beliefs or associations was standard practice in the Soviet Union and continues to be common in totalitarian societies.

In the United States, we’ve been down this path before. It leads to stigmatization based on political beliefs and risks self-censorship by scientists who fear losing out on tenure, funding or getting published.

In 1950, Linus Pauling, the intellectual father of molecular biology, told a California Senate Committee: “I believe that, in order to protect our constitutional rights, everyone should refuse to permit inquiry into his political beliefs.”

Pauling paid a price for stubbornly insisting on his right to resist demands that he disclose his political beliefs and associations. The U.S. Public Health Service revoked grants it had awarded Pauling because his advocacy of nuclear disarmament was equated with Communism. In the face of intense pressure, he refused to disclose whether he was a Communist (he wasn’t). At least one pharmaceutical company canceled a contract with him for the same reason, and the controversy led the California Institute of Technology to force Pauling to resign as chair of its chemical division.

Beyond the obvious assault on privacy and liberty, the notion that personal beliefs, as signaled by political or religious affiliations, are relevant when assessing peer-reviewed research, is an assault on science itself.

The world of science is built on the idea that theories rise and fall on objective criteria. Experiments can be independently reproduced -- or they can’t. A hypothesis withstands attempts to disprove it -- or it doesn’t.

The notion that personal beliefs, as signaled by political or religious affiliations, are relevant when assessing peer-reviewed research, is an assault on science.

This is why, in the 21st century, science has emerged as a truly global enterprise. Collaborations flourish without regard to national borders, creeds or ideologies.

Disclosure of financial ties is necessary and proper. But when Nature or any other publication asks a scientist about their political or religious views, the response should be #NoneOfYourBusiness.

Companies and Institutions Mentioned 

BioLogos, Grand Rapids, Mich.

California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, Calif.

Planned Parenthood, New York, N.Y.

Sierra Club, Oakland, Calif.

National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, Md.

References 

Unsigned Commentary. “Editorial: Nature journals tighten rules on non-financial conflicts.” Nature (2018)

Unsigned Commentary. “Conscientious objection.” BioCentury (2009)

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