Putting the “Science” in Political Science

By Oliver Engel | Blogger | SQ Online (2013-2014)

Love it or hate it, politics are a huge part of just about everything–especially science.

Politics affect which studies receive funding, how we label foods (did you know that Congress decided that tomato sauce on a pizza counts as a “vegetable” for school lunches?), and in general, control the scientific process from top to bottom. Any student planning to enter a field in science should realize that the implications of “bio-politics” are extremely relevant–and complex–in today’s increasingly technological society.

Money from the private sector has become so entrenched in scientific research that we must consider the political and economic motives behind everything. In the late 1990s, the company deCODE secured the rights to the entire genome of Iceland with the promise of developing pharmaceutical drugs for the most common diseases in the country. While it was a simple enough concept, Iceland exploded in debates that uncovered many unforeseen side effects of deCODE’s ventures: the company would be profiting heavily, could freely access all health records of Icelanders, and would be the permanent sole owner of the genomic database. If you want to read more about this issue, check out this excellent article from Time Magazine. Clearly, there was an impetus beyond science coming into play.

Reading about Iceland’s dilemma made me think about the extent of bio-politics in the United States on a much deeper level. These kinds of issues garner far less attention in our country, and therefore occur much more frequently than most of us would probably like to acknowledge. Organizations often fund research that contributes to their own economic and political agendas, pharmaceutical companies are allowed to advertise for prescription drugs, and big businesses can pressure the government to adopt new legislation. Yet in a country so rife with such issues, the most that usually happens is a few days of discussion in the media. Bio-political problems are so prevalent that we are unable to fully digest or understand the repercussions before the media’s next headliner starts the debates all over again.

A short video summarizing the deCODE controversy in Iceland.Understanding this connection between politics and science is crucial–and not just for biology students like us. We have to know to look for who is funding studies, the possible repercussions of certain research, and where the line exists between scientific fact and political argument. To be a scientist is to be able to look at an issue from every possible angle, which is why I love to stress interdisciplinary work as an important part of education!

If you’re interested in interdisciplinary discussion, I would highly recommend the freshman seminar HITO 87 (Biology and Society), which I just finished this quarter. Each week, you are presented with a different controversial issue to analyze and discuss, such as eugenics, genetically modified organisms, and even bio-politics (which is why I chose it for this week’s topic!). I found that the seminar perfectly encapsulates what I said earlier about having to be able to look at an issue from every possible perspective. I’ll admit that I walked into that class every week with a perfectly infallible (or so I thought) position on whatever issue was to be discussed. But in the space of just an hour, I wasn’t so sure of myself anymore: I heard arguments based on history, hard science, personal experience, and just about everything else. My once-solid preconceptions were disintegrated, and I left class with more questions than answers, which is precisely what I design my blog posts to do!

Sources / Additional Reading

TIME magazine article on deCODE

Video summary of the deCODE controversy

Interested in Biology and Society? Check out this syllabus to see what topics might be discussed!