Scientists unite: Why scientists must become more politically active

I recently participated in a local March for Science that simultaneously took place in cities across the U.S. The most significant highlight of the march was seeing scientists publicly demonstrating to influence government policy and legislation.

Scientists are by nature and tradition not very political. Indeed, this was my first political action since I was a college student protesting the Vietnam War. Their intellectual inclinations run more toward wonky scientific topics relating to biological and physical science realms, rather than political ideology and social activism.


Their preference would be to spend time holed up in laboratories or poring over scientific literature, rather than parading down streets or attending rallies. They are typically more introspective and non-confrontational – attributes that are unconducive to politics and protests.


In 1970, I moved to Washington, D.C., to attend medical school. At that time, the nation’s capital was a small town of 756, 668, comprised of a tiny contingent of native Washingtonians and government workers, including members of Congress — mostly white men — drawn from all parts of the country, and an international cohort of diplomats and their retinues.

There was no fine dining to speak of – all sophisticated entertaining was done at the White House, in tony Georgetown residences or Embassies. Downtown D.C. was riven by urban blight. The area around the Capitol was a high crime area, 14th street NW was a red-light district and K Street was barren of high-powered business enterprises. Moreover, the surrounding municipalities in Virginia and Maryland were largely rural and undeveloped. There were no sprawling suburbs, massive government office buildings, Metro system or traffic problems, and housing in the district was affordable.

When I returned to Washington almost four decades later as President of the American Psychiatric Association, our capital had burgeoned as a function of the business of government. The budget of the federal government had expanded, and special interest groups (ranging from the AFL-CIO to the National Association of Broadcasters) had flocked to locate their offices in D.C., and K Street was lined with lobbying firms. Upscale restaurants, bars and other recreational venues for conducting business were on the rise, and the real estate market was on the upswing. It's the only city where real estate values do not decline during recessions.

But, notably absent in this process were the scientists. While there are representative entities – such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Association of Medical Colleges and government relations/lobbyist arms of professional organizations and coalitions: e.g. Research America, the American Brain Coalition — their size and influence paled in comparison to high-powered and well-funded industry special interests (e.g. PHARMA, NRA, Insurance Industry). 

It has taken a political earthquake like the election of an iconoclastic president to mobilize the scientific community to political activism. Yet, this is precisely what is needed, or rather demanded, of us now. Although it is not the reason that I went to medical school and pursued a career in academic medicine and neuroscience research, our involvement in government policy and legislation has become vital if the U.S. is to sustain its scientific enterprise and realize our potential for progress.

While I would like to think that scientists did not need to distract themselves for such mundane purposes, and could leave such matters to an enlightened government, this sadly is not the case. Scientists find themselves increasingly constrained and undermined by the “macro-environment” created by government policy, legislation, regulation and financing — from prohibition of stem cell research, inadequate funding levels for biomedical research, burdensome and costly FDA bureaucracy, lack of enforcement of mental health parity in insurance coverage, and a dysfunctional health care financing system.

For scientists to remain passive and simply try to adapt to these conditions, is the equivalent of trying to combat global warming by buying more air conditioners and building dikes around Manhattan, rather than limiting fluorocarbon emissions and finding alternative energy sources to fossil fuels.

The time has come for scientists to mobilize. We must become more active in a variety of ways, including providing more and better information to Congress and the administration, communicating to the public through broadcast, print and internet-based media, and seeking positions in government through appointed and elected office. Perhaps we are starting to see the tides turn — in 2017, there were 15 physicians sworn into Congress.

Further, enactment of the 21st Century Cures Act established, for the first time in history, the position of Assistant Secretary of Mental Health, authorized that person to work more closely with the NIH and more efficiently translate research findings into clinical care financed by the federal government. My esteemed colleague, Elinore McCance-Katz M.D., Ph.D., a distinguished addiction researcher and clinician, was just appointed to this position. We need more clinicians and scientists in government positions of influence and authority.

The French Statesman Georges Clemenceau is quoted as saying that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” President Trump has reversed this adage by appointing more military officers to his administration for security and defense. In this regard, I find myself in some agreement with our POTUS and would argue that scientific research is too important to be left to the politicians.

Jeffrey Lieberman, M.D., is Chair of Psychiatry at Columbia University Columbia University Medical Center and Psychiatrist in Chief of the New York Presbyterian Hospital as well as past President of the APA. He is author of Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry. You can find him on Twitter: @DrJlieberman

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