The Intersection of Science and Politics

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As much as I try to keep politics out of my science vocabulary, there are some ties between the two that cannot be severed. Often, science in the United States is very linked to the government because funding can be dependent on federal, state, and/or local government decisions. Therefore, it is part of our responsibility as scientists to be, at least, informed on governmental proceedings.

The United States has one agency that is particularly important to those of us conducting marine science: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA’s mission is science, service, and stewardship with three major components:

  1. To understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts
  2. To share that knowledge and information with others
  3. To conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources
noaa org chart
Organizational Chart of NOAA. (Image source: OrgCharting)

Last year, the U.S. Senate confirmed Retired Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, Ph.D., as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere for the Department of Commerce in NOAA. This position is an appointment by the current President of the United States, and is tasked with overseeing the daily functions and the strategic and operational future of NOAA. NOAA oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is an agency responsible for the stewardship and management of the nation’s living marine resources. NMFS is a major player when it comes to marine science, particularly through the determination of priorities for research and management of marine species and habitats within the United States’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In dark blue, the United States’ Exclusive Economic zones, surrounding land masses in green. (Figure by K. Laws)

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Gallaudet speak to scientists who work for, or in conjunction with, a NMFS office. After the 16% budget cut from the fiscal year 2017 to 2018, many marine scientists are concerned about how budget changes will impact research. Therefore, I knew Dr. Gallaudet’s visit would provide insight about the future of marine science in the United States.

Dr. Gallaudet holds master’s and doctoral degrees in oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, as well as a bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy. He spent 32 years in the Navy before stepping into his current role as Assistant Secretary. Throughout the meeting, Dr. Gallaudet emphasized his leadership motto: All in, All Good, and All for One.

Dr. Gallaudet also spoke about where he sees NOAA moving towards: the private sector.

A prominent conservation geneticist asked Dr. Gallaudet how NOAA can better foster advanced degree-seeking students. The geneticist commented that a decade ago there were 10-12 PhD students in this one science center alone. Today, there is “maybe one”. Dr. Gallaudet responded that the science centers should start reaching out to private industry. In response to other questions, he continued to redirect scientists toward United States-based corporations that could join forces with government agencies. He believes that if NMFS scientists share data and projects with local biotechnology, medical, and environmental companies, the country can foster positive relationships with industry. Dr. Gallaudet commented that the President wants to create these win-win situations: where the US government pairs with for-profit companies. It is up to us, as the scientists, how we make those connections.

As scientists, we frequently avoid heated political banter in the hopes of maintaining an objective and impartial approach to our research. However, these lines can be blurred. Much of our science depends on political decisions that mold our future, including how funding is allocated and what goals are prioritized. In 2010, Science Magazine published an online article, “Feeding your Research into the Policy Debate” where Elisabeth Pain highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of science and policy. In Pain’s interview with Troy Benn, a PhD student in Urban Ecology at the time, Benn comments that he learned just how much scientists play a role in policy and how research contributes to policy deliberations. Sometimes our research becomes of interest to politicians and sometimes it is the other way around.

From my experiences collaborating with government entities, private corporations, and nonprofit organizations, I realize that science-related policy is imperative. California established a non-profit, the California Ocean Science Trust (OST), for the specific objective supporting management decisions with the best science and bridging science and policy. A critical analysis of the OST by Pietri et al., “Using Science to Inform Controversial Issues: A Case Study from the California Ocean Science Trust”, matches legislation with science. For example, the Senate Bill (SB) 1319, better known as the California Ocean Protection Act (COPA), calls for “decisions informed by good science” and to “advance scientific understanding”. Science is explicitly written into legislation and I think that is a call to action. If an entire state can mobilize resources to create a team of interdisciplinary experts, I can inform myself on the politics that have potential to shape my future and the future of my science.

An image of the NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada transiting between stations. Multiple members of the GEMM Lab conducted surveys from this NOAA vessel in 2018. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki)
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