Two worlds colliding: flag-waving that reveals the increasing division in society. “Creating positive societal impact”, we shout to our scientists from the main building of the university. That is important, since Erasmus University is not an ivory tower. But we must also guard against the politicisation of science.
“We are relying on the compass of scientific knowledge”, said Prime Minister Mark Rutte last year in his many speeches on coronavirus policies. According to the Prime Minister, scientists’ recommendations were the guiding principles for all measures taken in our country. This can be seen as a reassurance that the far-reaching decisions that deeply affected our lives (including in the academic world) were not just political choices, but the result of scientific insights.
This was convenient for the Prime Minister, because he could hide behind scientists. For them, however, it wasn’t so easy: criticism of coronavirus policies was also directed at these scientists, who often faced serious threats.
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Science is not a substitute for political choices. It does not offer ready-made solutions to societal problems. Scientists mainly formulate hypotheses and test them to see how tenable they are. This knowledge is not absolute and can change at any time. Scientists can show leaders why they should or should not implement a particular measure, but they cannot determine what the right political choices are: there is no such thing as scientifically sound politics. Leaders should not be allowed to blame their decisions on science. If they do (as in the case of coronavirus policies), universities must explain that politicians are overstepping their role, because that is not how science works.
At the same time, we see that academics themselves want to become more activistic – and that is understandable. If you conduct research on division in society or climate change, for instance, you ultimately want politicians to do something about it. That is also ‘positive social impact’.
But there’s a danger here: the moment scientists start campaigning for certain policy choices, their research is quickly seen as politically biased. This activism can make them socially relevant, yet cause them to lose something essential: faith in the impartiality of science. Perhaps we should start by better explaining to people what science is – and especially what it is not. We should explain that science is important for people, but it is not politics on demand.