About a week ago, the health news site STAT published a piece discussing eight U.S. institutions and traditions that are “on the line” this election. However, the scientific effects of the election results expand far beyond the U.S. As a lay person, you should care, and yes you should worry, as the results of U.S. elections have a great impact on science, not just there, but everywhere.
One of the greater reasons to worry is the immense research output in high-quality journals coming out of the U.S. The fraction counts (FC) in the Nature Index – a measure of publications produced by countries across the globe – for the U.S. in life sciences, and earth and environmental sciences rank more than 450 and 60 % higher than the runner-up (China) . This spells out the amount of American science that reaches the world. But are we sure that they are being looked at at all? Yes! Observing the H-index – a measure of citations corrected for the size of the research output – reveals a very similar pattern, the U.S. at the top of the list. In this instance they’re ranking approximately 47 % higher in both ‘Medicine’ and ‘Earth and Planetary Sciences’ than the runner-up (United Kingdom) . As if this wasn’t enough, the U.S. had three times as many clinical trials on the go (120,654) compared to the next country on the list (Japan – 40,895) according to the WHO in April of 2019 .
However, this isn’t my biggest concern when it comes to American science. These numbers obviously reflect the research of both private and independent institutes and companies. My biggest concern is the agencies and departments that are directly or indirectly shaped by politics. The NIH, FDA, CDC, EPA, etc. These federal institutes are managed via the U.S. federal budget, if not steered directly through polices, orders or replacement of key personnel. Even if the federal budget does not limit or manipulate the research these institutes carry out, other ‘attacks’ have been observed in the past.
One such example is the Dickey Amendment of 1996 stating that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control” . It might seem harmless and countering propaganda but has led to the termination of any research that might be used by other activists to advocate for gun control. Another example is the recent executive order by the sitting President giving more flexibility and power in turning over scientific staff that are in policy-related positions [5, 6]. Essentially it makes the process of replacing staff involved with setting the scientific agenda, and the ones that turn conclusions into actions much easier.
Why should we care about this American problem? It isn’t really the specific issue that we should care about, it’s the precedence, foundation and direction it lays for the entire scientific community, globally. Firstly, many papers and companies use the FDA to get drugs approved prior to moving on to other national agencies elsewhere. Secondly, the CDC along with the NIH collects and shares a lot of data regarding disease trends that may be used by institutes across the globe. Thirdly, many of the tools and resources used by other countries come from the U.S. This includes the software, databases, and collections available through the National Library of Medicine within the NIH, such as PubMed, BLAST, Entrez, etc. However, it’s not only the practicalities that will be affected. The precedence that will be set, the lack of investigation into certain scientific areas, and the burying or twisting of evidence will spark the creation of very opinionated, politicized, and misleading science. Even more so than it has become already. A further polarized relationship between the scientific community and the public will reign.
It’s only a matter of hours now before the results are in. Biden or Trump. This election will shape the science of the future, for better or for worse.