The role of science in international politics: A tour of modern history in scientific journals

Scientific research is often portrayed as being carried out independently of current social or political situations. When you’re working in a lab, deeply involved with the details of your own particular research project, it certainly seems to be unrelated to the outside world.

This is, of course, not really the case. All research is funded, and any situation that affects a country’s financial situation as a whole will ultimately have its effect on research. In turn, scientific findings are reported back to the community and will be subject to discussion, which may also result in a change in research policies. In this discussion, frequent and accurate communication between science and the public plays an important role.

To look more closely at the way research and politics affect each other through policymaking and media communication, I browsed the editorial and news articles of the first issues of Science and Nature of three recent decades, and found evidence that there indeed is a relationship between scientific research and external affairs.

In the first issue of the seventies, Nature’s editorial “How to ban chemicals without scaring people” discusses several chemical bans that took place in the UK in the last months of 1969, including a pesticide ban and a recall of high-oestrogen contraceptives (1). The editors raised concern about the fact that some scientific committees had recommended chemical bans without publication of the data to back up their claims. Nature commented: “Prior exchange of this kind of evidence on an international basis would do much to soothe the present state of anarchy in which populations of one country are unnecessarily alarmed by a ban in another.”

The responsibilities of science at the start of the seventies are also addressed in 1970’s January 2 issue of Science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had just had its annual meeting in December 1969. The association’s presidential address, reprinted in the journal, reflected on the successful moon landing a few months earlier as one of the major advancements of science of that time (2). Apparently, science conferences in the late sixties were not what they are today: “It was almost inevitable that the 136th meeting of the [AAAS] would become a target for political action by students,” wrote reporter James Glassman (3). “It was held in Boston, a city with the highest concentration of radicals in the country, next to San Francisco.”

The two-page article describes with detail how the protesters disrupted the convention. These “radicals” were organized groups of students and young professors, looking to “educate scientists on the political implications of their research.” One of their requests to the AAAS was to investigate the use of herbicides in Vietnam. A strategically placed short news article on the same page reported that a Harvard geneticist had just been assigned to study the effects of defoliants and herbicides on the land and people of Vietnam; a project “financed by outside sources (but not the Defence Department).” These few pages in Science alone already give an incredible perspective on the relation between scientific research and politics, but the trend continues.

By the start of the eighties, Vietnam was no longer the major topic of discussion, but the Cold War was ongoing. The East and West were each struggling with their own problems, which included the need for certain developments in scientific research.

Hot topics in the West at the time, were equality issues and women’s rights. In its first issue of 1980, Science printed a statistical analysis of the number of female scientists working in science and engineering in the US in the late seventies. Several pages of graphs and tables conclude that “more women than ever before are preparing themselves for careers in these fields” (4).

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, the USSR Academy of Sciences had been urged by their government to discuss the role of Soviet scientists in solving the nation’s economical problems (5). Scientists were working together with the government to set up a programme for science and technology up to 1990.

It is disconcerting to read the underlying hopefulness for their technological progress, while knowing of the Chernobyl disaster that would occur six years later.

Nuclear power was an issue the East and West both shared in the eighties. The same 1980 issue of Nature that reported on the USSR’s plans for scientific progress opens with an editorial urging to give critics of nuclear power in the UK access to safety documents and site designs (6): “(…) an industry which is seen publicly to be taking the right decisions about safety is one which will receive support at home and orders from abroad.”

Another decade passed, and the Cold War was winding down after the abrupt fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The start of the nineties in Europe was marked by the reunification of East- and West Germany. This change didn’t come easily for the East German Central Institute for Molecular Biology, which now found itself needing to compete for students and funds with internationally appraised academic institutes in West Germany (7). While science in the former Eastern Bloc had been focusing on practical technological advancement, Western countries had made significant progress in the field of cellular and molecular biology. A brief news article in Nature mentions: “An international effort to sequence the human genome is just taking off.” (8)

Where do we stand today? What is the role of science in society in 2005 compared to the past 35 years?

We are currently benefiting from an enormous wealth in openly accessible information. Newspapers from around the world, as well as abstracts of scientific publications, can be read by anyone with an internet connection. Google satisfies a curious mind within seconds. Entire scientific journals are published online, and articles are accessible even before they appear in print! Nature’s 1970 editorial comment on the need for publication would not be an issue today: in this information era a lack of reference data will not be accepted!

However, increased access to information is not the answer to everything, and some old issues are still relevant. There are still international struggles which undoubtedly leave their mark on scientific research. In addition to the effect of politics on science, moral responsibilities of scientists also continue to be questioned by the public: In 1970 the issue was pesticides in Vietnam. In 2005 the issue is stem cell research.

The bottom line is that science, while inherently objective, is continuously subjected to social commentary and government policies. There will always be a need for communication between science and the public, and with the arrival of the internet communication has only been made easier.


1. “How to Ban Chemicals without Scaring People” (no authors listed), Nature 225, 3-4 (January 3 1970)

2. W.O. Roberts, “After the Moon, the Earth!”, Science 167, 11-16 (January 2 1970)

3. J.K. Glassman, “AAAS Boston Meeting: Dissenters Find a Forum”, Science 167, 36- 38 (January 2 1970)

4. B.M. Vetter, “Working Women Scientists and Engineers” Science 207, 28-34 (January 4 1980)

5. V. Rich, “Brezhnev counts on Academy of Sciences to organise applied research”, Nature 283, 4 (January 3 1980)

6. “Nuclear power: the critics must be heard” (no authors listed), Nature 283, 1 (January 3 1980)

7. S. Dickman, “New dangers in East Germany for science”, Nature 343, 3 (January 4 1990)

8. “Human Genome Project” (no authors listed, part of feature “Science in 1990”) Nature 343, 6 (January 4 1990)

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