Science is a remarkable tool available to humans for understanding what is true about the world. It expanded the boundaries of our knowledge and challenged our preconceived notions of what reality is! Accordingly, scientific research has yielded a treasure trove of knowledge about many previously inaccessible domains of nature. The validity of such knowledge received confirmation from the fact that they led to new technologies that are helping us live longer, healthier and more enriching lives.
Scientific research does not take place in a vacuum. It is a social activity with a political overtone. And scientists are very much aware of the intricate interplay of science, society and politics. Perhaps one of the most persuasive arguments regarding the rightful place of science in modern society was brilliantly articulated by the American inventor and science administrator Vannevar Bush in his report Science: The Endless Frontier prepared in July 1945 for US President Harry Truman. In the report, he noted that the “social contract between science and society allows scientists alone to decide what research best serves the society.”
Having said that, the practice of science is never entirely free of politics. It makes its presence felt in science via money. While philanthropists and private foundations fund scientific research to some extent, most research is inherently shaped by the funding landscape of government, and therein lies the conflict between science and politics.
Since decisions about funding allocation are made by politicians, deciding what type of science a scientist should do is no longer a scientific one, but a political one. Furthermore, there are examples of politicians punishing or favouring scientists for ideological reasons. A case in point is Trofim Lysenko, a Russian agronomist and biologist, whose work was enthusiastically endorsed by the Soviet government under Stalin because his theories supported the principles of Marxism. Hence the term Lysenkoism, used to reference the manipulation of the scientific process to achieve ideological goals. On the other hand, the work of Andrei Sakharov, who holds an honoured place in the pantheon of distinguished physicists, was discredited by the Soviets because of his dissident humanitarian voice.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has so far claimed nearly 1.2 million lives worldwide, the relationship between science and politics is now smack at the centre of the world stage. While the world looked up to the United States to lead the fight against Covid-19, President Donald Trump, defying science, played down the severity of the virus by saying “It is what it is.” Not surprisingly, there is a surge of new cases in the USA, while leaders of countries who are carefully straddling the fine line between science and politics managed to contain the spread of the virus.
Regardless, scientists are working tirelessly to develop Covid-19 vaccines. Trials are underway, testing the BCG vaccine to see if it can provide at least temporary protection against the virus, marking the first time a vaccine is being tested against a specific pathogen other than the one it was designed for, which is tuberculosis. At the same time, researchers in the United Kingdom found that patients injected with T-cells, which are white blood cells that are of key importance to our immune system, responded positively to the Covid-19 virus.
Another example of the conflict between the value-laden space of political decision-making and the factual, objective world of science is climate change. Scientific evidence of climate change has helped to create a robust social and political debate about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, instead of responding positively to the debate, leaders of the fossil fuel producing countries are focusing on the uncertainties of climate models, or rejecting outright the findings of scientists, thereby sowing seeds of doubt about what constitutes “good” science.
Nevertheless, scientists are trying to convince politicians that it would serve all of us well if they use scientific facts as neutral information to guide public policy. Lest we forget, politicians need the knowledge that scientists possess in order to give us a decent shot at enjoying the full benefits of living in a high-tech world. Otherwise, they risk making ill-informed decisions on issues that are highly technical and complex.
Politics aside, scientific research and innovation are principally responsible for decades of economic growth and medical advances. Indeed, scientific discoveries, along with advanced techniques and instruments developed by scientists, particularly physicists, in the past 100 years or so have ushered in a new era in medical science.
The era began in 1895 with the discovery of X-ray, used today as a diagnostic tool to see through different parts of our body. Imaging by X-ray was dramatically improved after the invention of the computerised tomography. Other technologies, for instance nuclear magnetic resonance, are allowing us to recover from life-threatening illness which in the past would have been fatal. Additionally, positron emission tomography, or PET scan, developed after the discovery of positron—the anti-particle of an electron—allows doctors to check for diseases in our body, as well as help them to see how well our organs and tissues are working.
The advances in laser physics have also made considerable impact on medical research. Soon after the advent of lasers in 1960, they found their way into medical applications, namely ophthalmology, dermatology, cosmetic surgery, oncology, dentistry and more. More importantly, lasers allow surgeons to work at high levels of precision by focusing on a small area, damaging less of the surrounding tissues.
We could not do without radioactive materials in today’s world, even if we wanted to. Radioactive isotopes, discovered in the early 20th century, are an integral part of nuclear medicine and are commonly used to treat some cancers and medical conditions that require shrinking or destruction of harmful cells.
The use of nanotechnology in medical sciences is a rapidly expanding field. Originating from the Greek word nanos (dwarf), “nano” describes length scales of the order of a millionth of a millimetre. Although this field is still in its infant stage, there is a growing interest among the medical community to use the technology for targeted drug delivery, cancer treatment, nano-biosensors and nano-medical imaging.
The discovery of graphene in 2004 is among the highlights in materials science and nanotechnology. It is a sheet of carbon atoms just one atom thick, arranged in a honeycomb-like lattice with amazing physical and chemical properties. Graphene has potential applications in a wide range of areas of biomedical sciences. Chief among its applications is DNA sequencing, the gold standard for successful diagnosis of various diseases.
In 1938, when physicists successfully split (fission) the atomic nucleus, it gave humanity access to something extremely potent: the tremendous amount of energy released during the fission process. Immediately recognised as the basis for weapons of mass destruction, it is now used to generate around ten percent of the world’s electricity.
The letter “h” introduced by Max Planck in 1900 to explain the spectra of thermal radiation is the fundamental constant of quantum theory. Because this constant governs the scale of the quantum effects in the subatomic world, it had profound ramifications in technology. For example, it enabled the construction of microcircuits, quantum computers, transistors and semiconductors, lasers, iPods, cell phones and digital cameras that have changed the trajectory of our life from ordinary to extraordinary.
It is now almost impossible to get lost whether we are on land, sky or ocean, thanks to Einstein’s special and general relativity theories, which play a big role in the design of Global Positioning System satellites that give accurate readings of position, speed and direction of an object in real-time. The satellites would fail in their navigational functions if the relativistic effects of time dilation and spacetime curvature in their clocks are left uncompensated.
A final thought on the World Science Day for Peace and Development. In the past, scientists who challenged politicians for ignoring their advice have been accused of behaving unethically. But as we stare down the barrel of an ongoing global pandemic, we should realise that society forms politics, politics controls science and science inform both society and politics. So, as we move forward, a harmonious relationship between the three is ever more important in today’s fractious world.
Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.