Not only is 2020 the first election to occur during a deadly pandemic, it is taking place at a time when the effects of climate change have intensified — with this year having the highest number of extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires.
Matching the severity of these two phenomena, many scientists are breaking their previous political silence. Several scientific publications, including the New England Journal of Medicine, Scientific American and the Lancet made their first political endorsement in their history. Additionally, scientists have been both actively endorsing candidates and partaking in the nationwide movement to encourage everyone to vote.
In recent years, it has been common practice for Nobel laureates to support candidates, endorsing former President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, and then Hillary Clinton in 2016. While these endorsements are customary, the group saw its number of signatories spike in 2020 with 81 laureates endorsing Joe Biden.
Among the signatories are Dr. Harold Varmus, medicine, and Prof. Roald Hoffmann, chemistry. According to them, the level of engagement by scientists in this election is nothing new, but the vigor and passion has definitely experienced an uptick.
“I’ve been involved in most Presidential campaigns since 1992 and we’ve always had ‘science and technology’ committees, scientific leaders endorsing candidates, etc.,” Varmus wrote in an email to The Sun. “It is true that this year is different, because Trump is so blatantly anti-science. For that reason and many others, scientists, and many others, are passionate about sending him home (wherever that is).”
While scientists were outspoken during the last election, the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic “creates an immediate danger that I don’t think we’ve felt at this level of intensity before,” Varmus said.
For Hoffmann, who has always been a supporter of the Democratic Party, endorsing Biden was an easy decision.
“It was a recognition that we need to get past these four years and we need to get back to an attempt at a rational society,” Hoffmann said.
Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, science and technology studies and communication, said that the 2020 election — which has seen public health and climate come to the forefront — represents a unique moment for both science and politics.
“It is certainly true that scientists have been involved in politics long before this election and that there are many scientists who have been active and articulate about their political positions in many elections in the past, in that sense it is not a new thing,” Lewenstein said. “[But] I do think it has ratcheted to a new level.”
Science’s involvement in politics has grown over the course of Trump’s administration. Lewenstein marked the March for Science as a pivotal turning point in the willingness of scientists to publicly involve themselves in the political arena.
While the first march was held on Earth Day in 2017 — several months after Trump’s inauguration — to many, Trump’s election simply represented the last straw in a growing sentiment of science denialism, which has sparked increasing skepticism over vaccine safety and humans’ involvement in climate change.
“There’s been a slow building of science denialism in both the government and in society in the general,” said Caroline Weinberg, science writer and co-chair of the march, in 2017. “A lot of people have been trying to fight it, but there hasn’t been a global organization of scientists standing up for it. And there should have been.”
On campus, the recognition of a growing culture of science denialism led to the founding of Cornell’s Alliance for Science, an initiative that utilizes communication and marketing strategies to spread accurate information on advancements in agriculture.
“The goal of [the Alliance for Science] is that people who are attacking science are using all the tools of modern marketing and campaigning … Scientists need to learn how to do that too to promote informed discussion,” Lewenstein said.
The political engagement of scientists on such a broad scale is a relatively new phenomenon, Lewenstein said. Even in 2017, the March for Science was controversial, with many scientists then claiming that direct involvement in politics would only serve to make the work of scientists less widely-accepted because of political polarization.
“There was definitely the notion that there should be political activity, and that was controversial,” Lewenstein said. “There were a lot of scientists that said ‘we should not be doing this’ because it violates this ideal of objectivity and nonpartisanship.”
Anecdotally, Lewenstein has noticed scientists being much more vocal about politics and voting on social media: “The presence of science and scientists on social media being willing to take positions is a crucial thing,” he said.
While the coronavirus outbreak ranks among the top concerns for voters in the 2020 election, Lewenstein nevertheless said he doesn’t see this as a primarily science-driven election.
“It’s not explicitly the science [that is frustrating people]. Those of us on the science side see the failure, but I’m not sure that the political anger about [the pandemic] is tied to ignoring science. I think it’s tied to ‘I know people who are dying’, ‘this was mismanaged economically,’” Lewenstein said.
Even though the endorsements made by journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and Scientific American are historic, Lewenstein said he sees it more as an indication of a larger sentiment among scientists rather than a move that will sway many voters.
While scientists play a crucial role in advising and making recommendations to those in charge, Hoffmann does not believe they should the ones running the country.
“Science plays an important role in technical and advisory questions. It cannot make the decisions that a country has to make and proportion resources. There never is enough money for everything and everyone,” he said.
Lewenstein, on the other hand, believes that the sphere of science shouldn’t be far removed from politics — individual scientists should bring their personal expertise to voting, while scientific institutions should recognize the role they play in the political world.
“What I think scientists should not do is believe that somehow their science is separate from their politics, I don’t think that science is some idealized thing that operates outside of politics,” Lewenstein said.
Hoffmann ultimately expressed optimism about the future of the country and the role science will play in it.
“It’s time for a change and Biden represents that change,” Hoffmann said.
Correction, 8:58 a.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Prof. Roald Hoffmann. It has since been updated.