Badly shaken by the Trump administration’s disregard for established research findings, particularly those pertaining to climate, environment and health, many US scientists have mobilized to defend science. Scientific societies as well as individual scientists have joined the campaign, leaving behind any residual hesitations of political engagement and advocacy. Indeed, the recent March for Science has been considered a resounding success. Although the active engagement with policy and politics is encouraging, I am troubled by the nationalistic rhetoric and American exceptionalism seeping into such engagement. The use of such rhetoric is ironic, for it is being employed to fight the policies of a president whose own rise has been blamed by many on nationalistic and populistic sentiments.
Consider the November 2016 letter to Mr Trump from the CEOs of various American societies, which urged the then President-Elect to appoint a science advisor. The letter is rife with references to “national security” and the need for maintaining “America’s global leadership”, while boasting about America’s labs and universities being “unmatched in the world”. Responses to the administration’s budget plans are similar. For example, the statement by the President of the Association of American Universities, which has such phrases as “the greatest and most advanced economy in the world”, seems to express concern about the possibility of ceding the advantage to “China and other economic competitors”. Support for science is thus justified by invoking its centrality to maintaining the nation’s pre-eminent position.
If the above examples concern relatively subtle expressions of American superiority, a post on the Scientific American blog is far more direct: it includes phrases such as “making America the leader of the civilized world”, “envy of the world”, “beacon of knowledge and hope for the world”, and statements such as “it won the cold war”. The nationalistic tone is hard to miss.
The language being used by many US academics and academic societies is problematic for several reasons. First, opposing the Trump administration’s policies and actions by invoking a mythical America, however integral it may be to American imagination, will only entrench the sorts of sentiments that have culminated in Trump’s election. Scientists are among the most trusted groups in the US (and elsewhere), so they can have a powerful role in legitimizing nationalistic attitudes via their discourse. Second, claims of American greatness are often based on selective evidence, whereby uncomfortable elements of American history are either suppressed or neutralized by weaving them into a narrative of progress. This is a temptation that at least scientists should shy away from: indeed, historical analyses as well as trenchant journalism have painted a far more complex picture. Finally, the resort to American exceptionalism raises the suspicion of hypocrisy. Supporting the right of, say, an Iranian scientist to visit and work in US universities is not quite compatible with proclaiming America to be the greatest nation in the world or justifying continued funding by invoking nebulous “national interests”.
Invoking an exceptional America is not new, by any means: US politicians from across the ideological spectrum have resorted to this for a long time, few as eloquently as Barack Obama. And US think tanks do it too, even those with the entire humanity’s interests at heart. But scientists are supposed to be different, we are told repeatedly, for they test hypotheses, rely on empirical evidence and undertake critical analysis. Why, then, do many of them fail to ask why maintaining America’s global leadership and even its superiority is so essential, as if a modern-day version of Manifest Destiny were exempt from criticism or analysis? Why are many only too eager to justify funding for science because it may maintain US leadership and contribute to national security?
In recent conversations, some colleagues suggested that this kind of rhetoric may be an attempt to speak to the “other side”, more of a communication strategy than an expression of what the scientists truly feel. If that is indeed the case – and I doubt that it is – it is a risky strategy at best because it is less than honest, something that can undermine the credibility of scientists.
All of this is not to deny the centrality of nation-states to scientific endeavors in today’s world and in the foreseeable future. Research priorities and funding, for example, will undoubtedly be influenced by national policies, politics, and visions – for American scientists and those from other nations. I certainly do not subscribe to a naïve cosmopolitanism that views science as depoliticized and independent of context and interests. It is thus only appropriate for American scientists to situate their advocacy for science in the context of the communities that make up their nation: for example, by pointing to the role of science in addressing regional or national problems of poverty, inequality, health or pollution.
But there is a difference between a scientific endeavor that is embedded in and speaks to a national community and one that whips up nationalistic sentiments uncritically while claiming to hold a universalist view of science. Linking investments in science to abstract notions of American greatness or expressing fears about ceding leadership to other countries betrays a cruder conception of science as a mere tool in the service of nationalism. American scientists would do well to avoid giving this impression.