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Politics Has a Chilling Effect on Science

by Rachel Levitt


Tags: Science and technology, politics, discoveries, Election 2008, scientific research, controversial research, National Institute of Health, Public Library of Science,

Years of anti-science politics haven’t just repressed controversial scientific findings; the approach has stopped controversial topics from being researched in the first place, according to research by Rutgers professor Joanna Kempner. Facing protests from lawmakers, institutions, and taxpayers, Kempner found that researchers have opted to change or eliminate divisive words (for example, “AIDS research,” “abortion,” or “homosexuality”) from their proposals, replacing them with benign euphemisms or leaving them out altogether. Kempner calls attention to the “chilling effect” that these controversies have, meaning that scientists will be less inclined to study a certain area in the future if it means uphill battles for funding.

It’s difficult to tell how much these issues have already affected research, since government databases do not show original versions of altered documents. According to Kempner, “Congressional oversight has, in this case, had the unintended consequence of making science less transparent.” This “chilling effect” hasn’t stopped all scientists, though. Kempner writes that “some scientists shy away from controversial research areas, while others relish the opportunity to defend their ideological positions.”