What happens in the legislative chamber has consequences for what happens in the lab, as the recent US government shutdown aptly demonstrated (1, 2, 3). Yet when scientists set foot on the political stage they seem to attract a great deal of cynicism. Why should scientists become involved in politics? They should keep to their labs, observatories, and clinics, and leave politics to the politicians and pundits.
One reason why scientists should be politically engaged is because science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It occurs in a social, political and economic context. Doing science and doing it well depends, in part, on the factors enmeshed in that context.
Consider the state of science education as an example, particularly the controversy over teaching creationism in classrooms. Scientists have an interest in ensuring that high school students receive a comprehensive and excellent science education because these students will one day have a stake in deciding whether publicly funded science projects are valuable to the community. If they receive a poor education, they may not be in a position to make informed decisions about the value of scientific projects. Consequently, they will elect representatives who hold similar views and who will enact legislation on their behalf that further degrades the quality of science education and restricts funding to scientific projects in the belief that they are worthless.
The story of science is intertwined with the story of humanity. It’s difficult to do good science if people are disparaging your work for spurious reasons, degrading the quality of the science curriculum, and promoting pseudoscience as an alternative worthy of equal acceptance in the general community. Scientists cannot afford to ignore the social realities of life.