From the Executive Director

Politics, science and the suppression of research

Political interests have suppressed research on gun violence, depriving society of the tools needed to combat this pernicious problem.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

We cannot separate the interaction between politics and federal funding of science and research. It is built into the system. The president proposes a budget and appoints the heads of the major agencies. Congress debates, modifies and amends the budget, and they ultimately vote on it. Both the president and Congress use the budget process and their powers of appointment to express their political priorities, and to influence the kind of science and research that does and does not get funded by the federal government. In this sense, science and politics are intimately connected.

The scientific community generally opposes political interference, especially when that interference involves the suppression of research. A good example is when President George W. Bush imposed severe restrictions starting in 2001 on the use of federal funds for research using human embryonic stem cells. The scientific community expressed its strongest objections — not so much because the president was acting on the basis of his deeply held values and moral principles, but more because they knew it would slow new discoveries and stall the development of important new therapies.

Indeed, it was precisely this rationale that was cited by President Barack Obama in 2009 when he lifted the 2001 restrictions. Executive Order 13505 was very clear about it:

For the past eight years, the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to fund and conduct human embryonic stem cell research has been limited by presidential actions. The purpose of this order is to remove these limitations on scientific inquiry, to expand NIH support for the exploration of human stem cell research, and in so doing to enhance the contribution of America’s scientists to important new discoveries and new therapies for the benefit of humankind.

This is the essence of concerns about political interference — we object when it suppresses the contribution of America’s scientists to important new discoveries and new therapies for the benefit of humankind. That’s what it is all about. That is why we protect, promote and support the American scientific enterprise. It is for the benefit of humankind.

Some of our political leaders do not always see it this way. Some persist in trying to suppress the American scientific enterprise. And so it has been for the federal support for research on gun violence. As APA Science Policy Associate Christine Jamieson outlined in the February 2013 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the federal budgeting process has been used for 15 years to suppress the funding of research on gun violence, including research on its prevention. In effect, a narrow vested interest has used the U.S. budget appropriation process to muzzle American science.

And now, in the wake of a series of national catastrophes in which guns were used in the commission of horrendous acts, people want to know what science and research can tell us about the prevention of gun violence. Had the appropriate federal agencies been allowed to support the research in this area, we would have some knowledge to share. But we don’t. And the reason is because some members of Congress imposed their political will to suppress the American scientific enterprise. Our paucity of knowledge in this area is now a national shame.

President Obama recognized this, and he took immediate executive action in directing the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to research the causes and prevention of gun violence. It is about time. These are complex problems, and it will require the concerted efforts of social and behavioral scientists to create new knowledge and to generate a deeper understanding. This is what science is all about — to produce new knowledge for the benefit of humankind.

As a society, we face many grand challenges. Learning how to prevent gun violence must certainly rank near the top. I am confident that the scientific and research community will rise to that challenge. Let it not be suppressed.