Paul Nurse

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April 6, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Paul Nurse, president of Britain’s Royal Society, does not think he is sitting in

an ivory tower, and he has made it clear that he considers that scientists have duties to fulfil and battles to fight beyond the strictly scientific — for example to “expose the bunkum” of politicians who abuse and distort science. This was evident again last week, when Nurse delivered the prestigious Dimbleby Lecture in London, instituted in memory of the British broadcaster Richard Dimbleby.

Nurse identified support for the National Health Service, the need for an immigration policy that attracts foreign scientists, and inspirational science teaching in primary education as some of the priorities for British scientists. These, and many other issues he raised, such as increasing scientists’ interactions with industry, commerce and the media, and resisting the politicization of climate-change research, are relevant throughout the world and not just in Britain.

All the more reason not to misinterpret Nurse’s insistence on a separation of science and politics: as he put it, first we need the science, then the politics. What Nurse rightly warned against is the intrusion of ideology into the interpretation and acceptance of scientific knowledge as, for example, in the Soviet Union’s support of the anti-Mendelian biology of Trofim Lysenko. Given recent accounts of political interference in climate research in the United States (N. Oreskes and E. M. Conway Nature 465, 686; 2010), this is a timely reminder.

But it is easy to render this equation too simplistically. For example, Nurse also cited the rejection by Adolf Hitler of Albert Einstein’s relativistic physics as ‘Jewish physics’. But that is not quite how it was. ‘Jewish physics’ was a straw man invented by the anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi physicists Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard, partly because of professional jealousies and grudges. The Nazi leaders were, however, largely indifferent to what looked like an academic squabble, and in the end lost interest in Stark and Lenard’s risible ‘Aryan physics’ because they needed a physics that actually worked.

That is one reason to be sceptical of the common claim, repeated by Nurse, that science can flourish only in a free society. Historians of science in Nazi Germany such as Kristie Macrakis (in her book Surviving the Swastika) have challenged this assertion, which is not made true simply because we would like it to be so. Authoritarian regimes are perfectly capable of putting pragmatism before ideology. The scientific process itself is not impeded by state control in China — quite the contrary — and the old canard that Chinese science lacks innovation and daring is now transparently nonsense. During the cold war, some Soviet science was vibrant and bold. Even the most notorious example of state repression of science — the trial of Galileo — is apt to be portrayed too simplistically as a conflict of faith and reason rather than a collision of personalities and circumstances (none of which exonerates Galileo’s scandalous persecution).

There is a more compelling lesson to be drawn from Nazi Germany that bears on Nurse’s themes: although political (and religious) ideology has no place in deciding scientific questions, the practice of science is inherently political. In that sense, science can never come before politics. Scientists everywhere enter into a social contract, not least because they are not their own paymasters. Much, if not most, scientific research has social and political implications, often broadly visible from the outset. In times of crisis (like the present), scientists must respond intellectually and professionally to the challenges facing society, and not think that safeguarding their funding is enough.

The consequences of imagining that science can remain aloof from politics became acutely apparent in Germany in 1933, when the consensus view that politics was, as Heisenberg put it, an unseemly “money business” meant that most scientists saw no reason to mount concerted resistance to the expulsion of Jewish colleagues — regarded as a political rather than a moral matter. This ‘apolitical’ attitude can now be seen as a convenient myth that led to acquiescence in the Nazi regime and made it easy for German scientists to be manipulated. It would be naive to imagine that only totalitarianism could create such a situation.

The rare and most prominent exception to apolitical behaviour was Einstein, whose outspokenness dismayed even his principled friends the German physicists Max Planck and Max von Laue. “I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters,” he told them. “Does not such restraint signify a lack of responsibility?” There was no hint of such a lack in Nurse’s talk. But we must take care to distinguish the political immunity of scientific reasoning from the political dimensions and obligations of doing science.

Adapted from Nature.

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This was an article on Political Science.

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36 Comments


  1. MI1: Scientists play multiple roles
    MI2: Science = political

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  2. MIP: Science can be influenced by ideology and politics.

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  3. Science = political

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  4. Science and politics can and must coexist. The most important thing is that political ideology doesn’t interfere with scientific reasoning.

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  5. MIP: science/ politics = mutual = altho distinguish

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  6. MI: Formation of a balance between Science and Politics, Nurse discusses his view on the topic

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  7. Scientific Obligation: Correct false science created by politics

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  8. MIP: Nurse urges scientists to be involved in issues beyond science ( e.g social issues & politics) BUT should not allow politics to manipulate scientific reasoning

    TONE: Positive

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  9. P. Nurse’s view on science & politics relationship = support scientists to flight distorted politics + not simple relationship + science is inherently political + should not allow politics to manipulate scientific reasoning

    Reply

  10. Nurse is against politicians who abuse and distort science for their own agendas / Nurse supports immigrant scientists, scientific collaborations with industry, commerce and media, and is against political interference of climate research / Nurse feels that politics and science should go hand in hand / Discrimination of Einstein’s work stemmed from academic jealousy by his peers / Nurse claims that science can only flourish in a free society and historians and history have shown that science can flourish in authoritarian regimes where pragmatism has benefited it; Author doesn’t quite agree with Nurse’s claims / Author makes another rebuttal that since science is inherently political, it cannot come before politics; scientists are not autonomous and their works have implications; they must learn to respond to challenges apart from just safeguarding their funding / Author provides historical example of the consequence of segregating science from politics / Like Einstein, Nurse is obliged to speak up even if his work requires him to be neutral and partial only to the science of his work

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  11. MIP: Scientists = more duty than science (Nurse); Science = polticial (au)
    Tone: Neutral

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  12. Scientists have battle w/ politicians (Nurse), Conflict is more complex and Nurse is not right about everything

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  13. Can’t separate science & politics, scientists should be political

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  14. scientists battle with politicians, science cannot be separated from politics

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  15. MIP: politics =/=impact science interpretation (ex. USSR); science = political

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  16. politics is not separate from sciences

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  17. MI: Nurse: simply separate science & politics/ author thinks differently (scientific reasoning includes science + politics)

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  18. science =/= political ideologies (paul nurse)

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  19. MIP: Science is inherently political; tone: neutral (but critical of Nurse)

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  20. Nurse= science can’t be political; science first then politics
    Author= thinks differently

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  21. Nurse asserts science comes before politics, but Hx reveals science = inherently political

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  22. science will include political factors but must try and distinguish between the two

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  23. Politics and science division is hard. Politics create science (AU). Einstein says we should not combine them (CW)

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  24. Nurse –> science + politics = separate + science = priority, author is skeptical of Nurse – Science = social + political

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  25. Nurse said that science and politics should be separate = Author says this is false : politics and science go hand in hand.

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  26. Paul Nurse, President of the British Royal Society, proposes a society with continual science being explored and conducted, away from the politics that surrounds it. He believes that scientific ignorance is detrimental and should be an abolished way of thinking.
    In the passage, many examples are given where this scientific ignorance was evident, and only served to hurt society by placing politics before science.
    It should be noted that the author says that science will never really precede politics because government seems to fund science; however, he proposes scientists to focus on moral values and science, instead of protecting one’s own funding.
    In the end, the author emphasizes the importance of not being numb to the politics and manipulative tactics they have overs scientists, and instead like Einstein, be aware of the politics that surround science and have a voice to do what is right in promoting the advancement of science.

    Reply

  27. Science = politics
    Author = skeptic of RTA, Nurse

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  28. MIP: Political and Science should not be separated don’t interfere with each other (Opposes Nurse) , Science has a duty in politics

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  29. MIP:
    Science is political; science has duty in politics

    Tone:
    Negative towards Nurse and anti-political scientists

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  30. MIP: scientists have a duty to participate in the world politically, science and politics are together and one should not come before the other

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  31. PN: scientist has duties beyond science, but science is before politics.
    Author: agree with the first part, critique PN’s opinion on the second part to be too simplistic. science never comes before politics.

    Reply

  32. Politics should not precede science. Science is political internally.

    Reply

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