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Why Nature needs to cover politics now more than ever – Nature.com

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An official supervises ballot boxes for Indonesia's upcoming general election

An official supervises ballot boxes for Indonesia's upcoming general election

An official prepares ballot boxes for Indonesia’s 2019 election.Credit: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

Since Nature’s earliest issues, we have been publishing news, commentary and primary research on science and politics. But why does a journal of science need to cover politics? It’s an important question that readers often ask.

This week, Nature reporters outline what the impact on science might be if Joe Biden wins the US presidential election on 3 November, and chronicle President Donald Trump’s troubled legacy for science. We plan to increase politics coverage from around the world, and to publish more primary research in political science and related fields.

Science and politics have always depended on each other. The decisions and actions of politicians affect research funding and research-policy priorities. At the same time, science and research inform and shape a spectrum of public policies, from environmental protection to data ethics. The actions of politicians affect the higher-education environment, too. They can ensure that academic freedom is upheld, and commit institutions to work harder to protect equality, diversity and inclusion, and to give more space to voices from previously marginalized communities. However, politicians also have the power to pass laws that do the opposite.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has taken more than one million lives so far, has propelled the science–politics relationship into the public arena as never before, and highlighted some serious problems. COVID-related research is being produced at a rate unprecedented for an infectious disease, and there is, rightly, intense worldwide interest in how political leaders are using science to guide their decisions — and how some are misunderstanding, misusing or suppressing it. And there is much interest in the fluctuating relationship between politicians and the scientists who governments consult or employ.

Scholarly autonomy under threat

Perhaps even more troubling are signs that politicians are pushing back against the principle of protecting scholarly autonomy, or academic freedom. This principle, which has existed for centuries — including in previous civilizations — sits at the heart of modern science.

Today, this principle is taken to mean that researchers who access public funding for their work can expect no — or very limited — interference from politicians in the conduct of their science, or in the eventual conclusions at which they arrive. And that, when politicians and officials seek advice or information from researchers, it is on the understanding that they do not get to dictate the answers. This is the basis for today’s covenant between science and politics, and it applies across a range of research, education, public-policy and regulatory domains.

It is not a perfect system by any means. Some research areas are more autonomous than others, and autonomy can never be a blank cheque: researchers must also be held accountable for their actions, and standards of quality and integrity must be upheld. But protection for autonomy is a long-standing benchmark, the standard to which experts and policymakers aspire. It requires a degree of trust between researcher and politician that each will keep to their word. And when this trust starts to ebb away, the system, too, begins to look vulnerable.

That trust is now under considerable pressure around the world. Cracks have been evident for years in the field of climate change, with a number of politicians ignoring or seeking to undermine the irrefutable evidence showing that humans are the cause. But this lack of trust can now also be seen in other public domains in which verifiable knowledge and research are needed for effective policy-making.

Last year, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro sacked the head of the country’s National Institute for Space Research because the president refused to accept the agency’s reports that deforestation in the Amazon has accelerated during his tenure. In the same year, more than 100 economists wrote to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, urging an end to political influence over official statistics — especially economic data — in the country.

And just last week, in Japan, incoming Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga rejected the nomination of six academics, who have previously been critical of government science policy, to the Science Council of Japan. This is an independent organization meant to represent the voice of Japanese scientists. It is the first time that this has happened since prime ministers started approving nominations in 2004.

The pandemic, too, is uncovering examples of political interference in science. In June in the United Kingdom, the statistics regulator wrote to the government, highlighting repeated inaccuracies in its COVID-19 testing data, which the regulator says seem to be aimed at showing “the largest possible number of tests”.

The fields of public-health and infectious-disease research have revealed much about the effects of pandemics and how to curb them. This year, a large volume of work on COVID-19 has illuminated the behaviour of both the virus and the disease. Research has also revealed uncertainties, gaps and errors in our knowledge, as would be expected. But that doesn’t excuse the behaviour we are seeing from politicians around the world, exemplified by Trump’s notorious actions: a chaotic, often ill-informed response, with scientists being attacked and undermined.

The principle that the state will respect scholarly independence is one of the foundations underpinning modern research, and its erosion carries grave risks for standards of quality and integrity in research and policymaking. When politicians break that covenant, they endanger the health of people, the environment and societies.

This is why Nature’s news correspondents will redouble their efforts to watch and report on what is happening in politics and research worldwide. It is why authors of our expert commentaries will continue to assess and critique developments; and why the journal is looking to publish more primary research in political science.

And, in these editorial pages, we will continue to urge politicians to embrace the spirit of learning and collaboration, to value different perspectives, and to honour their commitment to scientific and scholarly autonomy.

The conventions that have guided the relationship between science and politics are under threat, and Nature cannot stand by in silence.

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Commons showdown highlights tension between politics and science – Humboldt Journal

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OTTAWA — Monday’s vote on a Conservative motion to launch an in-depth review of the Liberal government’s COVID-19 response highlights a key challenge of pandemic politics: how to hold a government accountable for decisions based on science, when the science itself is changing nearly every day.

The opposition wants a committee probe into everything from why regulators are taking so long to approve rapid testing to an early decision not to close the border to international travel, and what concerns the Liberals is how that probe is being framed.

article continues below

“One of the narratives that I find most distressing coming from the opposition, is that somehow because advice changed at some point that the government was hiding information or that the government was giving misinformation,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said late last week.

“And nothing could be further from the truth.”

It’s not the science itself that’s up for debate, said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

“In a pandemic, borders, since the Middle Ages, have been part of a stop of spreading of the virus and that was a failure of elected officials to put the health of Canadians first,” O’Toole told reporters last week.

“There has been conflicting information on masks and other things. My concern is that the Trudeau government relies more on open source data from China than our own science and intelligence experts.”

The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides the scientific evidence there is, but at the end of the day, it is the politicians who make the call, he said.

A decision on whether or not to close the borders is a good example, he said.

In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization cautioned against widespread border closures. Scientific research has suggested there’s little medical benefit to them and the economic impacts can be severe and wide-ranging.

But the optics of border closures, the idea that if countries can keep out a virus out they will be immune, creates political pressure to act, Culbert said .

“The tension between what is in the public’s good, as opposed to all of the varying political considerations the politicians have to take into consideration — there’s always a tension there,” Culbert said.

While heated, the interplay between Liberal government and Opposition Conservatives is a far cry from the hyper-partisanship around pandemic response in the U.S., where even the president has circulated misinformation and challenged that country’s top scientists.

Canadian researchers studying the response of political elites here in the early days of the pandemic found no evidence of MPs casting doubt on the seriousness of the pandemic, or spreading conspiracy theories about it. In fact, there was a cross partisan consensus around how seriously it needed to be taken.

“As far as we can tell, that story hasn’t changed,” said Eric Merkley, a University of Toronto political scientist who led the study.

Both he and Culbert said a review of the Liberals’ pandemic response is warranted, but a balancing act is required.

“Everyone has 20/20 hindsight and thinks that they can go, look back, and and point to points at which bad decisions were made,” Culbert said.

“But that’s with the knowledge that we have today. We didn’t have that knowledge back in March.”

The Liberals have sometimes hit back at criticism by pointing to how the previous Conservative government handled the science and health files, including budget cuts and efforts to muzzle scientists.

But critics can’t be painted as anti-science for asking questions, Merkley said.

“There’s plenty of scope for democratic debate about proper responses to the pandemic, there’s plenty of scope for disagreement,” Merkley said.

“And just because there’s that disagreement and an Opposition party holding government accountable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, that’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2020.

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Commons showdown highlights tension between politics and science – Yorkton This Week

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OTTAWA — Monday’s vote on a Conservative motion to launch an in-depth review of the Liberal government’s COVID-19 response highlights a key challenge of pandemic politics: how to hold a government accountable for decisions based on science, when the science itself is changing nearly every day.

The opposition wants a committee probe into everything from why regulators are taking so long to approve rapid testing to an early decision not to close the border to international travel, and what concerns the Liberals is how that probe is being framed.

article continues below

“One of the narratives that I find most distressing coming from the opposition, is that somehow because advice changed at some point that the government was hiding information or that the government was giving misinformation,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said late last week.

“And nothing could be further from the truth.”

It’s not the science itself that’s up for debate, said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

“In a pandemic, borders, since the Middle Ages, have been part of a stop of spreading of the virus and that was a failure of elected officials to put the health of Canadians first,” O’Toole told reporters last week.

“There has been conflicting information on masks and other things. My concern is that the Trudeau government relies more on open source data from China than our own science and intelligence experts.”

The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides the scientific evidence there is, but at the end of the day, it is the politicians who make the call, he said.

A decision on whether or not to close the borders is a good example, he said.

In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization cautioned against widespread border closures. Scientific research has suggested there’s little medical benefit to them and the economic impacts can be severe and wide-ranging.

But the optics of border closures, the idea that if countries can keep out a virus out they will be immune, creates political pressure to act, Culbert said .

“The tension between what is in the public’s good, as opposed to all of the varying political considerations the politicians have to take into consideration — there’s always a tension there,” Culbert said.

While heated, the interplay between Liberal government and Opposition Conservatives is a far cry from the hyper-partisanship around pandemic response in the U.S., where even the president has circulated misinformation and challenged that country’s top scientists.

Canadian researchers studying the response of political elites here in the early days of the pandemic found no evidence of MPs casting doubt on the seriousness of the pandemic, or spreading conspiracy theories about it. In fact, there was a cross partisan consensus around how seriously it needed to be taken.

“As far as we can tell, that story hasn’t changed,” said Eric Merkley, a University of Toronto political scientist who led the study.

Both he and Culbert said a review of the Liberals’ pandemic response is warranted, but a balancing act is required.

“Everyone has 20/20 hindsight and thinks that they can go, look back, and and point to points at which bad decisions were made,” Culbert said.

“But that’s with the knowledge that we have today. We didn’t have that knowledge back in March.”

The Liberals have sometimes hit back at criticism by pointing to how the previous Conservative government handled the science and health files, including budget cuts and efforts to muzzle scientists.

But critics can’t be painted as anti-science for asking questions, Merkley said.

“There’s plenty of scope for democratic debate about proper responses to the pandemic, there’s plenty of scope for disagreement,” Merkley said.

“And just because there’s that disagreement and an Opposition party holding government accountable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, that’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2020.

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Sport and politics | Comment | ekathimerini.com – www.ekathimerini.com

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Participating at the Olympic Games is an incredible experience for every athlete. But it is also humbling when you realize that you are part of something bigger. You are part of an event that unites the world. In the Olympic Games, we are all equal. Everyone respects the same rules, irrespective of social background, gender, race, sexual orientation, or political belief.

The first time I experienced this magic was at the Olympic Games Montreal 1976. From the moment I moved into the Olympic Village, I could feel the Olympic spirit come alive. Living together with my fellow athletes from all over the world, opened my eyes to the unifying power of sport. As athletes, we are competitors in sport, but in the Olympic Village, we all live peacefully together under one roof. Whenever Olympians meet, no matter where we are from or when we competed in the Games, this shared experience immediately becomes the topic of our conversations.

One incident clouded my first Olympic experience, however. Shortly before the Opening Ceremony, I looked outside the window of our room in the Olympic Village to see a large group of African athletes with packed bags. Many of them were in tears, others hung their heads in despair. After asking what was happening, I learned they had to leave because of a last-minute decision by their governments to boycott the Games. Their devastation of having their Olympic dream shattered at the last possible moment after so many years of hard work and anticipation still haunts me today.

This foreshadowed another defining moment four years later, when I experienced the political impotence of sport at the time of the boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980. As the chair of the West German athletes’ commission, I strongly opposed this boycott because it punished us athletes for something that we had nothing to do with – the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet army. I had to realize that the sports organizations had very little political influence, if any, while on the athlete side, we had very little say. Our voices were not heard neither by the politicians nor by our sports leaders. This was a very humiliating experience.

In the end, the National Olympic Committee of West Germany was one of many to boycott the Games. It is no consolation that we were ultimately proven right that this boycott not only punished the wrong ones, but that it also had no political effect whatsoever: the Soviet army stayed nine more years in Afghanistan. In fact, the 1980 boycott only triggered the revenge boycott of the following Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984.

These two experiences still shape my thinking today. They made it clear to me that the central mission of the Olympic Games is to bring together the world’s best athletes from 206 NOCs in a peaceful sporting competition.

The Olympic Games are not about politics. The IOC, as a civil non-governmental organization, is strictly politically neutral at all times. Neither awarding the Games, nor participating, are a political judgement regarding the host country. The Olympic Games are governed by the IOC not by governments. The IOC issues the invitation to NOCs to participate, the invitations do not come from the government of the host country. It is the NOC which then invites their political authorities to accompany their athletes to the Games. The host country’s head of state is only allowed to say one sentence, scripted by the IOC, to officially open the Games. No other politician is allowed to play any role whatsoever, not even during medal ceremonies.

The Olympic Games are not about making a profit. The IOC reinvests 90% of all its revenues in the athletes around the world, particularly in developing countries. The money goes to the organizers of Olympic Games who give the athletes the stage to shine. The Olympic Games can only unite the entire world through sport if everyone can participate. This is why solidarity benefits all athletes in the world. Not just a few countries, or a few sports. Our money benefits all the athletes from all 206 NOCs, from the IOC Refugee Olympic Team and from all Olympic sports, thereby ensuring true universality and diversity.

The Olympic Games are firstly about sport. The athletes personify the values of excellence, solidarity and peace. They express this inclusiveness and mutual respect also by being politically neutral on the field of play and during the ceremonies. At times, this focus on sport needs to be reconciled with the freedom of speech which all athletes enjoy also at the Olympic Games. This is the reason why there are rules for the field of play and the ceremonies protecting this spirit of sport. The unifying power of the Games can only unfold if everyone shows respect and solidarity for one another. Otherwise, the Games will descend into a marketplace of demonstrations of all kinds, dividing and not uniting the world.

The Olympic Games cannot prevent wars and conflicts. Nor can they address all the political and social challenges in our world. But they can set an example for a world where everyone respects the same rules and one another. They can inspire us to solve problems in friendship and solidarity. They can build bridges leading to better understanding among people. In this way, they can open the door to peace.

The Olympic Games are a reaffirmation of our shared humanity and contribute to unity in all our diversity. As I learned through personal experience, ensuring that the Olympic Games can unfold this magic and unite the entire world in peace is something worth fighting for every day.


* Thomas Bach is president of the International Olympic Committee.

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