In 2020 scientific publications have leapt into the political fray. Scientific American gave its first ever Presidential endorsement to
“rejects evidence and science.” The New England Journal of Medicine said in a pre-election editorial that “our current leaders have undercut trust in science.”
But if populist politicians undercut trust in science, sometimes they are aided by science’s own institutions. Consider the controversy over a now-retracted paper in the prestigious science journal Nature Communications, which shows how political fashions can dictate what research outcomes are acceptable.
In November three NYU Abu Dhabi researchers came under fire for an article questioning the popular academic view that young women scientists are better off with female mentors. Their “science of science” study analyzed the impact of millions of scientific papers with junior and senior authors and drew conclusions about the effect of mentorship on careers.
“While current diversity policies encourage same-gender mentorships to retain women in academia,” the paper says in the abstract, “our findings raise the possibility that opposite-gender mentorship may actually increase the impact of women who pursue a scientific career.”
The authors—two of whom are women—pointed to possible explanations for their findings, including that “historically, male scientists had enjoyed more privileges and access to resources than their female counterparts.”
Yet some scientists erupted on social media at what was perceived as an attack on policies promoting gender equality. One Boston University biologist told Science magazine, “Treating gender itself as a binary is also damaging in today’s climate.” On Monday Nature Communications retracted the article, writing that it wants to make sure “that the review process takes into account the dimension of potential harm.”
The authors wrote that “we believe that all the key findings of the paper with regards to co-authorship between junior and senior researchers are still valid.” Yet they also “feel deep regret” that they “caused pain on an individual level and triggered such a profound response among many in the scientific community” and agreed to the retraction.
Note that the study presumably would not have caused “potential harm” if it supported the view that junior and senior scientists should be paired based on gender. But because a vocal constituency disapproved of the findings, they were discarded.
Meanwhile, Nature Communications may be institutionalizing this political supervision over social and behavioral science, suggesting in an updated policy that editors seek input on “broader societal implications of publishing a paper”—which in practice could mean determining if interest groups think it should be vetoed.
The debate over male or female mentorship in science is hardly one of the great issues of the day. But science and innovation are at the core of American strength, or at least they have been, and the country has a strong interest in having scientific authorities that are respected and apolitical.
has described increasing “ideological encroachment” in scientific institutions, and this is an example. There will always be politicians who attack science when it’s convenient. The real risk to the enterprise comes when science surrenders to the political passions of the day.
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Appeared in the December 24, 2020, print edition.