When the editors of some of the world’s leading science journals agree on something, it is generally safe to assume that they are correct. So when prominent journals like Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine recently published editorials excoriating President Trump’s deadly bungling of the pandemic response and suppression of scientific activity, the editors accurately spotlighted the troubling deficiencies of the current administration.
But in advocating against or endorsing a presidential candidate, these editors made a grave error. In taking this extraordinary step, they made themselves vulnerable to charges of bias, overstepped their roles as science editors, and succumbed to the politicization of science that they and many other scientists find so alarming.
At first glance, these appear to be similar to run-of-the-mill newspaper endorsements. This analogy, however, is not quite right. At a newspaper, there is a wall between the news operation and the editorial office. It exists to prevent biases of the editorial staff from influencing news reporting. No such wall exists for science journals. The editors who write the editorials are the same ones who evaluate manuscripts and make the final decisions on whether to publish them.
There’s another problem: This political advocacy unnecessarily invites allusions to cronyism, echoing a less savory time when wealthy newspaper owners used their editorial pages to extol the merits of their political chums. Indeed, because of fears surrounding the appearance of undue influence and bias, many newspapers in recent years have abandoned political endorsements.
The risks of science journals advocating for or against candidates are obvious. Editors could be perceived as being politically biased, favoring topics that are of interest to a particular party or leader or conclusions that are sympathetic to him or her. Authors might believe that critical analyses of certain policies, theories, or scientific events would be rejected or muzzled. Even if authors’ perceptions are wrong about editorial leanings, scientists might preemptively edit their manuscripts to fit their assumptions about editors’ views. The result? A chilling of authentic scientific debate.
Editors’ ultimate allegiance should be to a process — the scientific method — not to a person or a party. Candidates are humans and therefore fallible, and party positions are an unruly collection of aspiration, pragmatism, and expediency that can cut inconveniently across scientific programs. For this reason, it is more sensible for science editors to focus on policies, not politics. Science is, of course, immersed in the world of politics — from its funding to its research priorities — but it need not, indeed cannot, be of this world.
Why did these editors take this unprecedented step? Here’s a conjecture: Editors are people too. They have opinions and they want to express them. And they have experienced four years of helplessness at the hands of a president who, by action and speech, has flouted the values they hold dear. Staying silent would be akin to being complicit.
But the editors could have expressed these values without putting out political yard signs. They could have, for example, invited campaigns to answer detailed questions about science policy and published their answers. They could have published a forum with experts who could critically evaluate candidates’ policy proposals and actions. Or they could have expressed their political views as private individuals representing themselves — or as part of a joint letter from concerned science editors — instead of as journal endorsements.
In other words, they could have honored the scientific integrity and discernment of their readers and the public. With the scientific challenges of Covid-19, these editors are correct that this election is a crucial opportunity to reclaim public health and science leadership in this country. This provides all the more reason to cleave tightly to core scientific principles that will outlast politics.
Genevieve P. Kanter is an assistant professor of medicine and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.