Let’s stop pretending that science is apolitical

Some argue that science should stay away from BDS and politics. But science is not apolitical and never was.

Gaza Applied Sciences College graduation photo Reuters
Palestinian graduates sit behind posters of fellow students who were killed in an Israeli offensive at a graduation ceremony at the University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza in 2014 [Reuters]

A week after the May 14 tragic events in Gaza, an email sent through an international mailing list for researchers in statistical sciences landed in my inbox. It was inviting mailing list members to attend a conference to be held in Jerusalem.

Normally I don’t engage in mailing list discussions, and they, in fact, tend to be rare on this mailing list. But this time I decided to “reply to all”. As someone who supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, I took the opportunity to appeal for a boycott of all academic events in Israel including the one mentioned in the email. A conversation followed.

Some agreed, some did not, a larger share of the members chose to remain ambiguously silent. Within the next 24 hours, the axis of arguments slowly shifted from “whether an academic boycott of Israel is the right thing to do” to “the purpose of the mailing list is not to discuss politics”. 

In fact, a highly cited statistician went on to write: “This is a STATISTICS mailing list. If I want to listen to political discussions, I go to a pub. Please stop these spamming activities.” And this was not one isolated response.

Another scientist replied: “I support the fact that this discussion should be truncated. Are we political scientists? We are statisticians and the subject matter should remain the focus.” 

I was amazed to learn from this exchange that there are scientists who still believe that politics and political discussions should happen in pubs, or only under the jurisdiction of scholars of political science. And I was shocked to see that part of the academia is so comfortable in its elitism that it prefers to ignore the killing of civilians by a military occupier. 

But regardless of what some scientists on this mailing list think, science is very much imbued with politics. Taking a political stance as a scientist is not unscientific; it never was.  

Was science ever apolitical?

The very first commitment of science is to seek to explain, to analyse various hypotheses based on natural and/or social phenomena and test them through scientific experiment. This exercise, however, could never be done apolitically. For one, the scientific pursuit has always needed a source of funding or resources and has often produced politically charged results. 

The source of funding for scientific research in the past was either wealthy influential families or rulers, who were all political agents in some form or another. In 16th century India, Mughal emperors such as Akbar and Shah Jahan, for example, encouraged translation of ancient mathematical research. In 16th and 17th-century Italy, the wealthy Medici family were famous patrons of the arts and sciences; for many years they sponsored and sheltered astronomer Galileo Galilei.

Given this dependence and proximity of science to power, it is not surprising that throughout history scientists would often find themselves in the midst of a political dispute. Whenever their findings challenged the narrative of the powerful, they would get in trouble. One just has to recall the story of Galilei and his face-off with the Catholic Inquisition over his insistence that the Earth circles around the sun.

There were also times when science supported the politics of the powerful and propagated oppression. Nineteenth-century eugenics theories, for example, informed and motivated various violent crimes committed by states – from forced sterilisation to slavery and genocide.

It would also happen that scientists would become political figures or be politicised even after their death. In India, for example, Aryabhata, celebrated as one of the most influential mathematicians of all times, is presented in popular culture as a Brahmin (member of the highest Hindu caste). As Indian mathematician Chandrakant Raju pointed out, this transformation of his caste identity was achieved by the intentional misspelling of Aryabhata as Aryabhatta. Bhata refers to a slave, a soldier, etc, thus clearly indicating that he was a Dalit (a member of the lowest caste), whereas Bhatta is the title of a learned Brahmin. This shows how a scientist’s identity could be appropriated in favour of hegemonic powers.

For-profit and for-war

Scientific discoveries and theories have always had an element of politics in them, whether they challenged the status quo or helped maintain it. And that did not change with the advent of modernity and the evolution of the relationship between scientists and the powerful. 

We have now entered an era where capitalism and the pursuit of profit increasingly drive research and scientific discovery. For example, a study by Lise L Kjaergard and Bodil Als-Nielsen found that the competing financial interests of scientists could bring bias to the conclusions of their clinical trials.

In a separate study,the same authors demonstrated that trials funded by for-profit organisations are more likely to produce conclusions in favour of an experimental drug due to the biased interpretation of trial results.


Multiple other studies have shown how scientific articles on commonly consumed beverages funded entirely by industry were approximately four to eight times more likely to be favourable to the financial interests of the sponsors than articles without industry-related funding. Others have revealed that the sugar industry had paid scientists in the 1960s to implicate saturated fat, and not sugar, as a cause of heart disease.

Science has not only served corporate interest but also governments. From Project Manhattan to Project Camelot, countless scientists have worked directly for the imperial interests of consecutive US governments. More recently, scientists also worked on the PRISM programme for the NSA; surely they must have been aware of the political implications of mass surveillance in the name of national security.

As Australian mathematician Brian Martin has pointed out, an estimated 25 to 50 percent of scientists and engineers work on military projects globally. In the US, some 150,000 STEM scientists work directly for the Department of Defense. Many others receive funding from it or work on projects indirectly supporting the US war machine.

When scientific findings are compromised in favour of powerful multinational companies and scientific know-how is used to support oppressive regimes and armies, how can we say that science is apolitical? 

And then again, throughout history and today, scientists continue to take political stances. Just last year, hundreds of thousands of them took to the street of major US cities to march in defence of science against a government that had demonstrated a clear disregard for its conclusions. Was that not a major political act committed by scientists?

The science behind apartheid and occupation

Bolstered by the postmodernist thought that clouds scientific rationale, the elite academia (which often describes itself as being liberal and leftist) has forcefully imposed complexity on even the simplest of conflicts – only to avoid taking a definite stance. That has allowed people, like the former president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, to claim that the academic boycott of Israel is anti-Semitism in its modern form. 

Summers, like the others who think like him, is wrong. The academic boycott of Israel is not anti-Semitic for the simple reason that science and academia in Israel actively take a political stance. Boycotting them simply means opposing their politics.

Israel control of Palestinian water supply hits farmers

Science and academia in Israel have actively supported the occupation and the apartheid regime that the Israeli state has established to ethnically cleanse and control Palestinians.

Thousands of scientists and researchers work for and help develop Israel’s sophisticated repressive apparatus and technologically advanced army. Everything and anything – from drone technology to new surveillance tools and radar systems – is geared towards supporting and enabling Israel’s military occupation.

In addition, academics across the social sciences have worked hard to develop and maintain the Israeli creation myth and to erase the Palestinians from history and the collective conscience.

When the late Stephens Hawking took a stance by participating in the academic boycott of Israel, he did the right thing. And so did many others who have chosen not to cross the BDS picket line.

He, like many of us, supported “the rights of all scientists everywhere to freedom of movement, publication and collaboration”. Let’s remember that many of our Palestinian colleagues are deprived of these rights by the apartheid regime they live under. Many others, cannot visit their ancestral land.

To choose to stand with your Palestinian colleagues against the Israeli state does not make you less of an academic or a scientist. To choose to do so means that you uphold the idea that science and academic knowledge should be used for the betterment of humanity, and not to its detriment.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.