From the Executive Director

The politics of science

If you have ever studied political science, then you know that it is all about methods and tactics used to advance issues and agendas. Sometimes the public views these methods as opportunistic and unprincipled. However you view politics, the fact remains that politics are a fact of life in today's society.

For the last 7 years, I have attended countless meetings discussing a wide range of animal and public health issues. Increasingly, I have observed the role that politics have come to play in science. Perhaps this has always been true to some extent, but it seems as though the intensity of the politics has been cranked up a notch or two. No longer can we be comforted by the thought that science will prevail. We can no longer ignore the politics of science.

A perfect example of politics in science is the issue of whether antibiotics should be used in food animals. Much of this issue is centered on the impact that antibiotic use in food animals has on antimicrobial resistance in humans. The opponents of animal agriculture are searching for the "smoking gun" science that proves that such use presents a risk to public health.

A recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine contained three papers that all related to the issue of antibiotic use in animals and the potential risk to humans. Conveniently, the same issue contained an editorial from a physician declaring that the proverbial "smoking gun" had now been found. The editorialist went on to say that the use of antimicrobials in food animals should be limited to individual treatment, that the use of "important" drugs (such as fluoroquinolones and third-generation cephalosporins) should be prohibited in food-producing animals, and that growth promotants should be banned.

In the world of publishing, there are no coincidences. The printing of scientific papers requires careful planning and scheduling. The New England Journal of Medicine left no doubt that the politics of science sometimes transcends the science itself. The questionable use of a scientific journal to advance a political agenda diminishes the science. This tactic even raises questions about the integrity of the publication. This would be harder to say if the published science was definitive and above reproach, but, upon critical review, it is clear that none of these three scientific reports even comes close to providing the "smoking gun" that some are so desperately seeking.

Antimicrobial resistance is not the only issue in which the politics of science have come into play, nor will it be the last. The challenge for AASV is to continue to demand sound, defensible science and appropriate application of the information. Over-reaching conclusions that are aimed more at politics than advancing the state of knowledge should be discounted as such. Vigilance is needed to ensure that the data and statistical analysis support the conclusions.

To be fair, however, veterinarians should not point fingers at others without some introspective "self-examination" of veterinary medicine. Are we guilty of playing politics with science? There are pitfalls within any profession and ours is no different. Are veterinarians using the best available science? How often do we opine that the "art" of practice takes up where the science leaves off? Are we too quick to invoke this stance so that science can be ignored? Are there aspects of our practices that we would be hard pressed to defend on the basis of science?

As veterinarians, we have our roots in science. The legitimate use of good scientific information may have a justifiable role in the setting of policy at any level, whether locally on the farm or in the regulatory and legislative environment of Washington, DC. The required components of legitimate scientific knowledge have not changed. What has changed is the motivation of some to misuse and misrepresent science as a means to further a political agenda. It is up to us to hold ourselves and others accountable for the science used to set policies. If we abdicate that responsibility, then we allow the politics to overcome the science.

Tom Burkgren