Readers argue about the politicisation of science and what should be included in editorial guidelines
Philip Ball’s criticism of Anna Krylov’s essay about the increasing politicisation of science misses Krylov’s points entirely.
Raised in the USSR, Krylov experienced first-hand how Soviet ideology permeated science and education. With this background, Krylov offered an important perspective on the interaction between politics and science. Her article has attracted significant attention – more than 50,000 views – and much discussion on social media.
Ball’s main point is that science is and has always been political, and therefore the idea that science and politics should be separated is naive. Few scientists would disagree; anyone who has ever written a grant knows that funding priorities are dictated by culture and politics. In this sense, science and politics are intertwined.
However, Krylov means something entirely different by ‘politicisation of science’. She means the imposition of ideological viewpoints on science, with the (perhaps unspoken) demand that scientists conform to them. Past examples and their disastrous consequences are well-known: recall Lysenkoism, eugenics and social Darwinism. Krylov identifies current tendencies in the sciences and society that mirror these past perturbations of the scientific enterprise. Her worries about damage that such intrusion causes are well-founded.
Rather than focusing on the points Krylov made, Ball attacks a strawman of his own creation: diversity in science, a subject discussed nowhere by Krylov. Focusing on this topic, Ball creates the false impression that Krylov’s paper is at odds with this important issue. This is ironic, as Krylov is known for promoting gender equality in her field.
I am sure that Krylov’s essay will remain widely read despite Ball’s attempt to distort its message.
Response from Philip Ball: Andreas Bikfalvi has expanded on his position elsewhere, and I have argued here that he totally misrepresents the issues.
The mission of the RSC is ‘the general advancement of chemical science and its application’. The RSC, however, has recently issued guidelines to its editors that undermine its primary duty: to disseminate valid chemical knowledge. Editors must now identify and prevent the publication of any content that ‘might have the potential to cause offence.’ The guidelines provide 15 indicators of inappropriate content, including ‘Likely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people’ – sufficiently broad to justify censoring anything in chemistry and beyond.
One might think that a chemistry paper would be an unlikely source of offensive content. Yet recent examples show that chemistry can be a minefield of ‘offences’. As recently documented in an essay in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters content that is ‘objectionable to some’ includes names of scientific discoveries (such as the Shockley-Queisser limit and Newton’s Laws), technical terms (quantum supremacy, master password and dummy variable), and a slew of plain English words. For example, ‘normal’ allegedly ‘makes most people feel excluded’. So much for ‘normal pH’.
Censorship is already occurring in scientific publishing. In 2020, Angewandte Chemie withdrew a paper in response to an offended mob. In 2021, the Journal of Hospital Medicine retracted a paper about the perils of tribalism in scientific discourse, because the word tribalism is allegedly oppressive.
Censorship is antithetical to the scientific enterprise. Rather than turning Twitter censorship into policy, publishers should defend the core principle of science—the free exchange of ideas. We call on the RSC to rescind these guidelines.
Anna Krylov, FRSC
Gernot Frenking, FRSC
Peter Gill, FRACI, FAA
RSC response: As a professional and membership body, and a leading voice for the chemical science community, we have a responsibility to promote inclusivity and accessibility in order to improve diversity. We do that because there is decades of evidence that diverse, inclusive science produces better scientific outcomes. We also do it because it’s simply the right thing to do.
We must play our part in removing systemic barriers that prevent people progressing in the chemical sciences.
In 2020 we took action to look at our publishing processes to ensure they are robust enough to prevent the publication of harmful content. This was supported by discussions throughout our community, including those with other publishing organisations through our Joint commitment for action on inclusion and diversity in publishing.
Through discussions with RSC colleagues and our associate editors it was clear that we needed to support them to identify potentially inappropriate content, which can cause offence and create barriers to inclusion by using language and images that discriminate, exclude or undermine individuals and groups of people.
Created in partnership with external experts, our guidelines were introduced earlier this year and dovetail with existing policies and decision-making processes. They provide support for both staff and external associate editors in their responsibility to ensure that our content is respectful, accurate and relevant, and we will continually review their usefulness in ensuring we uphold the highest possible standards in our journals. Our staff, authors, reviewers and editors all have a role in making this happen.
Royal Society of Chemistry director of publishing
Should any of Alan Jefferson’s pupils move on to study biochemistry, would they have to learn about the Krebs 1,2,3-propanetricarboxylic acid, 2-hydroxy-cycle or, to be up to date, the Krebs 1S/C6H8O7/c7-3(8)1-6(13,5(11)12)2-4(9)10/h13H,1-2H2,(H,7,8)(H,9,10)(H,11,12) cycle? The term trivial name has nothing to do with trivia, and in any case names like citric acid are recognised by Iupac.
Christopher Lee CChem MRSC
Down to earth
I am sorry to appear negative about the proposed space economy developments but I do get nervous when I hear of plans to exploit the moon, and potentially other planetary objects, when we are arguably making such a mess of our own! I’d rather we invested our expertise in improving the processes for obtaining hydrogen from methane and carbon capture and storage technology, with their climate action importance.
John Davis FRSC
Chemistry World welcomes letters, which should be concise (normally fewer than 300 words) and timely. Those selected for publication are subject to editing for clarity and length. Letters should be marked ‘for publication’ and sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
We do not routinely acknowledge letters.