Essays

Essays May 2017

The March for Science: Should Health Leaders Stay Out of Politics?

Kevin Ho

Abstract

Recent political events in the United States have spawned various political protests, including the March for Science. The question of whether health leaders should participate or stay out of politics has arisen. I argue the reason for participation is not necessarily a political one, but a professional one. Advocacy is one duty of health leaders, and in this case, leaders must advocate for a society that values science and objectivity. Science is what gives us the highly sought after evidence we need to inform decisions made at various levels of the healthcare system. 

I hate politics. I think of the stereotypical TV scene of angry politicians in suits shouting over each other in a flurry of furrowed brows and hurled insults. This never appealed to me. It’s part of the reason I initially chose a career in health and science; I spent some of the most formative years of my early career conducting research in a lab, writing papers, generating knowledge. The objectivity of it all was far from the emotionally charged drama of anything seen on Parliament Hill or the White House. As life would have it, a dozen years or so have passed by, and I find myself working in policy. Policy work still lies within the science spectrum; my job involves taking knowledge which has been generated scientifically and using it to improve the health of our society.

Society and health: now these are two interesting concepts.

Without getting too philosophical, let’s look at the fundamental underpinnings of a civilized society. Fair, reasonable, organized, and advanced are often adjectives used to define a civilized society. Many of the pillars of our society, such as the education, justice, and health systems, can only reflect these fundamental underpinnings if the methodology used by leaders in those fields reflect the same philosophy. Science is a methodology based on reason and objectivity, and its positive impacts on advancing society need not be debated. Objectivity is of such importance to a civilized society that it is the main difference between, say, propaganda and journalism; kangaroo and real courts of law; opinion-based and evidence-based policy. Health and society have been intricately linked for a very long time, and this link continues to evolve today, such as the evolution towards more evidence-based health policy.

People has asked me why policy folks should be interested in what scientists, in their lab coats and pipettes, have to say. The answer is fairly simple. Science is based on critical analysis of objective evidence. In order to be effective, policy should also be based on the same philosophy. When the upstream knowledge generating engine that churns out evidence for downstream policy makers is compromised, the quality of policy we implement will suffer. Garbage in is garbage out. Leaders are only as good as the information they are given. When the legitimacy of the scientific method is attacked, the potential consequences are profound.

The March for Science in my city, Toronto, was held on April 22, 2017. Similar marches were held in over 600 cities across 68 countries. I still hate politics. For me, this was not a protest march spurred on by partisan motivations. It was an act of advocacy for the quality and integrity of our healthcare system. It is not the only way to advocate, though. We continue to advocate for the best drug for our patients, teach students using the latest research, or use the best evidence to inform our policy decisions: whatever our day to day jobs require of us. Joining a worldwide conversation about the importance of fighting for science and objectivity is an important duty to any leader at any level. As leaders of the healthcare system, we can choose to take action to ensure the healthcare system is the best it can be, and marching is only one of many options. 

The last Canadian government faced criticism over the muzzling of scientists. The current American government is going one step further, and ignoring data and objectivity altogether. Shouldn’t this provoke us to speak out? The words scrawled on one protest sign summed it up nicely: “Those who don’t move, do not notice their chains.” 

So should health leaders stay out of politics? I think that is the wrong question. Science is inherently non-political. The question should be: What kind of health leader do we want to be?

About the Author

Kevin Ho, MSc, Communications co-lead with Emerging Health Leaders

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