China has politicized science. Don't let it happen here.

Governments don't belong in religion, arts, or the sciences.  Unfortunately, authoritarians can't leave these realms alone because they compete for power and messaging.  Typically, autocrats repress religion, co-opt art, and decree science.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is the premier arbiter of research, collaborations, and communication about all things scientific in China.  CAS funds pure and applied scientific research throughout the country and also the rest of the world.  It comprises over one hundred institutions that directly employ over sixty thousand researchers.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has given CAS permission to build independent sources of income.  CAS owns or holds shares in more than thirty enterprises.  For example, CAS is the largest shareholder in Lenovo, one of the three major personal computer companies in the world.

CAS presents itself to the outside world as wealthy enough to thumb its nose at the CCP apparatchiks.  Only the gullible believe this.  No organization important to the Chinese state is allowed independence.  Several members of the executive board are CCP members, and one is a member of the Presidium with the title "head of the Discipline Inspection Team."  With watchdogs underfoot and CAS members twice previously subjected to harsh re-education, the Academy dutifully adheres to CCP wishes.

Nature published an editorial titled "The Chinese Academy of Sciences at 70," asking whether this establishment could be a model for other countries.

More interestingly, the journal published a letter to the editor from Qingquan Zhang, the CAS chief public information officer.  He found several things in the editorial "quite misleading."

CAS is not run independently of government, as you imply.  The establishment and development of CAS have been entirely based on the wisdom and support of the central government.

Contrary to your headline, CAS has never sought or achieved financial autonomy.  Over the past 40 years, half of its income has come directly from central-government investment; the rest has been from competitive funding or technology transfer.  CAS could not develop without the funding and support of the central government.

In carrying out its scientific and technical mission, CAS stands firmly with the central government and with the people.  We reject any such false allegations with disruptive intentions and are strongly opposed to biased judgments of China's internal affairs, and to any unnatural linking of political or ideological positions with our mission.

The Chinese government does not accept criticism, even when embedded in an otherwise positive portrayal.  Most Americans would consider the editorial a puff piece; however, Nature did state that during the Cultural Revolution, "[t]orture was commonplace and, according to CAS's own records, 229 scientists were either killed or took their own lives in this time."

What does this portend for us?  Is the United States at risk of having science unduly influenced by government?  We don't bundle our scientific institutions under a single umbrella organization; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is our best known government-funded medical institution.  Does our government interfere with CDC work or communications?

This is a more complex question than in China.  In China, the political party and government are one and the same, whereas the United States has a two-party system.  Theoretically, control over government agencies should shift with elections.  Due to what is popularly called the Deep State, this is not true in practice.  Since 2015, all but five of the eight thousand political donations made by CDC employees went to Democrats or left-leaning organizations.  China could send home its political officers if it could achieve this level of groupthink.

The overwhelming dominance of Democrats at the CDC could not have happened by accident.  During the Obama administration, the Human Resources Department filtered candidates by their support for the Democrat agenda.  Even with Democrats in a reduced power position, CDC communications have often shown more loyalty to the party narrative than to the underlying science.  This is especially obvious in headlines and report summaries, which frequently promote a theme not found in the detail findings (a propaganda trick used by the U.N. to turn research on its head).

It should be the public health officials that are leading policy. —Kamala Harris at the Democrat Convention

Democrats frequently set up an outside organization as an unbiased source of policy guidance.  In truth, they run the outside organization and ensure that its guidance is in lockstep with the party agenda.  The organization's real purpose is to act as a cut-out to avoid accountability.  The vice presidential candidate would not have uttered these words if she didn't believe she could control public health officials.

Science is the opposite of politics.  In science, not only do you have to prove your hypothesis, but others must be able to replicate your experiment and achieve the same results.  Science is rational, objective, orderly — everything that politics is not.  Yet, politicians love to meddle in this space.

If Democrats gain control of the White House and Congress, our scientific institutions will be forced to embrace the China model.  Make no mistake: Democrats want to control science so they can use the discipline as a public relations tool.  We can't allow science to become the handmaiden of politicians.

James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and the Steve Dancy Tales.

Image credit: Logo, via U.S. Department of Energy // public domain

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