With the U.S. presidential election less than a month away, three prestigious science publications have recently run editorials about what’s happening—or not happening—in Washington. Holden Thorp, the editor in chief at Science, detailed this administration’s coronavirus missteps in an editorial succinctly titled “Trump Lied About Science.” In another editorial, the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine called our current political leaders’ response to COVID-19 “consistently inadequate,” and Nature’s editors have endorsed Joe Biden for president.
These editorial teams skewered the U.S. government’s handling of COVID-19. “Our current leaders have undercut trust in science and in government, causing damage that will certainly outlast them,” wrote NEJM’s editors. “Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed ‘opinion leaders’ and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.” In Thorp’s Science editorial, he, too, lamented lies—specifically, Trump’s deliberate underplaying of the the deadliness of SARS-CoV-2: “This may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy.”* Nature’s editorial staff also had pointed criticisms of Trump: “No US president in recent history has so relentlessly attacked and undermined so many valuable institutions, from science agencies to the media, the courts, the Department of Justice—and even the electoral system,” they wrote.
Many saw these clear condemnations of the U.S. government’s COVID-19 response as a stark departure from the science journals’ normal purview. The editorials come on the heels of Scientific American’s endorsement of Joe Biden—a first in its 175-year-history—so the idea of scientists taking a stand on politics is currently fresh in the public’s mind. But unlike the popular science magazine, Nature, Science, and NEJM are all known for publishing impactful original academic research, making it seem all the more surprising that they’d wade into political commentary. Publications like the Washington Post and Axios ran stories about NEJM’s editorial in particular; scientists on Twitter linked to all three, calling the science community’s chorus of editorials unprecedented.
But as my recent conversations with the three journals’ editors in chief made clear, science journals have always played a role in commenting on policy, culture, and current events. If anything about these editorials is unprecedented, it’s the extent to which U.S. politicians have sidelined science.
“We also haven’t had a crisis like this where science was the absolute epicenter, at this speed,” says Thorp, who’s been writing editorials about the United States’ lackadaisical COVID-19 response since March. But he’s not the first Science editor in chief to weigh in on the federal government’s approach to science; former editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt often shined a light on overlooked environmental issues, and the late Don Kennedy frequently wrote about climate change and the Bush administration’s failure to act on it.
Similarly, Nature editor-in-chief Magdalena Skipper says her publication has a long and storied history of writing on politics. In the early 1900s, Nature lobbied the British Parliament to make education more accessible, particularly for women. The magazine endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.
The New England Journal of Medicine has also historically published editorials on science policy issues, like access to contraception, but its most recent editorial is by far the most pointedly critical of political leadership. The decision to write the editorial came from “an accumulation of small things,” says the journal’s editor in chief, Eric Rubin. “Every week at our editorial meeting, something would come up, an action that the government had taken or failed to take, and every week we’d say we should write an editorial on that, or get an editorial on that.” Eventually, says Rubin, the constant drip-drip of disturbing news led to a “breaking point,” and in August, the NEJM team decided to write its own editorial, though it was not published until early October.
The fact that these editorials all appeared within days of one another sends a strong message that the editorial staffs of top science journals are thinking about similar issues. I asked the three editors in chief whether there was any discussion across journals to coordinate a stand, but there wasn’t an explicit effort to join forces. Instead, it seems that the editorials grew organically out of the same concerns, which they often discussed in public forums like Twitter. “We all do know each other and communicate, but it’s not like we all have some meeting somewhere or a Zoom call where we got together,” says Thorp. “This is not something that happened in a smoke-filled room—it’s all been in broad daylight.”
As politicians have repeatedly sidelined top scientists and ignored public health recommendations from experts, it’s no secret that scientists have become increasingly frustrated and concerned about the rise of anti-science sentiments. (Look no further than epidemiology Twitter for a glimpse into the rampant science misinformation experts must debunk on a daily basis.) Skipper, Rubin, and Thorpe all spoke about the responsibility of science journals to represent the interests and voices of scientists working on the ground. “Many scientists would like to think science should be entirely independent of politics, and I agree in the sense that science ought to be independent, there ought to be that scholarly autonomy,” says Skipper. But given that so much of science is now publicly funded, she says, complete separation is impossible, especially if governments are actively suppressing evidence. In those times, says Skipper, “we have to become more vocal in order to defend science and what it stands for at its very core.”
The editorials each issue strong condemnation of current political leadership in the U.S.; while Nature’s editorial openly supports Biden, the editorials from Science and NEJM stopped short of any explicit endorsement. Science, which is published by the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science, is unable to make political endorsements due to its 501(c)(3) status, and while NEJM encouraged readers to replace our leaders, it did not explicitly target any particular leader or recommend who should be elected instead. NEJM’s Rubin says the editorial team saw their editorial as being about health, not politics, and that even without explicitly endorsing any candidates, he had worries that NEJM’s readers might be put off by the editorial. Medical professionals “represent the entire political spectrum,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t want to alienate them, but it’s hard not to say something very important.” But ultimately, he says he feels it’s the editorial team’s job to weigh in on how science and medicine are being used in the real world. “If we see something incredibly egregious, I think it’s our place to say something.”
Correction, Oct. 14, 2020: This article originally misquoted Thorp as writing that the pandemic “may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. policy.” He wrote that it “may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy.”