From the mid-1930s to 1964, the Soviet Union suffered from the intrusion of politics into science research and teaching. The ideas of Trofim Lysenko [1898-1976] were enforced in research labs and school classrooms throughout the Soviet Union.
The rest of the world was making advances in animal and plant breeding based on the new genetics—and reaping the benefits of increased crop production.
But Lysenko was allowed to dismiss and imprison biologists who did not follow his view that wheat could be trained to be cold-hardy. Soviet politicians saw genetics as supporting the hereditary monarchy—the czar who had been overthrown. An ability to pass to your offspring new traits you had acquired through hard work just fit better with communism.
Thirty years of bad science took a huge toll on the Soviet Union. The episode served as a lesson on how politicians should stay out of science laboratories and classrooms. Certainly the United States would never make such a mistake.
Unfortunately, across the country this spring, we have seen a flurry of legislation attempting to distort our scientific understanding of natural phenomena to fit political ideas.
House Bill 2306 introduced in the Kansas House of Representatives on February 12, 2013 would have directed the Kansas State Board of Education to provide "a course of instruction in science" that provides students with scientific evidence to both support and counter scientific theories or hypotheses. "The legislature recognizes that the teaching of certain scientific topics, such as climate science, may be controversial. The legislature encourages the teaching of such scientific controversies to be made in an objective manner in which both the strengths and weaknesses of such scientific theory or hypothesis are covered."
Of course, Kansans are familiar with the "strengths and weakness" argument from our 1999 and 2005 evolution-creation debates. Climate change has now replaced evolution as the new battleground and some politicians are not hesitant to meddle in the science lab and classroom.
But just as hospital administrators should not tell surgeons how to operate, legislators should not tell science teachers what or how to teach. There are folks who believe the earth is flat and there are citizens who do not believe in blood transfusions. Just because there is controversy among some of the public at large does not mandate that science and science teachers should give equal time to unequal ideas.
While the bill in Topeka did not get out of committee, there is a much bigger assault on science in Washington, DC. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) chairs the Science, Space, and Technology Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and is pushing his "High Quality Research Act" that would curtail any pure research without immediate applications. He would also bring politicians into the peer review process that evaluates research funding, under the rubric of "adding a layer of accountability." And he would de-fund any political science research. No one has yet explained to him that the "peer" in peer review refers to other experts in the science field, not just any legislator with a heartbeat.
If Trofim Lysenko was alive today, he would pack his bags and move to the United States. The opportunity to inject politics into research labs and science classrooms has never been greater.