Late last week, we witnessed an unprecedented level of political and judicial interference in science, with a Texas anti-choice judge ruling — based on no scientific expertise he himself possesses — that the FDA’s approval of mifepristone was illegitimate. Another judge in Washington state ruled that the drug should remain available.
To me, this ties back to the decades-long “inside the house” undermining of scientific authority, independent review, and community expertise — part of a rolling insurrection of scholarly and scientific publishing, which started in the late 1990s and accelerated after 2010, with Outsell intoning memorably in 2012, “Politics has found us.”
Politics did find us, but we encouraged it, even courted it, from the early days of E-Biomed to the current lobbying of SPARC — mixing politics and scientific communications has been increasingly normalized, which has undermined the independence of the scientific endeavor to a remarkable degree.
But the damage goes deeper, because it has affected the way we think about ourselves. Via this insurrection, authority has been viewed as fundamentally illegitimate, expertise a reflection of antiquated gatekeeping, and independent review simply an exercise of power. Much of this comes from lite libertarian thinking infused with techno-utopianism, often from people who believe they are in possession of next-level wisdom when in fact they are playing right into the hands of real operators with nefarious designs of their own.
As we’re seeing, when those charged with preserving and improving scientific communication not only lose their ability to robustly defend its independence but actively embrace models and powers catering to the producers of information over the consumers, cracks appear, which can be levered into gaping holes by people with agendas.
Science and scientific authority have long been elevated above petty politics, with FDA approval historically immune from second-guessing by political hacks, legislative bodies, or judicial appointees. But the past two decades have seen a steady erosion of scientific authority. Partly, this is due to media fragmentation, which allows pernicious narratives to develop and prosper. Another obvious contributor is misinformation and disinformation, especially around vaccines and communicable diseases. But a main contributor has been our own negligence in protecting peer-review as a singular process that, while unable to catch problems in a small percentage cases, has given rise to a highly reliable body of scientific findings from which we can derive public policies, safe drugs and devices, and consistent advances.
The FDA’s approval process has been one of the most reliable, and is a global standard for drug and device review and approval.
But as we have denigrated, undermined, and subverted peer-review, we have revealed gatekeepers who are not aligned, and that the defenders of independent scientific review have become feckless at some profound level. Partly, this involved surrendering the scientific news-making role of journals and professional societies via preprinting, which gave journalists — and their contrary incentives — this role. It involved demoralizing scientific authorities generally, including editors, society leaders, and others as they witnessed what was once a robust information economy wither under a producer-pays model and its lack of strategic and intellectual options. It has ultimately coalesced as an insurrection within scholarly publishing, not unlike that still roiling America under the banner of far-right lies.
And now these two insurrections meet — a far-right judge (appointed by an insurrectionist President) who is thumbing his nose at scientific authority, because he senses he can, senses that scientific authority is so weak and dithering and demoralized that a strong-willed political theory depriving women of rights can win the day.
And he might be right. Given the competing rulings, an appeal by the FDA will likely be headed to the Supreme Court, a judicial body suffering from unprecedented levels of internal corruption itself, and which has already struck down the right of personal autonomy for women when it comes to reproductive decisions.
There is a direct line between undermining scientific authority for the sake of disruption and open science, and a sense of opportunity brewing among those seeking to sideline science, viewing open science as open season on scientific authority.
Have open science, data, and access made science stronger? Not by a long shot. On our watch, we’ve fumbled our role, our obligations, our institutional responsibilities, and our authority.
Who will pay the price? Sadly, all of us, because the loss of freedom for one of us is a loss of freedom for all. But that’s a cop out — it’s a slap against mainly young women seeking freedom and autonomy, who can’t believe how their futures now resemble something out of Margaret Atwood.
But keep celebrating those OA contracts and open science wins, even as rights are stripped away, science is denigrated, and entities like the FDA are discounted because we — those charged with facing these times soberly and seriously — simply don’t respect or defend what we do any longer.
Do you disagree? Prove it by defending the FDA’s legitimate scientific determination, which should be the last word on whether a drug or device is available to the public. Prove it by supporting peer-review, expert review, independent review, and user-centered publishing and information dissemination.
It’s well past time for a rethink. But it’s not too late.