Public health scientists in the crosshairs

In his Editorial “Stick to science” (10 January, p. 125), Science Editor-in-Chief H. Holden Thorp urges scientists to resist politically motivated calls to “stay in our lane” and instead speak up about the importance of evidence-based decisionmaking. We agree that science advocacy is particularly important when populist movements and “post-truth politics” (1) ignore, distort, or undermine scientific evidence. However, we must acknowledge that scientists are sometimes threatened with the loss of their freedom and civil rights for doing this work. For example, Bülent Şık, a food engineer in Turkey, received a 15-month jail sentence in September, 2019, for publishing his results on toxic pollution in food and water sources in Western Turkey (2). To ensure that scientists can make their voices heard, we must guarantee their safety.

These risks feel particularly personal to public health scientists, who cannot stay out of politics (and legislation) given the potential for populist policies—or any policy put in place uninformed by evidence—to negatively affect health. Women suffer from limited access to abortion and contraception (3). Immigrants face restricted access to health care (1). Entire health infrastructures have been destroyed by human-made armed conflict (4). We are all threatened by climate change denial and withdrawals from international agreements (5).

Public health scientists must follow Thorp’s advice to speak up in defense of scientific evidence when questionable policies are proposed, and their autonomy and freedom must not be threatened when they do so. We urge all governments to guarantee academic freedom and to preserve the integrity of public health science and all scientific disciplines worldwide as directed by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (67) and international human rights law (89). In the meantime, independent professional organizations must advocate for scientific autonomy, and education and human rights organizations, such as the Scholars at Risk network and Scholar Rescue Fund, will need to protect scientists.

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