Now More Than Ever We Need Science, Not Politics
COMMENTARY

November 13, 2020by Dr. Moira Gilchrist, Vice President Strategic & Scientific Communications, Philip Morris International
Moira Gilchrist, head of strategic and scientific communications, Philip Morris International | via Philip Morris International

The global COVID-19 pandemic, with all its devastating consequences, has reaffirmed why science must be at the center of policy considerations, political debate, and media attention. But, lamentably, it is often at the center for all the wrong reasons. Against a backdrop of growing tensions and polarization in the U.S. and around the world, we see increased efforts to politicize science. This is a perilous path. If we allow science and facts to be held hostage—and deliberately distorted—by politics, we risk sowing confusion and further eroding trust in science. The real-world consequences can be tragic.

A recent Gallup poll found that just one in two Americans would be willing to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus if a vaccine were available today. This gives us a hint of what the politicization of science looks like. The 11 percent decline of people’s willingness to get the vaccine when asked in late September compared to August should serve as a warning. It is an unmistakable demonstration of what happens when accurate scientific information is supplanted by pseudoscience, half-truths, or blatant misinformation.

Science-led businesses and organizations must do everything they can to raise discourse and understanding about actual, genuine, credible science. In a finding that underscores our increased, and shared, obligation to emphatically call out any inaccuracies in a systematic way, nearly half of the people surveyed for a recent international survey commissioned by my company, Philip Morris International (PMI), said they find it difficult to access reliable scientific information. We must consistently engage with the broader public to better explain the nuances of the scientific process. It is not an exaggeration to say that nearly everything rests on the primacy of science.   

Importantly, we must strive for aggressive transparency in our findings and research protocols, inviting a fact-based conversation and encouraging external verification.

From calls for government leaders to place scientific evidence at the heart of decision-making, to recent conversations about the need for more information concerning several COVID-19 vaccine trials in the U.S. and abroad, the subject of transparency in science—be it from scientists, businesses or regulators—has rarely been more critical.

At PMI, we recognize that we’re starting from a deficit of trust and a surplus of skepticism, and thus we fully understand the importance of sharing our science openly and transparently. We want our scientific findings to be objectively assessed as we work to deliver a smoke-free future by replacing cigarettes with science-backed alternatives for men and women who would otherwise continue to smoke.

Today, there is a significant body of scientific evidence substantiating smoke-free products. Some special interest groups, however, refuse to look at the science and instead dismiss any innovation coming from the industry. They often misrepresent scientific studies and produce alarming, misleading headlines. As a result, many adults who smoke are confused about these better alternatives and continue to use cigarettes, or worse, return to cigarettes—the most harmful way of consuming nicotine.

Transparency remains one of our strongest tools to foster science-based dialogues, tackle misinformation, and help people make informed decisions. This is not unique to the debate about better alternatives to cigarettes. We have great challenges ahead of us. From the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change and food security, if we want to effect real change and realize meaningful solutions, we need to ensure that science takes precedence over agenda-driven ideology and unsubstantiated beliefs. 

As a scientist and an eternal optimist, I am hopeful that science will prevail. Facts and evidence should ultimately become too difficult to ignore—but we must act quickly and boldly to ensure that science and scientific information is debated openly and objectively. People turn to science for answers when we need to better understand the world around us. Science propels innovation and helps us define the best way forward. We cannot allow it to be abused to suit narrow interests to the detriment of wider society.

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