Op-ed: Public health researchers should get political

It’s time for researchers to step into politics, according to Mary Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In an October 13, 2020 op-ed in Nature, Bassett wrote that researchers’ relative silence about broad societal issues, often under the guise of professionalism, “doesn’t make for good science. … In the middle of a pandemic, good science identifies how to save lives.”

Bassett noted that health professionals have begun speaking out about how inequitable social policies, segregated neighborhoods, and inadequate labor protections have fueled the coronavirus tragedy in the U.S. As for researchers, some are working with activists on issues such as racial justice, but many avoid doing so out of worry that an “activist” label could have negative implications for their careers, she said.

“It is inconceivable that the COVID-19 death toll would be as high as it is today if the U.S. political leadership believed in evidence, or had enacted egalitarian social and health policies comparable to those in other wealthy countries,” Bassett wrote. “Lack of affordable housing, universal health coverage, and job protections are all public-health issues. So are low wages. Building the political will to address these issues will save lives. That’s worth risking a job or a promotion. Let’s use this public-health crisis to organize.”

As a former health commissioner for New York City, Bassett said she hopes that a new “political awakening” will transform how scientists participate in political life. She wrote, “The label ‘activist’ should be an honor, not a slur or reproach.”

Read the Nature op-ed: Tired of science being ignored? Get political