The interface of politics and science

Nepal’s politicians study neither biology nor political science, and we are paying the price during this pandemic


As the lockdown enters its fourth month with no sign of any letup, many people (even city-dwellers) seems to be taking up roof gardening and food production because they have time to kill, and the need to stock up on food during the pandemic.

Indirectly, the lockdown has helped promote an activity we should have engaged in anyway. It has forced us to re-learn the experiments and projects from high school biology class.

As eager students we all studied germination by dropping a seed into the soil, and found out that no matter which side is up, the first green shoots shoot up to the surface to catch the sun. The roots instinctively fan out downwards to gather vital nutrients.

Plants cannot be convinced or corrupted to do things differently. In politics, however, everything and anything is possible. It really depends on how many votes can be mobilised to say and do anything a politician seeks.

In a country with a self-described communist party in government with a two-third majority, the opposition has become irrelevant. Question time in parliament is just a formality, and a video op for those who want to show off oratorical skills.

Biology is a science of all forms of life. Politics, it seems, is the art of manipulation and the end goals are to stay in power and accumulate wealth at any cost to perpetuate that power. Politicians study neither biology, nor political science.

Then there are political scientists who can tell us ten ways to run the republic with examples from all corners of the globe. They have almost no say in how Nepal manages the pandemic or how our country is governed. They can be seen in heated debates on political talk shows on tv, or pontificating away on the op-eds -- but are never consulted when politicians have to make decisions based on science or expertise.

The current global crisis offers us a chance to explore and understand these issues, adopt best practices from elsewhere so we do not end up making the same costly mistakes others have made. South Korea and Singapore believe in science and make policies based on it, but the USA and Brazil patently do not. New Zealand’s prime minister looks like someone who understands the interface of politics and science, the German chancellor is a biologist herself.

With over 140,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, should that country still be arguing over masks? Should that decision even be left to politicians? All around us we hear and read the works of amazing biologists and political scientists who are angry, and often frustrated because they are not taken seriously by politicians.

In Kathmandu there is a push to open up new roads and expand or widen existing ones so that the price of land will continue to go up. Land is limited in the valley, but an even more limiting factor is the air we breathe. If there is one take-away from the current pandemic it is that the virus attacks those body parts that are most vulnerable. Our respiratory system in the polluted valley was already at risk, the virus has increased it.

The science may be clear but we would rather buy oxygen cylinders and ventilators than clear the air, because it is good for the economy. Biologists tell us we need to protect remaining forests, cut emissions. This science needs to be translated into political policy.

George Floyd was gagged by a policeman’s knee and could not breathe. We are gagged by policies that are also killing us. Even without the coronavirus.

Young Nepalis get it. They are out in Patan Darbar Square on hunger strike with ‘Enough is Enough’ placards. Essentially their message is that we have wrong policies, and even when we have the right ones, corruption, mismanagement and apathy gets in the way. They have had enough.

We have all had enough, but these youngsters are making their voices heard in creative ways to save the future. Nepal’s obsolete politicians better sit up and listen.

Biology is a science, and political science or politics may be more of an art form. All three need to come together to fundamentally change the way we run our societies and pursue progress. A new post COVID-19 world is one in which humans co-exist with other species on the planet.

If we destroy the Chure Hills by removing its forests and extracting construction material from it, Birgunj, Janakpur and other cities in the Tarai will be inundated every monsoon. Local governments should be ready to spend all their tax revenue on flood relief and recovery for a long time if we keep electing politicians who do not understand the science of floods.

The past three months have displayed that neither the biology of a virus nor the political science of good governance took centre stage. Nepal needs to brace itself for worse to come because we did not.

Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc and writes this fortnightly column 1/2 Full in Nepali Times.

Anil Chitrakar