Expert Voices

How Nelson Mandela Navigated the Politics of Science (Op-Ed)

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela (Image credit: Video Screengrab/YouTube/sabcdigitalnews)

Michael Halpern is program manager at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. This Op-Ed was adapted from a post to the UCS blog The Equation.Halpern contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, it is worth reflecting at this time on Mandela's ability to transcend politics when speaking about contentious scientific issues. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the difficult politics surrounding HIV and AIDS at the turn of the millennium.

In 2000, the 13th International AIDS Conference was taking place in Durban, South Africa, the first time the conference was held on the African continent. AIDS was devastating populations in Africa. Yet as hard as it may be to believe now, some African leaders — and some non-mainstream scientists — were denying the link between the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS.

One of the most prominent deniers was South African president Thabo Mbeki, who angered many in his opening remarks to the conference when he declined to affirm that HIV causes AIDS, instead accusing his critics of intolerance to his point of view on the science. "What I hear being said repeatedly, stridently, angrily," he said, "is — do not ask any questions!"

Just days previously, more than 5,000 scientists had released a statement asserting that the evidence that HIV causes AIDS was "clear-cut, exhaustive and unambiguous" and met the highest standards of science. Meeting attendees were frustrated, and scientists with the facts on their side were pitted against those who chose not to accept them. They believed political leaders' refusal to accept the science was killing people. Hundreds of delegates walked out.

Amid this controversy, Mandela was tasked with giving the closing address. In doing so, he breathed new life into the discussion, calling on politicians and scientists to work beyond their differences to care for those affected by the disease. In his own words:

"So much unnecessary attention around this conference had been directed towards a dispute that is unintentionally distracting from the real life and death issues we are confronted with as a country, a region, a continent and a world.

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I do not know nearly enough about science and its methodologies or about the politics of science and scientific practice to even wish to start contributing to the debate that has been raging on the perimeters of this conference.

I am, however, old enough and have gone through sufficient conflicts and disputes in my lifetime to know that in all disputes a point is arrived at where no party, no matter how right or wrong it might have been at the start of that dispute, will any longer be totally in the right or totally in the wrong. Such a point, I believe, has been reached in this debate.

The President of this country is a man of great intellect who takes scientific thinking very seriously and he leads a government that I know to be committed to those principles of science and reason.

The scientific community of this country, I also know, holds dearly to the principle of freedom of scientific enquiry, unencumbered by undue political interference in and direction of science.

Now, however, the ordinary people of the continent and the world — and particularly the poor who on our continent, will again carry a disproportionate burden of this scourge — would, if anybody cared to ask their opinions, wish that the dispute about the primacy of politics or science be put on the back burner and that we proceed to address the needs and concerns of those suffering and dying. And this can only be done in partnership.

I come from a long tradition of collective leadership, consultative decision-making and joint action towards the common good. We have overcome much that many thought insurmountable through an adherence to those practices. In the face of the grave threat posed by HIV/AIDS, we have to rise above our differences and combine our efforts to save our people. History will judge us harshly if we fail to do so now, and right now."

He delivered this speech five years before he would lose his own son to the disease.

The world faces profound science-based challenges that could benefit from this kind of unity. When society focuses on the people affected by those challenges, unity becomes possible. May we all learn from Nelson Mandela's words and go beyond disagreements about science and politics to confront together the most pressing public health and environmental issues of our time.

This Op-Ed was adapted from "Nelson Mandela and the Politics of Science" on the UCS blog The Equation. Follow Halpern on Twitter: @MichaelUCS. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.