by Garrett Dunlap
figures by Daniel Utter
Two is the number of current members of Congress that hold PhDs in a STEM field. Representative Bill Foster of Illinois holds a PhD in physics and Representative Jerry McNerney of California holds a PhD in math. In comparison, this is dwarfed by the number of congressmembers with law degrees (222) and those holding just high school diplomas (18) (Figure 1). I am not advocating that every political body be entirely populated by scientists. But in a country where members of the public overwhelmingly feel that science has made their lives easier and hold higher levels of trust in scientists than practitioners of many other professions, why is the involvement of scientists in government and public policy so low? And what benefit to society may be gained from reversing this lack of involvement?
The root of the problem
Except for notable science personalities such as Bill Nye or Stephen Hawking, most people struggle to name a living scientist. To some extent, this is the fault of scientists themselves, who often struggle to effectively communicate their findings to the general public. In practice, this leads to confusion over scientific facts and findings. For example, there are widespread misperceptions regarding the scientific consensus over controversial issues such as climate change and evolution. Further, the opinions of scientists and the public differ noticeably on topics such as GMOs and vaccines.
These communication issues are paired with an inaccurate portrayal of the profession in sitcoms and movies. Often, scientists are warped into one generally eccentric, antisocial, and egotistical caricature. Other times, the image of a “mad scientist” prevails, describing one who revels in a chance to play God and conduct experiments without ethical considerations. Sadly, this characterization is a gross misrepresentation. Luckily, efforts such as the #ActualLivingScientist trend on Twitter have recently begun to fix this lack of visibility.
Aside from communication problems, another issue that may be keeping scientist participation in government and policy so low is the traditional view that science is the “pure,” objective pursuit of truth. In contrast, the political world is viewed as “messy” and reliant on public opinion and subjectivity. While scientific facts and findings should not be subjected to the largely negotiable realm of politics, this does not mean that scientists themselves should remove themselves from politics. As a result of scientists’ reluctance to move from their ivory towers to the political world, there remains an absence of the scientific voice in policy debates.
What can scientists offer?
Scientists offer a unique perspective in the political and societal arenas. Perhaps the most obvious need that can be met by scientists’ participation in politics is that scientists themselves are best equipped to advocate for science funding. Scientists understand the power of basic research, and understand that without it, industries from pharmaceuticals to transportation stand to lose their innovative edge. At a time where funding for many scientific organizations is being slashed, scientists grow increasingly concerned. They understand and can explain the ways in which dramatic budget cuts could make potentially groundbreaking projects less likely to succeed. With more voices in government promoting the power of scientific research and arguing on behalf of associated funding, our representatives could be in a better position to fight against proposals that may thwart scientific advancement.
Aside from advocating for science, scientists may be able to bring with them even greater benefits to government. In their daily experiments and projects, scientists rely on evidence to make claims and decisions about the significance and direction of their work. A claim that has no supporting evidence is quickly dismissed, as scientists remain skeptical of anything until they can observe it for themselves. In the political world, evidence-based decisions have the ability to reduce wasteful spending and implement effective programs. Unfortunately, many in government fail to take into account all facts and data before making decisions. Scientists in politics have the potential to change these patterns of thinking. The ability to maintain an objective attitude and make informed decisions based on concrete evidence will prove invaluable in the current political environment.
Support a scientist!
Since the presidential election in 2016, some scientists have already felt the call to campaign for public office. One scientist that has received attention in the media is Michael Eisen, a prominent evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. After observing the anti-science rhetoric of the elected President, he announced a run for a seat in the Senate in 2018. In an interview, Eisen spoke of his motivation to “make decisions based on our reality, not on what we want it to be.” He acknowledges that scientists (as well as the whole concept of science) are under attack, and cannot simply sit on the sidelines any more.
The political call to action is also being answered by a rocket scientist. Tracy Van Houten, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recently announced her candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives. She was similarly inspired after the 2016 election, and hopes to influence policies on many levels, not just those that concern science. Other, similar stories have continued to emerge since the election, as scientists realize that that they must get involved and fight for a seat at the table in order to save their profession. In fact, a political action committee called 314 Action (3.14 in reference to the first digits of pi) has recently been established to fund and support scientists running for office.
I believe that policy and government function best when institutions value diversity and include members from a spectrum of backgrounds. But currently, scientists are not involved in the considerations and debates that often require them most crucially. Society stands to benefit from scientists being involved at all levels of policy, not just on the national stage. In state and local government, and even on school boards, scientists have much to offer. While making the leap from science to government may seem like a gigantic challenge, it has never been more crucial for scientists to represent the public at every level.
Garrett Dunlap is a student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program at Harvard University.
For further reading:
For press coverage on 314 Action: Professor Smith Goes to Washington – The Atlantic