I’m a scientist who ran for Congress. Right away, I’ve outed myself as an oddball. Considering the founders of the United States regularly had professions other than “politician,” I should not be as much of an outlier as I am. There were no lucrative lobbyist positions available after holding elected office 242 years ago, so it was important for public servants to have a useful skill set aside from oration, deliberation, and argumentation.
During the years since 1776, our country’s development has been profoundly influenced by scientists. The work of both native-born (e.g., Benjamin Franklin) and immigrant scientists (e.g., Albert Einstein) fueled dramatic innovations and life-saving advancements in technology, transportation, medicine, and more. Quality of life improved, workplace productivity blossomed, and everywhere we turned we found science, lending a hand to make things easier, cheaper, faster, safer, and more available to Americans. Scientists discovered how to control explosions, which led to better weapons, internal combustion engines, and powered flight. The sky was our new limit, and the stars beyond our goal. Thanks, science.
Not to be outdone, scientists in other fields invented antibiotics, vaccines, and x-ray machines. Jonas Salk, born 7 years after my grandfather, changed the course of millions of lives with his polio vaccine. He declined to patent it, in accordance with his belief that vaccination in the interest of public health is a “moral commitment.” When I reflect on the rate of scientific progress our country has incubated over the last 250 or so years, I’m staggered by the profundity of the changes human ingenuity has wrought. It’s undeniable.
So why, then, are so many people -many of whom are scientists themselves- seemingly allergic to the notion of scientists engaging in political discourse?
The answer is simple. Fear.
64 years ago, scientist and so-called “Father of the Atomic Bomb” Robert Oppenheimer was persecuted, attacked, and blacklisted from his life’s work after voicing his opposition to the development of the even deadlier hydrogen bomb. The effect of his banishment jarred the scientific community to its core, and it has been a rare sight indeed to see American scientists run for national office or become vocal about their political views in the years since.
Of course, Oppenheimer’s fall from grace is not the only component to this equation. You may recall that medical doctors are more common in the ranks of federal elected officials than scientists. This has been posited to be a case of fear of the unknown. Most people have a general understanding of the work doctors do, and most know at least one doctor as part of their regular lives. Finding Americans who know a physicist, or a botanist, or a horologist, or (in my case) a volcanologist is a more difficult task. Because the work of modern scientists has become stereotyped as an older, white-coated male in a lab, it seems far-removed from most peoples’ daily lives. It’s a harmful, inaccurate image, and one the science community has too often failed to refute due to our tendency to shy away from engaging with the public…see Oppenheimer, Robert, and the Italian scientists who were convicted (and later exonerated) for failing to predict an earthquake for case studies in why.
With a bit of context out there, it’s time to explain the title of this article. Science is inherently political, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s the scientific method that is not. Anyone of any political persuasion can do sound, thorough scientific research with zero attached agenda. What links science to politics, though, is money. A huge chunk of funding for basic research comes from the government. In the 1960s and 70s, the federal government funded over 70% of all basic research in the United States. That number has been declining in recent years, and is now below 50% for the first time since World War II.
Certain scientific disciplines are almost exclusively funded by the government. In an era where the president and his administration are openly hostile to facts they don’t like or find inconvenient, any research dependent on federal funding is vulnerable. When a government ceases to prioritize an area of study, or declares overt disagreement with its findings, the pace of scientific innovation and discovery in that field will slow, and perhaps stop. Expecting the private sector to fill in the holes left by the withdrawal or withholding of federal monies is naive and dangerous. The free market is no Jonas Salk, and does not believe in moral commitment for the public good.
It is time for scientists to take our seats at the political tables across the country. 16% of college or university degrees awarded in our country go to graduates in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). If we were to see the makeup of Congress accurately reflect our nation, there would be 69.6 STEM degree-holders elected to the House of Representatives. I’ll round up to 70 on this one, since I don’t personally know any scientists who would enjoy being reduced to 6/10 of a person.
70 people in Congress with degrees in STEM fields. Let’s envision the type of evidence-based policy-making we could produce with that type of representation. The most frequently listed occupations of current Members of Congress are politics, business, and law. In 2013, a member of Congress was 68 times more likely to be a lawyer than an average American. And no, lawyers are not exceptionally well-qualified to represent their districts. Every Member of Congress has a support staff to help them write legislation. Yes, even the lawyers. With our extensive training in identifying problems, producing hypotheses, and testing them to reduce uncertainties, scientists would make exceptional lawmakers. The key is getting them on the ballot.
The midterm elections of 2018 are shaping up to be the most expensive in history, thanks to the floodgates opened by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the steady erosion of campaign finance regulations. An entire industry has grown up to push campaign spending into the stratosphere, and without campaign finance reform and publicly funded elections this industry will continue to suction up dollars. Most will come from wealthy folks accustomed to donating, but now their money is supplemented by the newer category of grassroots, small-dollar donors who have realized the sad reality of our political funding nightmare.
For scientists to crack the political nut, we must first engage in political acts at all levels of government. If you’re a scientist and you’re reading this, I implore you to attend a meeting of your local town or city council. Drop in on a local political club meeting. Join a group working on a cause near and dear to you — it doesn’t have to be scientific. Animal welfare, homelessness, education, immigration, gun reform, environmental justice — all are worthy of our attention. Pick one area where you can make an impact outside of your research. Talk to people already engaged in those areas. Find out where you can help. Open your ears and minds and learn, just like you did when you fell in love with your branch of science.
I can promise you one thing: the world will not become more inclined to listen to scientists unless we demand the microphone. Take every opportunity you can to become a better science communicator. I always tell my students that if they can’t communicate the importance of their research to a person on the street in under 30 seconds, in this day and age they might as well be selling pet rocks. How can we convince Congress, containing just one scientist (Bill Foster, D-IL), to fund our work if we can’t explain why it matters? This isn’t a call to stop researching complex topics. It’s a challenge for scientists to get better at explaining what we do.
While I’d love to say that after the 2018 midterms all of us scientists will be able to get back to our work, that’s not reality. The issues of climate change, overpopulation, food insecurity, pandemics, technology ethics, and more will demand the very best output possible from our scientific experts. Now, more than any time in the history of the United States, we need scientists to take leadership roles in our government. It is through the united efforts of science, government, and community that we were able to solve problems like the Dust Bowl and sending humans to the Moon. We owe the public, whose tax dollars fund so much of our research, the very best we can deliver. In this era, that means learning to speak the language of our country’s founders.
It means that yes, science is political.