Scientists in politics: What is the score, and what can be done?

Given the ever-growing importance of science and technology in modern life, particularly in first world nations, why don’t we see more scientists in leading governmental positions?

This dearth is particularly stark in the U.S. Among the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, only three have bonafide scientific credentials (one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist). An additional 24 or so have medical training, but this is still a small fraction of the total. Instead, top legislative and executive positions are dominated by the legal and business professions [NYT Op-Ed].

In a recent study of the composition of the Australian Parliament during the years 1991-2007, scientists did not even merit a separate category; possibly a handful were included in the 2% of members that had positions in “education” and the 4% listed as “Medical/Technical.”

In a similar analysis of the 41st Canadian Parliament, only 10 of the 310 members were counted in a broad category that lumped natural scientists with such occupations as land surveyors, foresters and urban planners. As in the U.S., the Canadian Parliament is dominated by the legal and business professions. Likewise a recent report (Who governs Britain?) records  the top five prior occupations in Westminster as Politics (24%), Business (19%) , Finance (15%), Law (14%),  and Public Affairs (11%) with 6% listed as ‘Lecturers’.  And — for better or worse — 24% of MPs still hold Oxbridge degrees.

The situation is somewhat better in Western Europe, with the notable presence of German Chancellor Angel Merkel, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry. If we reach back two or three decades, Margaret Thatcher had an honours B.S. degree in chemistry (with Nobel chemist Dorothy Hodgkin). The Euro’s current woes have led to some educational improvements. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has been replaced by Mario Monti, known as Il Professore and a former doctoral student of Nobel Economist James Tobin.  His counterpart in Greece, Lucas Papademos, has three MIT degrees (physics, a masters in electrical engineering in 1972, and a doctorate in economics in 1978). To be fair, the Papandreou dynasty (three generations of progressive Greek Prime ministers) also had some academic chops.

The best showing is in Asia. In China, eight out of nine top governmental officials have scientific backgrounds. In Singapore, Tony Tan, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics and is viewed as a world class researcher, recently was elected President, serving with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who also has a degree in mathematics [NYT Op-Ed].

But such instances are the exception rather than the rule — for the most part, the public does not look to scientists for top governmental offices. Reasons are not hard to find:

  1. Scientists are often seen as opposing prevailing religious beliefs, as in the evolution-creationism conflict.
  2. Scientists are often seen as raising inconvenient concerns, as in global warming and other environmental issues.
  3. The public is not trained to distinguish good scientific arguments from bad, or well-established results from those that are still relatively tentative.
  4. The public resents providing funding for an elite cadre of research scientists, particularly when they do not see any immediate benefit.
  5. Conversely, the political world, with its glad-handing, compromises and fudges, is not attractive to most working scientists. Most of us were not born to run.

Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller recently summarized the situation in the U.S.: “Significant numbers of Americans have come to regard the scientific enterprise as a special interest group that rejects mainstream American values and is not worthy of the public trust” [Miller Op-Ed]. Or put in another way, anti-intellectualism and “know nothingism” are pervasive in the U.S.

The situation is analogous, although somewhat more muted, in the Great White North of Canada. One of the present bloggers was a delegate at a NDP national leadership convention in 1989.  Five of the seven candidates (all unsuccessful) had PhDs, and four had held NSERC (similar to ARC) research grants, yet not one advertised that they had a PhD.

The current Conservative government in Ottawa made its views clear when it abolished the post of Chief Scientist less than a decade after its inauguration.

What’s more, the Canadian Press Handbook restricts the doctoral honorific to the medical profession, while Newt Gingrich is among notable PhDs in US public life who never use the title.  Contrast this with Germany, where  Gustav Heinemann, known affectionally as Herr Docktor Doktor President because of his two legal doctorates, served as President from 1967 to 1974.

In Eastern Europe, which once featured superior scientific education, integration with the West has led to a depressing race to the bottom, as students prefer law and business fields to mathematics or science. Most who do complete technical degrees either emigrate to the West or dream of IPOs rather than research breakthroughs.

Clearly the general level of scientific education is an essential part of this issue everywhere. In spite of concerted efforts to improve education in the U.S., Europe and Australia, test scores languish in neutral compared with the aggressive Asian tigers [PIIGS, BRICS and STRAW]. In Australia, a recent forum at the Australian National University, entitled Maths for the future: Keep Australia competitive, focused on the parlous level of mathematics education in the nation and how to improve it.

Politicians exploit this pervasive ignorance of mathematics and science with aplomb. In the U.S., several Republican Presidential candidates have described global warming as a hoax conjured up by conspiratorial scientists. Rick Santorum declared, “We have learned to be skeptical of ‘scientific’ claims, particularly those at war with our common sense,” and Rick Perry stated flatly, “It’s all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight” [SFC report; Global warming denial].

In Australia, the Melbourne-based Institute for Public Affairs, which rejects evidence for anthropogenic climate change, opposes legislative action to control greenhouse gases. Typical of other similar groups, the IPA believes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is bent on fomenting a nonexistent global warming crisis as part of a conspiracy to install a left-wing totalitarian world order [Conversation article].

In a similar way, many U.S. politicians have dismissed the near-universal scientific consensus on biological evolution. In 2001 Rick Santorum introduced an amendment to the No Child Left Behind bill (a measure to reform K-12 education in the U.S.) that would emphasize to students that evolution “generates so much continuing controversy” in the scientific world [US Congressional Record]. In 2011, Rick Perry described evolution as “a theory that’s out there” that has “got some gaps in it” [Huff Post article] (thereby taking advantage of the public’s widespread misparsing of the word “theory” as “vague untested hypothesis”). In contrast, Jon Huntsman, who started out his campaign for U.S. President by acknowledging evolution and global warming, was unsuccessful in attracting a political following and withdrew shortly after the New Hampshire primary.

It should be emphasized that skepticism of evolution is hardly an exclusively American problem. In a recent survey, nearly 25% of Australians affirmed a literal biblical account of human origins over the scientific account [TheAge article]. What’s more, Answers in Genesis, a leading international creationist organization, was founded by Australian-born Ken Ham.

So what can be done? Partly, as mentioned above, governments worldwide need to redouble their efforts to improve scientific education, not just to provide workers for a high-tech world, but also to facilitate more intelligent discourse of political matters that touch on science. In the U.S., numerous educational reform measures have been undertaken, but results have been mixed, and the future looks bleak due to budget shortfalls. In California, university students are struggling to pay tuition increases of 18% this year, with additional increases slated for the next few years [SF Chronicle article]. Along this line, in spite of efforts in the U.S. to increase participation by women in scientific fields, numbers remain disappointing, mainly because few women become interested in these fields while in high school [SciAm article].

In Australia, the Gonski review has released its assessment of Australian mathematics and science education. According to 2011 Nobel Prize winning astronomer Brian Schmidt,

The primary thing we require are competent teachers across the board. And so the inequality comes to those people who for whatever reason end up with a teacher teaching a science or math who are not qualified to teach in science and math, whether it be at secondary or primary level. … [In New South Wales,] a fifth of their [mathematics] students are not actually being taught by qualified people and that is presumably similar in other places.

In both Australia and the U.S., the level of political discourse has descended to new lows. In Australia, partisan sniping may lead to the replacement of the Prime Minister [ABC article]. In the U.S., the Republican Presidential campaign has upended pragmatism and experience, and the flood of money unleashed in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision on political contributions  (‘Super PACS’) is certain to lower the campaign I.Q. even further in the months ahead [LA Times article].

And there is no doubt that we scientists need to do more. As mathematician John Allen Paulos of Temple University in Pennsylvania explained in a February 2012 Op-Ed in the New York Times [NYT Op-Ed]:

Of course, the other side of the “two cultures” chasm should bear some of the onus for this lack of communication between politicians and scientists. Too few scientists are willing to engage in public debates, to explain the relevance of their fields clearly and without jargon, and, in the process, to risk some jeering from a few colleagues.

[A version of this article appeared in The Conversation.]

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