Scientists running for political office

Effective science communication and science advocacy in the public arena has been much discussed in the science blogosphere. But is ranting on science and medical blogs the most effective way to promote science, especially in the United States?

I've had some discussions with other scientists, including blog colleague PhysioProf, who submit that the best way for scientists to advocate for science policy is to become politicians themselves. To this end, I read with great interest this morning of an AP story written last night by Seth Borenstein, "A Crash Course in True Political Science":

Daniel Suson has a doctorate in astrophysics and has worked on the superconducting super collider and a forthcoming NASA probe. Now he's heading back to school to take on an even trickier task - getting elected to public office.

He is among a growing number of scientists who feel slighted and abused in the public debate in recent years and are mobilizing for a new effort to inject "evidence-based decision making" into public policy.

On Saturday, Suson, dean of engineering, mathematics and science at Purdue University Calumet, will join more than 70 other scientists, engineers and students at a hotel at Georgetown University for a crash course on elective politics.

The article even alludes to ScienceDebate2008.

For scientists with the social and communications skills to do so, politics might be another valuable career choice that may actually have greater societal impact than a typical academic laboratory-based career.

But I would venture to say that compensation would be a major barrier to this avenue. Most states only pay their state legislators in the range of $15,000 to $20,000 (North Carolina pays $20,659), requiring that most state reps keep some other job on the side. However, making it to most other state government positions will net you over $100,000, about the average US salary for a Ph.D. full professor in an academic medical center. If you get to Congress, your salary could be $165,200 - higher than the salary for most US governors.

However, I have no idea what it's like to be a politician. We all deal with "politics" in our respective research institutions but would it be any easier or harder to do it in public office?

But, as Borenstein's article noted, about 70 scientists were willing to devote a Saturday to exploring the possibility of running for public office. When considering "alternative" applications of one's PhD training, this might be a high-impact and satisfying option.


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There are ways to serve an apprenticeship in public policy that can open one's eyes to how things work in government and politics. One way, of course, is to become a volunteer consultant to an elected official. If your local state or federal representative serves on a science or technology related legislative committee, you could watch the bills that appear on the committee's agenda and offer your rep tips on their content and impact (otherwise he or she will be dependent soley on analyses written in-house by committee consultants and from outside by lobbyists). Don't send in technical monographs! Practice your popular writing skills by laying out things as clearly as possible so that they'll be accessible to a general audience (and thus encourage your rep to crib from them in defending his or her vote on the relevant measures). You could become your rep's go-to person on science & tech issues.

You can also penetrate the media, especially if you're a recent college graduate with a degree in math or science, by getting a Mass Media Fellowship with the AAAS. It's only a summer job, but the AAAS pays your way while you work as a science reporter for a mass media outlet (newspaper, magazine, TV, or radio). Experience in science journalism can pay dividends when you get involved in politics because the inside of a newsroom is an education in how your message gets filtered (or promoted). One of my friends served her media fellowship in a New England television station and got a detailed education in what the region's politicians were really up to. (Some of her stories were hilarious, others sad. Sometimes both at the same time.)

I've done both journalism and government work, and I was startled at the degree to which one experience complemented the other. Now it seems obvious to me that it would work that way.

Awesome for those who are willing to do this. I have gratitude and respect for them. I think going into politics and having to sweet-talk for votes a bunch of scientifically illiterate fellow legislators would be too frustrating to tolerate - I admire those who can stomach the prospect.

No scientist could ever get elected to Congress. Even if a billionaire bankrolled him, the mainstream media would silence him by airing only aboveboard paid advertising while completely blacking him out from news coverage, which would make him look vain and useless.

By Bill the Cat (not verified) on 10 May 2008 #permalink

another way to break into politics is through local/municipal politics. It's been moderately successful where I live for a few people, and it's a somewhat gentler way to make it into politics without giving up the day job (most civic politicians have day jobs depending on the size of their municipality)

By CanadianChick (not verified) on 10 May 2008 #permalink

No scientist could ever get elected to Congress.

Rep. Rush Holt (NJ-12) is a physicist. That enough of a scientist for you, Bill the Cat? So is newly elected Rep. Bill Foster (IL-14), the Fermilab researcher who snagged Denny Hastert's seat.

More kitty litter includes Vern Ehlers (R-MI; Ph.D. in nuclear physics from UC Berkeley; former chair of the Physics Department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI), Nancy Boyda (D-KS; Chemistry/Education double major in college, then worked as analytical chemist and field inspector for the EPA), and Jerry McNerney (D, CA-11; Ph.D. in engineering and mathematics from the Univ of New Mexico). (courtesy of cos at BlueMass).

It's still a pretty bad representation of scientists but it can be done. Thanks Zeno for all of your input; I hear that those AAAS fellowships are invaluable for getting experience and making contacts.

Another way to get involved is to get a Congressional Science Fellowship. These allow you to work as a staff member for a member of congress. I know my professional organization, the Institute of Food Technologists, used to sponsor one of these each year. I cannot find any information about it on IFT's website at the moment.

Colleagues who have done this say that it was very interesting and helpful.

Oy, CanadianChick beat me. Local office is a great place to start.

Possibly the most positive contribution most any scientist could make to their immediate community, is to take part in school board advisory committees. Even better, use it as a starting point for getting onto the school board. The great thing about the advisory committee, is that it doesn't take up all that much time. I'm getting back into school (I'm a HS dropout) and studying education, among a couple other things. And I do have the idea that getting involved in the schools might not be a bad idea.

Ultimately, the place where one can get into a position with the most ability to actually affect change is at the local level. It's pretty easy in most places to get onto the city council or other local elected positions. It's easy to find positions with minimal responsibility to give you an idea whether or not politics is going to work for you. It will also give you an idea about how you would be received and whether you can even get elected.

That BlueMass site is a bit strange. They overlooked Rep. John Olver (D, MA!), former chemistry professor at UMass, Amherst. I am unhappy that the scientists in Congress cannot educate their colleagues. For example, there's a representative who is pushing for the "hydrogen economy" quite oblivious that we don't have hydrogen as fuel.* Olver certainly knows that.

*("fuels" are natural products that can be harvested, hydrogen (gas) is not found in nature. It takes more energy to produce hydrogen than can be released when it is consumed (even in the best fuel cell). In some situations, hydrogen can be profitably used as an energy storage material, like a re-chargeable battery.)

Joe, I took another look at the BlueMass post and found this at the bottom:

bobvm points out that John Olver (MA-01) is another. He has a Ph.D. in chemistry from MIT and was a professor of chemistry at several universities, including MIT and UMass. How'd I miss him?!

Abel, That's interesting, I missed it.

Although I support the notion of sending more scientists to Congress, I wonder about their efficacy against the entrenched, granola and/or every-man-for-himself cluelescenti. They (the clueless) have given us the money-wasting NCCAM and manned space flight programs. Imagine what you could do with 0.0001% of the manned-flight, or 0.1% of the NCCAM, budget ...

We do need more scientists in Congress. Unfortunately it is a congress of ideas rather than facts.

I think it is naive to think that just because one wishes political power that somehow scientific knowledge will make them better, even if it's obvious that having less will definitely make one worse in leadership.
Science is all about widening the options,which is why research tends to result in more questions even if sucessfull in answering the initial question. Politics on the other hand is all about limiting choices to adhere to an ideology/agenda which supposedly will deliver the goods and guide us towards betterment, however that is defined at that time while acknowledging that the definition will change as our conditions and knowledge/perpsective change.
In the mean time, a good pubic forum/debate involving the candidates and party platforms on issues of technology and science in conjunction with enhanced public education on issues in an open and transparent environment would be a real boon to the process of sound decision making, but it might not leave enough time for us to become totally absorbed in March Madness standings, celebrity infidelity or Congresses latest investigation into the ethics of everyone but themselves, so I don't give it much hope.

Just to throw his name into the mix, and cuz he's a super nice and smart guy, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) is a PhD psychologist who has published research. It's not all hard science repping legislative scientists! :)