Beakers Versus Ballots: The Lack of Science Savvy Politicians

I’m not a scientist.” Such was the key 2014 Republican talking point on climate change for both potential candidates and GOP party leaders, including Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In order to shield themselves from the label of “climate denier,” many elected officials opted to plead ignorance on the issue entirely; Despite proclaiming science is not their trained occupation, these representatives make decisions on science policy every year. If one must be a scientist to evaluate the credibility of human-cause climate change or determine what amount of appropriations NASA requires that year, then the United States Congress is in trouble, as are the natural and physical sciences. Further, if current politicians are skeptical about the claims scientific research makes, why aren’t more scientists stepping into the political arena? A combination of inaccessibility to the sciences as well as a sheer lack of funds makes a coalition of scientist politicians few and far between.

Scientists and science enthusiasts alike believe they have reason to be increasingly alarmed for the future of national science policy. The 114th session of Congress is set to feature some interesting committee chairpersons in crucial leadership positions due to the newly cemented Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. Senator Ted Cruz was appointed chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, known for overseeing NASA. Senator Marco Rubio will be steering the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Cruz has attempted to severely cut funding to NASA recently; both Cruz and Rubio have voiced skepticism about climate change. Cruz’s filibuster against the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, was one of the causes for the government shutdown in the fall of 2013; consequently, research came to screeching halt. National Institutes of Health clinical trials were suspended, while biology students at the College of Charleston were unable to access their project materials in a federal lab, causing them to tack on an additional semester of study. Time is of the essence in pursuing scientific endeavors, and two weeks was a significant loss in progress.

Elected officials with “anti-science” opinions are not new to Congress; However, the overwhelming chorus of legislators stating their lack of science credentials as reason to remain silent on issues like climate change is startling. It also leads us to question: if so many of these senators and congressmen are “not scientists,” where are the real scientists in office? Unsurprisingly, the majority of senators in the 113th Congress practiced law; in the House, business was the most commonly listed profession. Just nine congressional representatives are professional scientists – two physicists, six engineers, and one microbiologist. Nineteen are physicians practicing a variety of specialties. Senator Bill Nelson, Rubio’s Democratic counterpart in Florida, is a retired astronaut.

Some of the more perplexing cases are politicians who have some type of science background yet refuse to support scientific endeavors within Congress. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal majored in biology and public policy at Brown University and graduated with honors in both fields. Yet he too remains silent on issues like climate change, while his state continues to face the devastating effects of mounting carbon emissions. Former congressman Michael Grimm of New York was long labeled a climate denier, but recently acknowledged the existence of global warming; nonetheless, he took little action to voice this newfound knowledge or to act on climate legislation. Several Republicans, such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who used to accept climate change as a growing threat have since backpedaled, possibly due to presidential aspirations. Appearing reluctant to acknowledge global warming seems counterintuitive to a recent poll stating that many Republican constituents support taking action to combat climate change. Some GOP members will go so far as to acknowledge the existence of climate change but not say it is man-made. There are a few Republicans that have taken more active science stances, such as former Governor Jon Huntsman; in his bid for the 2012 GOP candidacy, he stated, “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

While it is easy to say science representation is only a Republican issue, the Democratic Party does no better to attract occupational scientists to politics, nor is it leaps and bounds ahead of the GOP in regards to viewpoints on science. Thirty-four percent of Democrats believe in creationism (“God created humans in [their] present form within the last 10,000 years”), compared to 52 percent of Republicans in a 2010 Gallup poll. Science representation is abysmal in red and blue states alike.

Scientists have expressed outrage over attacks on their credibility as well as their funding programs, especially from legislators who proclaim their scientific knowledge is meager at best. Yet, participation in politics by scientists remains low. The number of congressional representatives with doctorates in physical and natural sciences reached an all-time high in 2009, with six. Scientists who may hold a keen interest in running for public office face challenges. According to Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society, “Trained scientists often aren’t wealthy or have access to the donor circles necessary to mount a congressional bid.” The salary of academics is meager in comparison to their other professional counterparts. Without the presence of political action groups or organizations willing to invest in scientist candidates for office, the potential to grow the trained scientist coalition in Congress is weak.

John Allen Paulos discussed the general American revulsion to science in politics, noting “an abstract, scientific approach to problems and issues often leads to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs and scientists are sometimes tone-deaf to the social environment in which they state their conclusions.” Despite the rigor of the scientific method designed to produce credible information on subjects ranging from climate change to the safety of vaccinations, the public remains resistant to these findings. Misinformation about science issues is almost as common as overall disinterest. Yet, communication seems to be critical and, often, the most botched action by scientists discussing relevant policies. Scientists fail to understand the social context of their findings. The framing of science issues to the public is just as important as the content of the research they have conducted. For scientists attempting to sway science policies, it is simultaneously an issue of what you say, as well as how you say it.

For example, one method proven to alter public perception and acceptance of scientific issues is the formation of a consensus. Indeed, a unified scientific community may favorably influence public opinion. A 2012 study called “The Pivotal Role of Perceived Scientific Consensus in Acceptance of Science” found that participants who were told 97 percent of scientists believed research that cited the existence of human-perpetuated climate change were more likely to accept the veracity of the findings than those who were not. And while an almost unanimous consensus of scientists (97 percent) agrees on global warming, this consensus isn’t successfully conveyed to the public, who believes only a meager 55 percent of scientists agree on global warming. Scientists need to find avenues of communication with the public so as to prevent misconceptions like this one.

There are several scientists that have become popular public figures due to their innate ability to discuss science without the stereotypical heavy reliance on jargon – astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has gained a following by both professional scientists and science appreciators, often appearing on late night talk shows as well as starring in the rebooted series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Nevertheless, not many professional scientists or scientists in training are naturally deft in layman’s communication about the Higgs Boson or Schrodinger’s cat. The ability to relate scientific findings to everyday life is essential too—a chemist can explain what a super-hydrophobic surface is, but it is irrelevant if they cannot describe why it is important beyond the laboratory. As budding scientists become more specialized in their chosen subjects, it would benefit the entire field if their mentors encouraged civic engagement on science issues as well as practicing effective communication. Instead of only explaining what one does in their field of study, they must also be able to tell the inquiring public why it is important.

The rise of the scientist-politician appears stalled at best, but the urgency for a stronger pro-science presence is growing. Science and the policies that affect it will only become increasingly politicized with time; rather than attempt to change the minds of each “not scientist” legislator, perhaps the science lobby must rally behind pillars in their community to make the unmade case for their field.