Members of Congress overwhelmingly come from public service/politics, business, and law while the number of scientists and engineers serving in Congress has historically hovered around the 2% mark.
As we look to the 2020 election cycle in a climate of political and environmental uncertainty, this Earth Day I am reminded that our country needs more scientists and engineers in Washington.
We are being confronted with massive technological issues such as healthcare, cybersecurity, environmental resilience, and food security as well as executive and legislative impetus for highly complex technology such as quantum computing. At the same time, there is a grand total of 2 scientists and 11 engineers among the 535 members of the 116th Congress, accounting for a little over 2.4% of the legislature. Comparatively, there are 1.6 million engineers in the United States.
This lack of technical representation in our nation’s largest governing body might come as a concern when we consider that the United States spends over $155 billion dollars in research and development annually. This spending gets allocated to programs which include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Institute of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and produces the nation’s cutting edge in planetary, medical, and engineering research.
This begs the question: why do so many political leaders – people who vote on appropriations for large scientific research programs, pass laws that affect how we perform and use science, and even determine how we can or cannot communicate science – lack a basic technical education?
The number of congress women and men who hold an engineering or scientific degree has historically always hovered around the 2% mark. We cannot blame our current political climate on our lack of scientific representation in Congress, but instead must look at the intrinsic values of both the general population and the scientific community.
A study released by Research America in 2017 shows that over 82% of surveyed Americans believe scientists to be “trustworthy” and over 40% say that scientists should play a major role in shaping policy decisions made on energy, environment, food safety, and medical research.
Then how can a country with both financial and social impetus for science elect so little of the technically savvy into politics? I argue that the problem is neither Washington nor the public, but the values harbored by our own scientific community. We tend to lack willingness to take political action even on behalf of science.
The virtues of science as popularized by prominent 20th century philosophers such as Rudolf Carnap, Karl Popper, and Hans Reichenbach are also the virtues that makes science vulnerable to our inaction. Our faithfulness to facts, absence of personal bias, and independence from social or ethical values allows us to achieve objectivity, but at the same time makes science an almost political “untouchable.” The perception is that scientists using rhetoric to defend science would jeopardize the objectivity of science. Tinting science with politics by having scientists become politicians could create a collapse of the entire scientific ecosystem.
Unless we admit that just like anything else science is a culturally-determined value. Just like the values of liberty, free market enterprise, and free speech, science is a value which requires argument to preserve it. And while many of our experiments as scientists and engineers happen in a vacuum, translating science into action does not.
To achieve a culture of evidence-based decision making, scientists (and the communities they are a part of) should be willing to step up and speak out for science. This might include using a sabbatical year to run for local office or conducting a policy fellowship, or even something as simple as writing an op-ed on a proposed environmental regulation. It also means teaching the next generation of scientists and engineers that their voices are relevant and highly sought-after in the policymaking arena.
We’ve already seen some scientists recently exchanging their lab coats in favor of megaphones. Jess Phoenix is a volcanologist and geologist who ran in 2018 for the seat to California’s 25th congressional district. And while Phoenix lost the primary election in June 2018, her campaign platform based on climate science action and bringing technical credibility to the House has garnered national attention. She was one out of three candidates supported this year by 314 Action, a non-profit organization which recruits candidates with scientific backgrounds and helps them launch campaigns for public office.
The public’s admiration for science and the authority science enjoys stem largely from the view that science is objective. But we must not forget that objectivity is a culturally-created value and deserves our advocacy and our action.
Fellowship opportunities for engineers and scientists interested in policy: