John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, wrote in the New York Times yesterday that we should elect more scientists to public office.
He notes that China's President Hu Jintao has a background in hydraulic engineering, German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a doctorate in physical chemistry and Singapore President Tony Tan has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics.
Why does this matter? Paulos argues:
One needn't endorse the politics of these people or countries to feel that given the complexities of an ever more technologically sophisticated world, the United States could benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government. This is obviously no panacea -- Herbert Hoover was an engineer, after all -- but more people with scientific backgrounds would be a welcome counterweight to the vast majority of legislators and other officials in this country who are lawyers.
Back in 2008, Curtis Gilbert and looked at this issue in an episode of our Electionwise podcast (listen here). We spoke with Chad Kraus who had done a study on how many physicians had served in Congress from 1960 to 2004. He found that only 25 physicians had served during that time period. Lawyers made up 45 percent of Congresspeople, about 15 percent were business people, 10 percent were career public servants, followed by people involved in education. There weren't enough scientists to even bother mentioning in our conversation.
Since the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development touts our state as "the perfect environment for bioscience" with statistics like "Minnesota ranks third in bioscience-related patents per one million residents and fourth in bioscience occupational employment" -- I wanted to see if we have more scientists serving in our Legislature.
Our 2011-2012 Legislators don't look that different than U.S. Congresspeople. Legislators with business/finance backgrounds are by far the largest group, followed by educators, attorneys and those who have backgrounds in public service.
Nine members of the 112th Congress are scientists and engineers, so proportionately, Minnesota has an edge on them. Out of 201 members, we have seven scientists and engineers.
The scientific seven:
Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) works as a network engineer
Rep. Thomas Huntley (DFL-Duluth) has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is a retired professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth
Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis) has Ph.D. in biophysics from Yale University
Rep. Kate Knuth (DFL-New Brighton) is a conservation biologist with a Masters of Science from Oxford University
Sen. Doug Magnus (R-Slayton) holds a bachelor's degree in animal science from South Dakota State University
John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) studied biology at Bemidji State University and worked as a water quality specialist.
Duane Quam (R-Byron) has a Masters in Physics from University of Texas Dallas and worked as an engineer
Do we need more scientists and engineers in the Minnesota legislature? Who would you nominate?
Looks like you forgot the ‘as’ in the sentence about Rep. Garofalo.
I feel like politicians running against some of these people (especially Republicans) might try to brand them as "elitist". A Ph.D. from Oxford? How are THEY going to connect with the "common person."
I would like to see though the breakdown of things like Military experience and former Boy Scouts. I feel like I can trust scientists, military people, and those who did a lot of community service a lot more than I can of the usual politicians who have empty promises.
Perhaps the question should be one level deeper in the research, how often do scientists and engineers run for office and not get elected.
Lawyers run all the time and do get elected, which is to be expected as the people who's daily lives involve the law, they end up being the ones to write them as a choice of career moves.
But, scientists and engineers probably don't interface with the law as often, they are probably less likely to run for public office, and thus less likely to get elected.
Perhaps we should have more people in general running for office... lets start by not making politics look like such a reprehensible career choice in the first place, which I guess means not electing people who are repulsive liars/scum or what ever your preferred term for them is, and remove them from office if it's clear they are becoming or have become scum bags.
Garofalo may be employed as an engineer, but he got his BS in Law Enforcement at Mankato.
Kahn and Knuth seem to think things through before taking a stance. Garofalo, not so much.
It's a fine question and I would say yes. Please, for crying out loud, let's elect smart people who can make sense of complex information.
That said, I've been watching "Battlestar Galactica" lately and all I can think of is Dr. Gaius Baltar... the colonies' elected vice president and one of the most untrustworthy and unlikable characters in recent television!
As an engineer, it hurts my head to see old white dudes constantly misunderstand issues relating to science and technology. Personally, I am much more convinced/attentive in a debate about an issue related to technology( gobal warming, reproductive healthcare, SOPA, etc.) if the people involved have formal education in the sciences.
I also think Jon has a great point, maybe scientist/engineers run at a higher rate but because they are not versed in the mucky-muck of politics they fail to get elected.
Scientists tend to be introverted and practical. This is not a very good combination for creating the public image and fund raising systems required to run a competitive campaign today.
"Scientists tend to be introverted and practical." Not my chemist daughter. She's a little timid but not introverted. Practical? Nope, her head is in the clouds. Also not good for creating the public image and fund raising systems required to run a competitive campaign today. But she thinks deeply and deliberately about public policy.
I work as an engineer and follow the Legislature and Congress closely. As somebody who is quieter by nature, it's hard to break above the din of "those who scream loudest win". Looking at what passes for political discourse today, it's hard for me to imagine most scientists or engineers, who generally take an analytical approach to anything, being interested in running for office. I'm not quick on my feet, I can't snap off a fast reply, and I'm willing to hear an argument and try and flesh out a reasoned response to it. While all these things are good for an office holder, they really aren't great traits on a campaign trail, especially once you get above State Legislature.
It also doesn't help when I hear education, science, and the scientific method constantly panned by politicians. Yes I've gone to school and earned a degree and I have to keep studying to make sure I stay on top of my field, this is no different than doctors or lawyers. Does this make me elite or better than others? I don't think so - but that's the way scientists are portrayed.
To get more people with a science background to run for public office, we need them to be treated with respect by people currently there. The scientific community also needs to make sure that we are explaining ourselves clearly so people understand what we are trying to say and why we think that. If both groups are willing to work at this it will greatly improve our legislation, regulations, and work within the scientific community.
@Greg, the problem with Gaius is that he was motivated by self preservation as his number one goal AND he had a serious undiagnosed mental illness.
@chris - Of course! His problems had nothing to do with his profession -- though I'm early in the series and unsure if he ever proves to have any actual scientific skill.
Can't help it he is the first person that pops into my head when I hear this question.
@greg, well I don't want to spoil it for you, but they use him as a "smart person" who can do anything the script requires, from computers to navigation to biology.
@cara, your daughter may be an extrovert but it is true that engineers and scientists tend towards the introvert end of the scale. They like to solve practical problems or scientific mysteries that are well-constrained, unlike the messy problems that people present. I work in the computer field where many of the practitioners are borderline Aspergers cases. It's clear to me that people who prefer people-oriented jobs will stand a better chance of attaining and enjoying political office.
That said, these are merely generalizations and I agree with the point of the story that we need more diversity in the legislative bodies. The crafting of laws does not require elected lawyers - just knowledgeable staff. The elected representatives need political "people" skills, not a law degree.
I should add that there is a well-known correlation between libertarianism and the technical professions. Engineers and programmers LOVE systems defined by a small, universally applicable, set of rules. Physics, chemistry, programming - these are things that follow rules. Libertarian philosphy and Objectivism thrive on the broad application of a few principles.
This should provide some context. See 3:35 in the video, http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-january-18-2012/ko-computer