Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why don't more scientists enter politics?

This is a question posed by Shaun over at The Trenches of Discovery, in a piece I would urge you to read. He argues that scientists are not shy of expressing opinions on matters of political interest, and scientists are well-qualified (some would say better qualified than most) to offer opinions on, and to frame, policies on matters of great importance to society. So why are they under-represented in politics?

I found this a bit of a thought-provoking question. As readers will have noticed, this particular science blog is not backward in expressing political opinions, so some sort of considered response appears to be in order. If you click through to Shaun's post you can see some of my immediate reactions in the comments; however, while I am happy to shoot from the hip over at his blog, I will try to express myself more coherently and thoughtfully on my own.

The first point I would make is that the premise that scientists are under-represented in politics only holds true for certain definitions of what constitutes 'politics'. At the end of his post Shaun exhorts scientists with political opinions to join a political party that best represents those opinions, attend meetings of local branches of this party and to make a difference to arguments about policy. This sounds like grassroots political involvement in a local community, in an attempt to address the issues affecting that constituency, to run certain organisations for the benefit of the community. And I agree that that is precisely the essence of 'politics': to persuade the members of a community to place you in a position to administrate communal or collective institutions for the overall benefit of that community.

Now, the community you represent may be your local village co-operative or church, your neighbourhood in the city council, or people concerned about, say, the environment in your local political party. But as a scientist (or indeed as someone in any other academic field), your community could also be your college or university, or your department within the university, or the student body at the departmental board. The issues you are concerned about and the institutions you work to improve may be the collection of household rubbish, the maintenance of roads and the care of the elderly, but they could also be the operation of the college library, the quality of food in the staff canteen, or the allocation of research grants in your country. I think deciding policy for a national research council, or working on the board of a multi-national radio telescope project, or becoming dean of your university, fits just as well with this broader definition of 'politics' as does being elected to a local government office. And I don't think anyone would argue that scientists are under-represented in these roles.

On a larger national scale, scientists are clearly also actively involved behind the scenes in advocating and affecting policy. This may be through working as advisors to governments, or through roles in particular think-tanks or committees, or merely through making intelligent contributions to the sum of the national debate on relevant topics. This is generally the way that not just scientists but experts from all fields (including economists and social scientists) contribute to policy. I don't think scientists are under-represented in these roles — at least once one takes into account the fact that issues of public policy importance are usually more concerned with economics, crime, medical care and so on than issues of science in particular.

What may well be true though is that scientists are under-represented in national parliaments, ministerial positions, as prime ministers or presidents of countries. Shaun points out that only one member of the British House of Commons is (or was) a scientist, but very many have been lawyers or journalists, or have worked in PR. By this definition of 'being involved in politics,' I concede that scientists are rather thin on the ground.

However, I'm not sure this is particularly surprising. Given that the primary role of legislatures is to draft laws, one might argue that in fact rather more trained lawyers were required in the British parliament, and might have avoided some of the ambiguously or poorly framed laws they have passed recently. More generally, to be elected to some national-level public office requires a certain set of skills and certain experience, to be a scientist requires different skills and different experience. In democratic electoral systems the primary determinant of the success of an elected politician is really not their ability to frame and implement coherent and considered evidence-based policies for the long-term benefit of society, but the ability to manipulate public debate to defend whatever policies they are identified with and attack the policies their opponents are identified with. You could call this propaganda, economy with the truth, or simply lies. Whatever you call it though, it is clear that a prior career in PR, advertising, or journalism is far better at preparing someone to anticipate, react to, and shape public opinion than a career in science.

(This is not to argue that the skills possessed by scientists would not be useful for people in decision-making posts to possess, just that they would not be very useful in getting them elected to those posts in the first place.)

Beyond that, in most democratic systems, loyalty to a unified party line is important to further one's career prospects as a politician. So is building coalitions and winning support from other, competing politicians. This involves compromises with the idea of fact-based judgement of policy, as demonstrated every time a British Liberal Democrat MP grits their teeth and reaffirms their belief that austerity is helping rather than hurting the economy. Of course scientists may not be unique in their distaste for such behaviour, but their career training in the use of statistical analysis of data and the construction of arguments based on actual evidence should make it more difficult for them to deceive themselves. Certainly any scientist worth the name, if active in a political party, should take a vocal stand against the abuse or misrepresentation of data, even if deployed in the interests of their party. To do so will, however, almost certainly be detrimental to their political prospects.

In fact I'm not even sure whether it is desirable for us to have more scientists in politics, if by 'in politics' I restrict myself to meaning 'elected to parliament'. Surely the value of scientific contributions to policy debates comes from their expert knowledge coupled with a sort of guarantee of independence of thought and standards of evidence? Of what use is the opinion of a scientist who is tainted by their involvement in the puerile, partisan, mud-slinging environment of everyday party politics?

So in the end, I will disagree with Shaun: if you are a scientist who is interested in political issues and wishes to make a meaningful contribution to policy debates, you should perhaps consider whether there are better ways of doing it than by joining a political party. Recognise the skills that your scientific training has given you, and make the best use of them. It might be a waste of those skills to attempt to follow a career where they are either not required or actively unhelpful.


  1. I'm glad you wrote this. Thanks for linking to my post as well. I found the arguments in this post quite convincing.

    I'm still left with one lingering concern. Scientists/experts can advise as much as they want and rise up the ranks in non-governmental institutes that are prominent in the community as much as they want, but, ultimately, the decision based on that advice is made by a politician and the budget for the prominent institute is set by a politician. That last step of the decision making chain is ceded to someone else.

    I don't mean to claim that scientists should be becoming ministers of justice, or joining their country's political parties to direct the party's policy on economics (at least no more so than any other individual, politically engaged, citizen); however, when it comes to science related policy (and education related policy) I think a scientist would be very competent and would make wiser decisions. You agree with this in your post - you simply state that getting elected/remaining a prominent member of a party when it does distasteful things is the complicated part. I suppose I think that we should fight through the distastefulness and take the dirt that will be thrown at us. I would also concede that the British system makes such an eventuality much more difficult. The First Past the Post, winner takes all, electoral system makes things incredibly partisan, which makes the idea of supporting your opponent's good ideas near-impossible. NZ changed from this system in the 90's and the partisanship has significantly dropped, though certainly not completely.

    I am a citizen of both countries, but only a member of a political party in NZ. So I definitely concede that the electoral system can make this much easier or much harder.

    However, as I wrote in my original post, I intend to address this in a more reasoned manner in the future (that original post was written under extenuating circumstances that made it necessarily rushed), so my comments here should also be seen as mere shooting from the hip.

    Thanks again for furthering the discussion.

  2. If a scientist chooses to become a career politician, he is no longer a scientist. A former scientist, perhaps. Examples: Angela Merkel (physicist, married to a chemist) and Oscar Lafontaine. If a scientist chooses to become an MP for one or two legislative periods, then it is probably impossible to do a good job as a politician and keep up enough so that he can return to his science job later.

  3. Shaun: I look forward to reading more of your views! Phillip: I agree such a person would probably no longer be a practising academic scientist. But they could come from and go back to other science-related professions. Also I think Shaun's original point was more to do with the background from which people in politics came and what skills they had acquired in getting there, rather than the narrower question of their immediate job description.

  4. I think there are two reasons there are so few scientists in politics: 1) many scientists despise the way politics works with airheads telling BS on live television and still winning elections, 2) to be a successful politician one has to be good-looking/well-dressed and groomed, extremely confident, smooth talker, outspoken, etc...

    I just got my Bsc in physics (and am going for a master's) and I noticed that many of my fellow students are not simply not confident enough to become politicians, are only outspoken when the topic is science (they'll talk politics occasionally, but only with other science students), they're also not smooth talkers. I think lawyers and businesspeople are more likely to be the snakeoil-salesman type.

    Anyway, I do plan on taking a shot at politics after I get my master's, I've always had an interest in history and foreign affairs equal to my passion for science and have spent the last year or so learning all I can about economics and finance (the math I learned and the systems i studied at uni help a lot), hopefully this will help me one day win an election against a lawyer who may be a smoother talker than I am but who I can destroy on the facts and figures front. Really, it's all about confidence, because that's all those lawyers and businessmen have.

    1. John: good luck, both with the Master's and the political ambitions. Just bear in mind that it isn't only about confidence. Pay scrupulous attention to the facts and keep an open mind in interpreting them in order to maintain the difference between yourself and the smooth-talkers.

  5. "Certainly any scientist worth the name, if active in a political party, should take a vocal stand against the abuse or misrepresentation of data, even if deployed in the interests of their party. To do so will, however, almost certainly be detrimental to their political prospects."

    There's a way around this: join a small (opposition) party, use your skills for attacks on politicians in another party when they misrepresent data, tell lies, etc..., and make a name for yourself by writing budget proposals (which will be acclaimed by some independent institute) and then climb to the top in your party (which shouldn't take too long in a small party), then the party follows your direction (especially if you recruit more scientists into it). Of course it depends on your system, in the UK you could maybe do this with the Lib Dems, in the US it would be impossible, but in many European continental systems it shouldn't be that hard.

    Of course you can also go the nasty route: become popular by explaining to the people in detail the ways other politicians are lying (on blogs, youtube videos, interviews, etc...), tell some anecdote about a political rival who couldn't even solve some simple math problem that's at the heart of some economic issue.