Conventional wisdom says scientists should stay out of politics. Unfortunately, politics can’t seem to stay out of science. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need more scientists to run for—and win—elected office. Thankfully, more and more scientists seem to be stepping up to the plate.
On evolution, the Texas school board is slated to go yet another round on whether or not biology teachers should be forced to undermine students’ understanding of evolution.
Rep. Marcia Blackburn (R-Tenn.) has peppered fetal tissue researchers with subpoenas as part of an investigation targeting Planned Parenthood, causing at least one scientist to have to halt his work for a year.
In Arizona, former state senator and now-Congressman Andrew Biggs (R) leaned on Arizona State University to deny a psychologist tenure. He didn’t like how medical marijuana advocates were citing her research on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who self-medicate with cannabis.
And then there’s President Donald Trump, who not only calls climate change a hoax, but who has also spread discredited fears about life-saving vaccines. Medical researchers were rightfully worried when he met with noted anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who suggested the administration would amplify his views.
Clearly, we’d benefit from having more scientists in office.
We actually don’t know how many there are out there among the roughly 500,000 elected positions nationwide. But in Congress, at least, Bill Foster (D-Ill.), a physicist by training, is the only PhD researcher.
We’re “entering into a new period where getting the facts wrong is no longer disqualifying,” he told Ars, “and we need more scientists to speak up. Any scientist knows that if you say something you know to be false, it will end your career. And that used to be the case in politics.”
An erosion of trust
Scientists have made great strides in communications work in the past few years. But given our current predicament, many are looking at engaging in politics explicitly, from protest, to joining political parties, to pounding the pavement for candidates, and, ultimately, running for office themselves.
This isn’t something scientists are used to thinking about. But the Cold War, trust-the-experts consensus in Washington—and in the rest of the nation—has eroded. Big corporations and extreme ideologues have popularized alternative expertise and “alternative facts” to push their agendas. While this has been a problem for a long time, professional reporters and editors who put a credibility filter on the news are still important but have lost influence to hardliner sites like Breitbart and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, who has more YouTube subscribers, at 2 million, than NASA.
The good news is that scientists are still widely respected and trusted by the public at large. Since the election, I’ve seen scientists rally and march, something it’s hard for me to imagine researchers doing just ten years ago. And I’ve heard the non-scientists around them yell out “Yay science!” in response to seeing researchers sporting lab coats and signs.