The Argument for Scientists to Get Involved in Politics – a Student’s Perspective
Authored by Eric Lumsden
It’s a confusing time to be a scientist. While we strive for balanced conclusions dependent on evidence, the world around us picks and chooses what to believe. Facts are changed or lied about, graphs are pulled out of context or manipulated to alter their meaning, snowballs are brought inside the capitol to prove the globe is not warming. Individuals unfamiliar with the scientific method pick the “correct” science based on what supports their ideology, clinging to ‘their science’ and shouting down conclusions from the opposition. Overwhelmingly agreed upon principles suddenly become topics of debate when politics get involved and it isn’t happening on just one side of the aisle. While Republicans cite conclusions drawn from only 3% of scientists researching climate change, Democrats are guilty of misunderstanding what it means to have genetically modified organisms in their diet. Both parties also have individuals that think vaccinations cause autism, an argument that relies on a redacted measles, mumps and rubella vaccine study from 1998. Despite the redaction, individuals continue to believe that vaccines can cause irreversible neurological damage to their children, leading to a measles outbreak the likes of which the United States has not seen in 20 years. While on the surface it appears that the worst thing to come out of the GMO argument is labeled food, the stigma surrounding GMOs has led to setbacks in food manufacturing, research in which could solve many problems to help feed starving people around the world. Finally, measures that could be taken to slow climate change aren’t even being considered by the current party in power because they ignore what 97% of scientists understand. Where are the individuals that can understand methods for obtaining data and interpret it correctly? Where are the individuals that will fight for the correct use of said evidence? They seem to be missing.
Scientists are underrepresented in the US
Currently, only two individuals in congress hold PhDs in natural or hard sciences with ten more holding doctorate degrees in a humanities subject. In 2014, 59% of the 54,070 doctorates awarded were in a natural or hard science, with the remaining 41% in social sciences, education and the humanities . Despite the hard sciences outweighing the softer sciences in degrees awarded by a 3:2 margin, there are many more individuals educated in the humanities representing us. While there is a greater percentage of doctors in congress than in the general population (2.2% in congress to 1.5% in the general population), there is a large imbalance in fields of study between our representation and the American population.
Other countries have elected politicians with backgrounds in the hard sciences to their highest offices. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has a doctorate in Quantum Chemistry. President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has a PhD in Medical Sciences. The President of China, Xi Jinping, studied chemical engineering prior to receiving his law degree and eight out of nine of China’s top officials come from science or engineering , . Having leadership come from science isn’t unprecedented. The former prime minister of Belgium, Elio Di Rupo, the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the former President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, all come from the hard sciences . While not all of these leaders were successful, the closest examples of a scientist leader the USA has had were William Henry Harrison, who dropped out of medical school before joining the military , Jimmy Carter dropping out of school while studying mathematics  and Herbert Hoover studying geology . Some of these presidents were more successful than others (especially considering Harrison famously died only 31 days into his term), but comparing these scientific backgrounds (a stretch to say the least) to those of leaders from other countries, America is clearly behind in electing scientists to their highest office. Looking at how the country treats science, is this much of a surprise?
Science funding and education is lacking
This area is truly where the student’s perspective matters. How many of us have struggled to find laboratories to join due to insufficient funding? How many of us have been rushed to graduation because grants were running out? How many interesting professors with fascinating research ideas gave up on academia because grant writing became their full-time job which only led to disappointment?
Obviously, funding changes from year to year and with the newly passed 21st Century Cures Act there will be some stability for the next few years, but over the past 12 years or so the amount of money appropriated to the NIH for research funding has decreased when adjusting for inflation (Figure 1).
Thanks to the Cures Act, the increased funding should return levels of NIH funding close to where they were prior to the sequestration, which is fantastic news. Unfortunately, it’s still much lower than where it was in 2003 when adjusted for inflation. Figure 2 was the expected NIH funding based on early versions of the bill, which called for $3 billion in 2017, which was reduced to $1.86 billion per year, but that amount ($1.86B) will be awarded every year for four years (with approval) .
Throughout the early 2000s, both the amount of money appropriated to the NIH from Congress and the number of principal investigators were increasing quite steadily, but those figures quickly plateaued and even slightly decreased starting around 2003/2004 (Figure 3).
In addition, the average age of PIs has been slowly increasing in the past 30 years (figure 4). Clearly, if the number of investigators is not increasing and PIs are staying in their research roles for longer (as exemplified by the increase in percent of PIs older than 65 years), we students are not only facing an uphill battle to have grants funded, but are also less likely to land a tenure track research position.
Finally, compared to other countries around the world (as of 2014), the United States ranks 22nd in percent of gross domestic product (GDP) dedicated to academic research funding between Turkey (21st) and Korea (23rd) (Figure 5). While we might have a higher total GDP, we still lag behind in total science and engineering articles published per capita compared to other countries (figure 6).
Could the reason we are relatively less productive in the sciences be due to our resource allocation? Or could it be due to our poor science education where we rank (at best) 20th in science globally based on an international assessment of 15-year-olds ? It’s been known for a long time now that Americans underperform in most subjects but that does not make it acceptable. A country as rich as America should not continually rank this low in educational metrics. Obviously, education is an important issue to many politicians but not enough for actual advances to be made. Education is important to all of us or else we would not still be in school, so why aren’t more of us fighting for it? Because if we don’t…
Who will fight for our issues?
It seems obvious to me, after taking all of this into account, that most people outside of the sciences have little interest in funding it, following it, understanding it or encouraging it. Looking out for one’s own interests is a natural part of human nature; it’s time for us scientists to look out for ours.
Get involved in local movements or races. In a recent interview on the Ezra Klein show, Jennifer Lawless mentioned that the four professions that cause individuals to be considered ‘potential candidates for office’ are lawyers, business leaders, educators and political activists, leaving scientists out of the equation altogether. So, want to make a difference? Organize letter writing campaigns, campus debates, lectures, seminars, whatever. Tutor on the weekends or in the evenings. Get involved in the big brother/big sister program. We’re starting to do more of this here at UMB as are other student groups around the country. As future leaders of our nation, we students need to become involved now to ensure we have an impact in the future. According to The Princeton Review, it generally takes about ten years for individuals to become successful in a political career with the option of running for higher-offices , so do not wait. Generations of scientists before us were complacent. We need to buck that trend if the sciences are going to get the respect and attention they deserve.