Profs Turned Pols

From local school board races to Congressional campaigns, an effort is under way to push scientists out of the lab and onto the stump.

May 14, 2010

From local school board races to Congressional campaigns, an effort is under way to push scientists out of the lab and onto the stump.

Through a series of Web-based seminars and organizing efforts on university campuses, Scientists & Engineers for America (SEA) has been luring professors and others with advanced degrees into political life. The nonprofit group’s underlying premise is that public policy debates often lack the direct input of scientists and engineers, who would bring knowledge and problem-solving skills to topics as diverse as school curriculum development, transportation and energy.

A recent SEA Web seminar drew about 100 participants, many of whom are weighing whether to pursue elected office. Camron Gorguinpour, executive director of the group, said the need for participation of scientists and engineers as setters of public policy is obvious.

“Regardless of party affiliation, I would like to see an intellectual debate on these issues,” says Gorguinpour, who worked with several Democratic campaigns while pursuing a bioengineering Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. “I would love to have a floor debate on climate change based on peer-reviewed journal articles.”

SEA’s 501(c)(3) status prohibits the organization from supporting specific candidates, but SEA can educate people on the ins and outs of campaigning, while encouraging them to reach out to their local parties for further support.

Photo: Rep. Vern Ehlers

Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., meets with Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, after Gates testified to the Science and Technology Committee March 12, 2008. Ehlers, the first research physicist elected to Congress, is soon retiring.

From Physics to Congress

Of the 361 members of the U.S. Congress with advanced degrees, fewer than 10 are in the hard sciences, math or engineering, according to SEA data. Unsurprisingly, lawyers dominate. Of those with advanced degrees, 210, or 58 percent, hold a juris doctor.

As the first research physicist elected to Congress, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.) might be described as the godfather of a gang of three. Ehlers joins Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat, and Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, as the only members with doctorates in physics. It’s a distinction Ehlers laments.

“That’s, I think, a pretty serious condemnation of the nation, and it’s probably a condemnation of the scientific community that they don’t run for office as often,” says Ehlers, who has announced that he won’t seek another term.

Ehlers taught physics for 16 years at Calvin College, where he also served as department chair.

The healthy skepticism that scientists develop in their research is an asset in Congress, says Holt, former assistant director of Princeton University's Plasma Physics Laboratory.

“Certainly in today’s world it helps to have legislators who are comfortable dealing with science, math and technology, and that’s all too rare in our society,” Holt says. “But even more than that, I think that the ability to think like a scientist is as valuable in government as it is valuable in life. Not that you have to be a scientist -- but to train yourself to look for disconfirmatory evidence, to understand the importance of double-blind testing, to be able to analyze things in their parts. It’s not only scientists who can do that, but those are skills that scientists bring, and that’s important.”

The history of politicians using their academic credentials to support a policy position, however, is mixed. Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and a heart surgeon, endured heavy criticism from those who said he inappropriately brandished his M.D. during debates over the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case. Frist gave a 2005 speech on the Senate floor, questioning the diagnosis of Schiavo as being in a persistent vegetative state, adding that he spoke "more as a physician than as a United States senator."

Photo: Rep. Rush Holt

Rep. Rush Holt brings a physics background to Washington.

“What Senator Frist did should have been apparent to anybody as unscientific behavior,” Holt says. “If he really thought he was approaching this as a scientific position, he was kidding himself, and of course the whole point of science is to provide a method to avoid kidding yourself.”

Frist later said his speech was not a “diagnosis,” and Ehlers agrees.

“I thought it was pretty clear his point of view was because of his religious beliefs and not so much because of his scientific opinion,” Ehlers says of his Republican colleague.

Exiting the Ivory Tower

Scientists and Engineers for America reaches out to would-be candidates through academic societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS also runs its own fellowship program, which regularly supports about 200 Ph.D.-level scientists to work in federal agencies or on Capitol Hill. While the fellows are not serving in elected positions, the aim of the program is to teach them about the legislative process and, perhaps, to nudge the fellows toward their own eventual campaigns.

“It’s amazing how quickly they become political animals,” says Al Teich, director of science and policy programs for the AAAS.

A stereotypical view of scientists wouldn’t stir up images of the suave baby-kissing bunch that tend to dominate the political stage, but Teich says there are plenty who readily adapt to the campaign trail.

“I think there’s a lot of scientists who probably aren’t interested in being in political life and ought not to be by disposition,” he says. “But I think the stereotype doesn’t represent anywhere near all scientists. There are a lot of scientists who are very personable, very outgoing, who aren’t buried in their labs and are very capable of doing the kinds of things politicians need to do to be in office and stay elected.”

Being both a scientist and a politician, however, may require wearing two distinctly different hats -- or even using two different names. Take State Rep. Mike Fortner of Illinois, a West Chicago Republican who publishes his physics papers under the name “Michael” but prefers the more informal “Mike” in his political life.

“I think that’s one of the challenges for someone in academics to overcome -- to be able to make a connection with the constituents and not project that I’m only the ivory tower,” says Fortner, an associate professor of physics at Northern Illinois University.

There are other challenges as well, Fortner explains. To accommodate the legislative schedule, Fortner teaches only a 40 percent load during the spring. He also works to avoid any real or apparent conflicts of interest by removing himself as the principal investigator on any research grants that receive federal or state dollars.

“Obviously it’s harder,” Fortner says of balancing his ethical and professional concerns. “When we do our internal reviews I have to say, ‘This is why I’m not bringing in any grant money.’ I hope it’s accepted [as an explanation]. People will say ‘Gee, you’re not bringing in money,’ but I’m still participating in a group that is bringing money in.”

Fortner has also recused himself from some votes in the Legislature that he thinks could affect him directly. He did not recuse himself, however, during a recent controversial vote on the future of the state pension system that covers university faculty members in Illinois. Fortner sided with the majority in approving the changes, which increased minimum retirement ages and limited benefits for future faculty. That decision was a concern to many in higher education, who see the deterioration of retirement benefits as yet another attack on academe.

For all of the talk about scientists bringing evidence-based decision making methods to the legislative process, the Illinois pension decision was criticized by many who said lawmakers lacked sufficient actuarial analysis to back their claims about the savings the changes would bring about.

“Was it the complete level [of detail] I’d want to go to publication on? No,” Fortner concedes. “But one doesn’t always get that before one has to make a decision. But I had seen enough numbers to see that it was unsustainable.”

As with other scientists in politics, Fortner says he is frequently asked by other lawmakers to help explain complex scientific principles that may be tied to legislation. That’s not to say, however, that his colleagues immediately assumed Fortner knew what he was talking about.

“You have to earn it,” he says. “You can’t just come in and say 'trust me.' ”

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Jack Stripling

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