Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why don't more scientists enter politics?

Michelle is right in the middle of moving from the landmass somewhere west of Portugal to the medium sized set of islands lying somewhere in the southern Pacific Ocean. She begins this week a resident of the state that has this man in charge of science policy and ends it a resident of the state with this man in charge of science policy, so good luck to her on her travels and congratulations on the repatriation.

These travels mean she hasn't had time to write something for this week, so I shall fill the gap. I didn't have anything sitting in the hard-drive waiting to be posted. What follows instead is some thoughts on an issue that anyone who knows me in the real world will recognise as something I regularly rant about. One day I will write a more carefully worded (and thought out) post on this issue, but, for now, pseudo-stream of consciousness is what you get.

Why don't more scientists enter politics?

That's not meant to be a rhetorical question. If anyone knows the answer(s), please tell me in the comments.

Scientists (especially physicists) are highly opinionated. We like to tell people our opinions (hence all the blogs). Even more specifically, many scientists are highly opinionated about politics and we like to tell people our opinions on politics quite often. We lament particular policies the government of the day are implementing. We complain about the conditions set by government funded research agencies, claiming that we know how to do it better. Why don't more of us enter politics?

Apparently, in the current British House of Commons, there is one scientist, Julien Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge. Margaret Thatcher was a scientist before she became a politician. So was Angela Merkel. However those two are exceptions to the rule. Why is this the case?

In many other fields, politics is a well known, accepted career path. Lawyers, journalists, writers, people from the business world and school teachers, just off the top of my head, are all fields where there is a clear path to politics (or at least, many people choose to take that path). However, science is an equally important part of politics. Climate change, nuclear power, the technology industry, tertiary education; all of these things are either a subset of science or are at least heavily dependent on scientists to exist, and all of them are important aspects of the modern political world. Why aren't there scientists in the parliaments around the world helping to make the decisions that impact upon those spheres?

Why aren't more of the ministers of science of the world scientists? One notable exception to this is the physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu who happens to be Obama's secretary of energy. Looking back over past U.S. Secretaries of energy, Chu, and his predecessor Samuel Bodman, are also the exceptions to the rule. I appreciate that another requirement for a science minister is an understanding of law; however science is equally hard to pick up an understanding of as law. I'm not more comfortable with science ministers that are lawyers relying on advice about science than scientists who are receiving advice about law

All of the above makes me wonder. And it isn't like scientists are just choosing to engage with politics in other ways (well, to a small degree they do engage in other ways - but not nearly as much as other fields). Very few (although not zero) join political parties and those that do would very rarely try to take an active role in influencing a party's policy. But, there is another point here that causes this situation to really confuse me. Most people with doctorates in a science subject, don't end up as practising scientists. There just aren't that many jobs in science, especially in pure research jobs, but even in science based industrial jobs. Why isn't some proportion of the people who start out in science, but for one reason or another don't stick with it, not ending up in politics? All those other fields do it.

People I went through both undergraduate and postgraduate study with were well aware of finance and management consulting (etc.) as possible careers should the physics fall through or fail to inspire; why not politics?

If anyone has some thoughts and/or links on this, I'd love to read them. I will write a more thought out and detailed post on this before the end of the year, so any fodder you can give me now would be nice. In the meantime, if you're a scientist with political opinions of any persuasion, go join a party that matches that persuasion, attend their meetings and advocate policies that make scientific sense. And, convince your peers to do the same.

Twitter: @just_shaun


  1. Three thoughts. Firstly, you might as well ask why more people from any profession don't go into politics. By which I mean that, in many countries, and particularly the UK, which is the one I am most familiar with, the people who are in politics are mostly career politicians who have only ever been in politics. Those who enter politics having held a different job beforehand don't seem to rise to the top. That's a feature of politics, not of physics.

    Secondly, perhaps scientists avoid politics (or do not rise very high in politics) because getting ahead in politics requires making so many opportunistic, populist, short-term decisions that cannot seriously be justified and which run counter to a scientific approach to appraisal of evidence.

    Thirdly, in some countries (I'll refrain from naming them, but one begins with a U) scientists and their opinions tend not to be very popular. I notice that Steven Chu was not actually elected to his post.

    I guess my points can be summed up as: people are generally stupid and they choose the representatives they deserve. I know you'll disagree with this cynical attitude, but in one of the best educated towns anywhere, my MP - who used to be this guy - lost his seat at the last election. To a Tory.

    1. I don't think the first thought is valid. I don't dispute the existence of career politicians and most prominent politicians have been in politics for more than a decade, but most prominent politicans spent at least a decade doing something else first (law, business, PR, teaching, journalism, etc). Perhaps they always intended to be politicians and were just biding their tine, but a rephrasing of my question would then be 'why weren't they biding their time in science?'

      The second thought I agree with. I don't think that the people who do go into politics and make those decisions are morally worse people because of it though (and I'm not claiming that you do). Perhaps us scientists should toughen up a little and get our hands dirty too.

      I'm not sure the third point is relevant enough to be a factor outside of the country that begins with a U. and for that country I would need to see statistically measured evidence to be convinced. The NZ/UK/Finland public don't have that view of science. I also (i.e. like you) don't think it is a coincidence that Chu wasn't elected. But even people appointed to scientific roles in governments aren't normally scientists. Chu's appointment was a big and pleasant surprise to me when it happened.

      I don't understand your final point at all to be honest. I know many scientists who vote Tory, without reservations. I don't think the Tory party have particularly anti-science policies, at least when compared to the other parties. Despite appearances people in Britain don't vote for people but for parties. Evan Harris didn't lose that seat, the Liberal Democrats did. If Evan Harris had been running in Cheltenham he would have been elected. Why wasn't the Tory who was running against Evan Harris also a scientist, why do all of the parties lack scientists? It isn't that scientists are trying to get elected and failing because of dumb voters, there just aren't many scientists trying.

    2. I disagree with your facts. Look at the UK: David Cameron, Ed Milliband, Nick Clegg - all three have been in politics all their lives. OK, Cameron had a job in PR, but for the purposes of my second point, PR is exactly the same as politics in that it basically involves massaging/manipulating/concealing evidence. David Milliband, George Osborne, Danny Alexander, they're all the same. Ed Balls, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are politicians who have had short careers as journalists, which is at least better than PR. And the young rising stars in all parties are in general career politicians too, most of them having started on that path while at university, by playing active roles in their student unions.

      Re the Tories, they're not as anti-science as some in other countries, but they have recently allowed creationist groups to open free schools, are for the most part opposed to any form of green energy, and adhere to an economic policy that is at odds with all data.

      Overall I think you're asking the wrong question. It is intellectuals in general who are under-represented in politics, not scientists in particular. The vast majority of political discourse is puerile nonsense, and I'd say that's because to be part of a political party you have to behave like a partisan idiot most of the time.

    3. I didn't dispute the existence of career politicians. And you've listed enough non-career politicians yourself - even if you cherry picked just the journalists - that I'm not sure why you claim career politicians are the only ones who reach prominent positions. There are plenty more, even in the UK cabinet. Why aren't people who are studying to become scientists playing active roles in their student unions?

      I'm not sure how any of your examples are examples of being anti-science. The creationist founded schools are not allowed to teach creation in science class, that was made very clear in the article you linked to. I don't really like the policy myself but I don't see it as anti-science. The current Tory leadership also don't dispute the existence of climate change, their energy policy is based on alternative priorities. And their energy policy, while perhaps destructive for Britain isn't destructive to science itself, except through any damage to the UK as a whole.

      I think you're probably right in the third paragraph that I'm asking the wrong question. I wouldn't use the word "intellectual", but perhaps the phrase "qualified expert" instead, but still, I accept that point. If your cynicism in the second half of the paragraph is correct then that's just the price one has to pay to make incremental changes in society, such is life.

    4. That's not to say that your cynicism in the final paragraph doesn't answer my question, essentially it does, and while it is unlikely to be the complete picture certainly is a part of it.

    5. I didn't cherry-pick the journalists, I cherry-picked the most prominent politicians. All except Clegg and Alexander have been or are considered Prime Ministerial prospects. And playing an active role in your student union means not studying (elected student politicians take the year out from their degree).

    6. My definition of a prominent politician would at least include all the members of the cabinet (not just prime minister candidates). I don't expect more scientists to become prime ministers, but instead to become ministers of education, science, technology, etc. There are lots of people with non-political careers in the current cabinet. They're just all journalism, business, pr, law, etc careers.

  2. I can't comment on the previous posts as I live in a country that starts with a U, but more to the substance of your post- I think it mostly boils down to the way that scientific training shapes your personality. Before entering grad school I thought that the nerdy scientist stereotype was a sort of silly happenstance, and I remember being quite certain that I would remain my happy-go-lucky self as I passed through my training. In retrospect, I don't think that this was the case, and I really think that a lot of it has to do with the nature of scientific training. I eventually realized that a significant part of my training was specifically designed to make me obsessive, contrarian, and unwilling to tolerate imperfections in myself and others.

    To be sure, you need to develop these qualities to make it through grad school and be able to execute good experiments, but they are mostly dealbreakers for something like politics that requires constant compromise and glad-handling, and where the behavior of voters doesn't follow the laws of thermodynamics.

    I might have had a unique experience, but I sort of doubt it. It may be true that scientists and politicians are frequently arrogant and opinionated, but that's a feature of practically every person at a high level in his or her profession.

    1. Thanks for the comments Peterlorre.

      I don't think you've had a unique experience. Also, people being opinionated isn't necessarily a bad thing. If I was judging scientists it wasn't for having the opinions but instead for not trying earnestly to have them implemented (no matter how unpleasant the process of implementing them is).

      The last clause of your comment is hinting at what Sesh said, which is that my question should be asked of all experts rather than just scientists and I agree with you both.

      I suppose my line of thinking is now lead to wondering how to encourage experts to overcome this distaste in order that they can help affect policy. (I guess I see that as easier than changing the way politics works, instead!)

  3. 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. Thanks for the comments, John.

      I agree with your perception of undergraduate science students; however I've found that there is a selection of postgraduate science students and practising scientists who are much more confident and opinionated. My lunch conversations both here in Helsinki and previously when I was a PhD student in Oxford have quite often ended up in passionate political conversations. Perhaps this is normally dominated by one or two people (myself often one of them), but there are a fair few of us out there.

      Therefore, I think it is your first point that is by far the more influential in why scientists don't enter politics. To be a good, research scientist it is very helpful to be confident, outspoken, an eloquent speaker, etc. It is certainly not necessary, but it definitely is very helpful. It is also this first point, however, that drives me to ask the question in the title of this post. Whether we like it or not, those "snakeoil-salesman" are the people making the decisions that influence the direction of the world. Rather than turning away in disgust we should instead hold our noses, fight our way in, and make it better (even if by only the tiniest fraction)!

      Do you mind if I ask what country you are from?

    2. Thank you for your reply.

      "My lunch conversations both here in Helsinki and previously when I was a PhD student in Oxford have quite often ended up in passionate political conversations. Perhaps this is normally dominated by one or two people (myself often one of them), but there are a fair few of us out there."

      There are people like that out there, however a) it doesn't do them any good if they don't have the physique (face, voice, height) to go with it and b) most people I know can be outspoken to colleagues but not outsiders (they don't have the necessary confidence or ability to explain things to people who aren't scientists in such a way that it's not condescending, yet clearly brings the point across).

      Btw, I'm from the Netherlands.

    3. "... or ability to explain things to people who aren't scientists in such a way that it's not condescending... "

      Hah, you do have a good point there. Physicists in particular suffer from being condescending in an unhelpful way. There, the problem isn't a lack of confidence though, it is a type of arrogance (and a different kind of arrogance to that of a politician).

      There is a hint of this arrogance in the very fact that I wrote the post we're commenting on... "People like me make good decisions, therefore the world would be better if the important decisions were made by people like me. Why isn't this happening?"

      Only a hint though.

  4. "Hah, you do have a good point there. Physicists in particular suffer from being condescending in an unhelpful way. There, the problem isn't a lack of confidence though, it is a type of arrogance (and a different kind of arrogance to that of a politician)."

    For some it's arrogance, for others it's a genuine lack of ability to "dumb things down", or a lack of confidence towards people who are held in high esteem by society (businessmen, medical professions, sometimes even lawyers, etc...) or more physically impressive.

    "There is a hint of this arrogance in the very fact that I wrote the post we're commenting on... "People like me make good decisions, therefore the world would be better if the important decisions were made by people like me. Why isn't this happening?""

    I wouldn't say that: scientists won't always make the best decision, but we are the most likely to make the best decision because we wouldn't have survived our education if we didn't have above average problem solving skills, math skills (and math skills are very important for economic policy) and other signs of above average intelligence and it teaches us to be critical thinkers who are sued to counterintuitive concepts.

    Will every scientist make a good leader? No, but 100 random scientists will certainly come up with better policy than 100 random lawyers, or at least come to with the right solutions much quicker and with less resources. Think of it this way: if it's arrogant of a scientist to think they'll come up with good policy, then what would you call a lawyer who thinks the same thing but who can't even calculate the sum of an arithmetic sequence? We're less worse than everyone else.

    1. Thanks again for the comments John. I'm going to have to put my contribution to this conversation on hold now. I do intend to write at least one more post on this in the future though so stay tuned ;).

      I don't agree however that 100 random scientists will certainly come up with better policy than 100 random lawyers (or even the right solutions with less resources). A law degree teaches a set of valuable skills as well and is also difficult. What I would claim, and what motivates me to bring up this sort of discussion, is that a set of 50 lawyers and 50 scientists would come up with better policy than a set of 100 lawyers *or* 100 scientists alone. I would be very worried if a parliament had no lawyers in it, I would expect that the laws resulting from that parliament would be an utter disaster.

      A lawyer who thinks only lawyers can set good policy is just as arrogant as a physicist who thinks only scientists can set good policy.

      Anyway, as I wrote above, I need to step aside from this conversation now. Feel free to reply to this comment with more thoughts if you want (or not). I will definitely read any reply/ies you write and take it/them on board when writing any future posts.

      Thanks again for the comments.

  5. I caught a glimpse of a possible problem when doing research at university. On the first day, the course tutor presented us with an article to read and possible conclusions that might be drawn from it. You had to tick those conclusions that you considered were valid. After ten minutes, two people, both of whom were scientists, had finished. Fifteen minutes after that, the remainder were still in feverish debate about what conclusions could and could not be drawn.

    My MP wrote to me some time ago, pointing me to some statistics in the 'Commons' library and citing them as evidence for his point of view. When I looked at the figures, it was clear that he had misinterpreted them, whether by accident or design I cannot say.

    Being an honest scientist, I wrote back with the valid conclusions and he did not reply. Evidence exists to be interpreted not twisted but I can think of politicians who, to gain advantage, might see things the other way round and object to being told the truth of the matter. Would the Euro exist if the clowns responsible for its inception had not decided, against all the evidence, that fiscal union could precede political union?

  6. The one reason why we don't become politicians is the one reason we'd be very good at it. We have an exceptional ability of self criticism. We could not come up with policy without listing all the positives and negatives.

    Politics is black and white. You either argue for something or against it. Somebody trying to display scientific objectivity to a policy would be laughed out of goverment. People aren't used to critical analysis and scientists could not switch this off.

    At the same time a politician who did this would be a very good decision maker.