With the recent retirement of Vern Ehlers and unfortunate defeat of Bill Foster, there is now exactly one scientist in the entire 535 member US Congress, New Jersey's Rush Holt. Depending on how wide we define engineering, there is also one engineer, California's Jerry McNerney.
Contrast this with Congress containing well over 200 lawyers, a large number of small business owners, and even 15 medical doctors, and we see that scientists and engineers are vastly underrepresented in our Congress, as well as throughout elected office all over the country.
Given that all of our serious challenges have a scientific or technological component, and that half of all economic growth over the past century can be attributed to technological advancement, and that the US is rapidly losing its scientific and technological edge, this lack of scientists and engineers in government is a serious problem for our country.
A great anecdote from Bill Foster's own experience shows why we need more scientists and engineers in politics. Drawing on a staple of engineering, Foster devised a simple but powerful negative feedback low pass filter that would prevent irrational bubbles in the housing market. It even drew praise from conservative economists of a more intellectual bent. However, this very reasonable and novel solution fell on deaf ears in a Congress where more than 100 members don't believe in evolution and probably 96% have never heard the terms 'control loop' or 'low-pass filter'.
This problem has been recognized by, among others, Scientists and Engineers for America and Bill Foster himself with talk of an Albert's List PAC. These efforts are potentially useful, but I think the problem won't be solved unless dramatic action is taken by the scientific professions themselves.
Plenty of scientists and engineers are very politically passionate and want to be involved in politics. If you harbor stereotypes about a bunch of nerds detatched or isolated from the real world, you are mistaken. I mean we do have plenty of those, but scientists and engineers want to be involved in politics and are passionate about it at least in the same proportion as any other group, and probably moreso.
The primary thing that keeps scientists and engineers out of politics is that our careers as they are currently constructed are not compatible with it.
A lawyer, or a self-employed person such as a medical doctor or small business owner, can relatively easily take time off from their career in order to run for office. All they need is the will - they are not ruining their career by taking the chance to run for office. They can put their career on hold for a few months, and if elected, for a few or many years, and essentially pick it up where they left off when they get back. In fact, especially for lawyers, it would be all the more advantageous to them to return to practice after developing all the connections that come with running for and holding office. A lawyer who has held office will be more valuable to a law firm, and will be recruited like crazy when he is done. A small business owner who has run for or held office will be able to leverage his powerful connections for even more profit and fun. Even a medial doctor in many fields can get himself back up on the certifications and hang out his shingle again. These careers are naturally compatible with the risks and rewards of running for and holding office.
In contrast, scientists and engineers face the exact opposite situation. We can't take the time time off to run for or hold office without basically giving up our career. It is a huge deterrent!
For those who may be less familiar with the trajectory of scientific careers, they basically take three tracks. To summarize in a simplistic way: 1) One can be in academia combining teaching and research in a university setting, 2) one can hold a research position at a university, national lab, or similar institution, or 3) one can hold a research position in the private sector, such as with a tech firm. All of these positions are extremely competitive and difficult to get. In order to get them, we go through PhD programs, postdoctoral appointments, research appointments, moving anywhere we are told, doing anything and everything, giving the proverbial blood sweat and tears to build ourselves up and finally land that career job. And even when we do land it, it isn't permanent by any means. Many people have heard of the idea of "publish or perish" and it is basically true. One must constantly stay at the forefront of research in order to maintain their career.
We simply can't leave for six months to run for office, let alone several years to hold office, and expect to have a job to come back to. While a law firm might say "wow, those connections you developed in politics make you even more valuable to us" a research institution or tech firm or university department committee will say "we can't hire you, you've been out of the loop and not keeping up with developments or publishing."
Even tenured university faculty can't leave and expect to come back to a job. Even when the pressure of constant research output is somewhat alleviated by tenure, (a situation that is becoming less common anyway) there are still teaching obligations that can't be left without serious consequences.
In summary, someone in a research career who has worked and sacrificed so much to get where they are can't run for political office, much less hold it, without basically giving up that research career. They risk giving up their career for nothing if they lose the election, or, best case scenario if they win the election, having to make a career switch to something like lobbying or public relations when they are ready to come back to the private sector.
Bill Foster was able to give up his career at Fermilab and take a stab at politics because he was independently wealthy, and Vern Ehlers was able to do so because he was teaching at a small liberal arts college and was nearing retirement when he ran for Congress. Rush Holt is just Superman as far as I can tell. But for the rest of us, the nature of scientific and engineering careers is a fundamental impediment to trying to run for office.
This is something that is going to have to be solved by the scientific and engineering professions themselves in the broadest sense. If this country is going to have the scientific and technological expertise in government that it desperately needs, not to mention maintenance of the crucial public funding for our scientific infrastructure which is in serious danger now, the scientific professions will have to make a concerted effort and a giant commitment.
What has to happen is that the professional societies, such as APS, AAS, ACS, AAAS, NSPE, IEEE, AAPS and whatever the other equivalents are in Biology and Medicine, along with the Universities Research Association, and industry groups ranging from the National Association of Manufacturers to the Silicon Valley Roundtable need to decide as a community - the community of American Science and Engineering - that it is essential to create a climate where scientists and engineers can become politicians.
What this requires, as I've shown above, is nothing short of a major "affirmative action" for potential and former political office seekers and office holders within science and engineering. Universities, research institutions, and tech corporations need to reserve positions, have quotas, give preferences, and do whatever it takes so that those who run for or hold office have careers to come back to.
It has to be profession-wide guidelines, because no institution or group can risk their standing by going it alone. It could mean things like:
- All practicing members of the above professional societies are guaranteed the opportunity for one six-month hiatus to run for national or state political office. Employers agree to abide by this and not to terminate or replace the employee, and such hiatuses would be built into contracts.
- Living stipends would be available from the professional societies for those that take the hiatus to run for office.
- x% of staff scientist jobs at universities, national labs, and technology corporations are reserved for former political office holders.
- Science academics who hold political office are kept in the tenure stream, and can leave and return without consequences.
This would obviously require sacrifices on the part of university departments, national labs, and technology corporations. But the consequences of not making these sacrifices could be far worse. For a view of why we need drastic action to turn this around, I encourage you to read the sad facts starting on page 11 of this report.