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Engaging in Public Service

August 13th, 2011 / in policy / by Erwin Gianchandani

HOUSE PHYSICISTS From left, Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey; Bill Foster of Illinois, who is seeking to reclaim his seat; and Vernon Ehlers of Michigan, who retired this year. Dr. Foster and Dr. Ehlers formed Ben Franklin's List [image courtesy].The three men in the image on the right have something in common: Rush Holt, who defeated IBM’s Watson at Jeopardy! earlier this year, Bill Foster, and Vern Ehlers have all served in the United States Congress. That makes them a fairly unique bunch.

But they also have one other thing in common: they’re all scientists (physicists to be exact).

And that makes them especially unique.

As a New York Timesarticle pointed out earlier this week, there aren’t very many researchers in public service:

When asked to name a scientist, Americans are stumped. In one recent survey, the top choice, at 47 percent, was Einstein, who has been dead since 1955, and the next, at 23 percent, was “I don’t know.” In another survey, only 4 percent of respondents could name a living scientist.


While these may not have been statistically rigorous exercises, they do point to something real: In American public life, researchers are largely absent. Trained to stick to the purity of the laboratory, they tend to avoid the sometimes irrational hurly-burly of politics.


For example, according to the Congressional Research Service, the technically trained among the 435 members of the House include one physicist, 22 people with medical training (including 2 psychologists and a veterinarian), a chemist, a microbiologist and 6 engineers.

Although the article principally focused on public office, the issue is quite broader than that — reaching all kinds of public service, such as agency interactions, program manager roles, advisory committee memberships, and so on.

And here’s why that’s a problem:

There is plenty of scope for these efforts, said Dr. Foster, who cited “glaring instances of technical ignorance on both sides of the aisle.” He recalled a fellow Democrat (whom he would not name) as advocating greater use of wind power “because windmills poll so well” — which is not, Dr. Foster said, a sound basis for energy policy. And then there was the Republican who praised the development of GPS technology as an example of innovation unfettered by government, apparently unaware that the technology is a product of government-sponsored research…


…When it comes to global warming and a host of other technical issues, “there is a disconnect between what science says and how people perceive what science says,” said Barbara A. Schaal, a biologist and vice president of the National Academy of Sciences. “We need to interact with the public for our good and the public good.”

Now several groups are trying to change that:

Dr. Schaal heads the academy’s new Science Ambassador Program in which researchers will be recruited and trained to speak out on their areas of expertise. The effort will start in Pittsburgh, where scientists and engineers who specialize in energy will be encouraged to work with public organizations and agencies.

(As we’ve noted in this space before, the CCC is organizing its first Leadership in Science Policy Institute this fall, to educate a small cadre of computing researchers on how science policy in the U.S. is formulated and how our government works.)

Most importantly, the Times’ article reinforces how important it is for all of us to be cognizant of the value of public service:

Even today, when researchers enter the political arena, “the scientific establishment holds that against a scientist to some extent,” Dr. Holt, the New Jersey congressman, said in a telephone interview.


Alan I. Leshner, a psychologist who heads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agreed. He recalled learning as a young scientist in the 1960s that people who engaged in issues outside the lab “were wasting time and a sellout.” Young researchers today want their work to be “relevant, useful and used,” he said, but “they still get that message from their mentors.”


Some researchers are concerned that if they leave the lab, even briefly, they will never be able to pick up the thread of their technical careers. But Dr. Foster said he had had no shortage of interesting job opportunities in science after his two years in Congress. And, he added, such risks were built into public service.


“If you are a businessman, your business goes off the rails,” Dr. Foster said. “If you are a lawyer, your practice will degrade. You are asking people to make a sacrifice, no question about it.”

In an interview last week, Dr. Foster compared what he called political logic with scientific logic, citing the debate over the debt ceiling. “The political logic is ‘what I can get away with saying that people will believe’,” he said. “The scientific logic is ‘what are the best estimates for the relevant numbers’.” When the two collide, he said, “the political logic is overwhelming.”

Read the full article here.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

Engaging in Public Service

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