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The Scientist as Politician

So you want to change the world? It's easier than you think.

By | September 1, 2008

<figcaption> Credit: Figure source: ©  Tanya Knannlein. Lab Coat and Jacket source: ©  Haze                    McElhenny</figcaption>Credit: Figure source: © Tanya Knannlein. Lab Coat and Jacket source: © Haze McElhenny

 

When Kathy Barker was a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School during the 1980s, she knew she wanted to do more than just bench work on polymorphonuclear leukocytes, a first line of defense against infection. At that time, the United States was in the midst of its involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and Barker decided to invite speakers to talk about US foreign policy, encouraging her colleagues and friends to attend. "There were people who looked down on me," she says. "You were supposed to be doing science and not other things." Barker's thick skin saved her from too much bruising. It was only the first of many civic actions she would take.
 

Political issues can crop up even closer to home. When Barker recently learned about a creationist biology teacher in her daughter's school district who refused to teach his students evolution, "I came in with my guns shooting," she says. In retrospect, Barker admits, it may have been the wrong approach. "It didn't earn me any friends," who could have helped her sway the school board. While she made little immediate progress in her first attempt, she learned the school board was resistant because it might mean ousting their only science teacher. She now plans to petition officers of the school district.

"Science problems are community problems, but they haven't been articulated as such in the past," says Sarah Mullins, the chair of the American Chemical Society's Government Affairs Minnesota chapter, and a chemist at 3M. "I can't think of a more important time" for scientists to get involved in politics, says Michael Stebbins, a former geneticist, who co-founded Science and Engineers for America (SEA). "It's been a horrible seven years" for science in America, he says. According to results of an SEA public opinion poll released July 2, the majority of voters across partisan lines want a candidate committed to science. "The day of science in the ivory tower is over. If [scientists] don't act, they forfeit the right to complain about it." Luckily, there are a number of things you can do, regardless of whether you've got hours, months, or years to spare.

Dip Your Toe In

Time commitment: Several hours per year.

Write letters. Really

It's the most commonly given advice that no one seems to ever take. But Don Engel, senior science policy fellow at the American Physical Society, says a letter has more impact than you might think. When a researcher writes a letter about a current topic to a member of congress, the congressperson or staffers must do research to prepare a response - even if the response is not the one you had hoped for, says Engel, who worked on Capitol Hill. "The more people writing in at the same time, the more research will go into the response," says Engel. "The response requires education to happen," which can add up to influence and sway, he says. "If [representatives] hear from the highway builders more than scientists," the funding and policy is likely to reflect it, he says. If you enjoy the process, you can also consider writing an editorial about a science issue for your local paper.

Volunteer in local government

Getting to know the people and the politics in your area can help you identify and address key issues. "Politics means different things in different places," says Stephen Kelley, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Humphrey Institute and a former Minnesota legislator. In rural Minnesota, where he worked, the most effective way to reach out to constituents is to go door to door. Of course, that isn't possible in metropolitan centers like New York City or Los Angeles. In Philadelphia, Don Engel served as a judge of election, helping people vote, an experience that let him interact with voters and learn about his local politics - and required only two days a year. "It's kind of a fun way to have a shallow involvement," says Engel.

Take a class in political science

A letter to a member of congress has more impact than you might think.

Kelley says that one of the most valuable political science classes a scientist can take is risk analysis. "Policy makers often are asking their advising experts to provide probabilities of risk," in order to quantify the potential impact of one decision versus another. For this, you must give your policy maker an accurate array of options, says Kelley. One of the biggest challenges is reframing the science question into a policy question, which a politics class can also help with. For an assignment, one of his students was discussing why investing in Alzheimer's research was important. He had the numbers of those affected, but his presentation lacked a human element: the life of a single Alzheimer's patient. "People operate on emotion as much as intellect," so telling a well rounded story is key to getting your message across, says Kelley.

Wade In

Time commitment: A few weeks per year.

Try a virtual internship

A few months ago, Science and Engineers for America launched a virtual internship for scientists who aren't ready to leave the bench just yet, but want to become more active in politics. It's not your usual internship - "you can do it in between experiments," from anywhere in the world, says Stebbins. The time commitment? "Ten to 20 hours a week. Most people spend that much time messing around on the internet," says Stebbins. Scientists can sign up at http://sharp.sefora.org/internships/.

Work on a campaign

It might be too late to get on board with Obama or McCain, but local elections are no less important. A campaign may not have an immediate need for your expertise in, say, protein purification, but scientists are still valued for their talents. "Scientists and technologists have unique skills to offer because they're used to working with data," says Engel. Campaigns need to compile public voter records, with party affiliations and voting histories, "to target which doors to knock on," says Engel. In volunteering, you also build relationships with prospective legislators, who may call on you the next time one of them has a science question, making you an ad hoc scientific advisor.

Start a political action group

After attending a workshop on communicating science to non-scientists, Griselda Zuccarino-Catania, a graduate student in immunology at Yale University, decided to start her own chapter of SEA - the second chapter to form. "It was easy to start. (SEA) has a guide on their website," says Zuccarino-Catania, who got permission from her institution, and started sending out e-mails to students. In five months, she's already gathered 35 members, who have started to educate younger students and invite speakers. Because they function as a group, the time commitment is flexible. Zuccarino-Catania was in the middle of qualifying exams, and had less time to spend, so other members volunteered to pick up the slack.

Use your professional society

When Sarah Mullins was finishing her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, she started exploring a career in politics. After she took an industry position at 3M in Wisconsin, she got involved her local chapter of the American Chemical Society (ACS). As chair of the government affairs committee, Mullins helped organize a trip to Washington, DC, for other ACS members to speak with congressional representatives, and get a sense of how government really functions. "You have to throw away your assumption that you really know what people do," says Mullins.

Do a short policy fellowship

One way to get a taste for building science policy is to apply for the 10 to 12 week National Academies Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. It's one of the few fellowships available without a PhD. You apply while you're still in grad school and work exclusively with scientists who are writing reports to influence national policy, says Engel.

Dive In

Time commitment: Full time for a year or more

Do a long policy fellowship

In 2001, Stebbins left science to take a job as an editor for Nature Genetics. He enjoyed the work, but became "tired of hearing myself complain about what was happening in politics." So Stebbins applied for a one year fellowship through the National Human Genome Research Institute. As part of his fellowship in Congressman Harry Reid's office, he researched current science policy and worked on legislative issues involving health and science. "You go in humble. Sometimes you have to make copies, sometimes you have to move boxes, but so what? You have a ticket to the show." Stebbins went on to become the director of biology policy for the Federation of American Scientists and was the co-founder of SEA. The AAAS also offers year-long public policy internships in congress, at the state department, the National Science Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency, to name a few.

Run for office

To get elected, you have to know how to boil your message down to one minute.

In Engel's position as a full-time physicist, he saw people leaving science for the wrong reasons. "I wanted to fix or understand [why]." Almost finished with his AAAS science policy fellowship, Engel says he is now thinking about running for local office in 2010, in Baltimore County, Md., one of his goals being to keep the biotech industry from leaving his state. To get elected, you have to know "how to boil your message down to one minute," in a simple and effective tidbit, says Kelley. Engel would be stepping away from his work as a computational physicist, but with only 90 days of year in session, "I'm hoping that my day job will still be science, and my main hobby will be politics."

What to Expect:

Be prepared to schmooze

"Scientists are so goal oriented," says Kathy Barker: They often want to come in and solve problems without taking stock of what's already been done. That's not possible in politics. "Going to a meeting and just meeting someone is the goal," she says. Being "relationship-savvy is very important," says Barker.

Be clear about your affiliation

While it's good to state your institution, it's just as important to affirm that you are not speaking on its behalf. "My employer appreciates my involvement in my professional society." says Sarah Mullins, a chemist for 3M. "One of the challenges is that I have to make a clear distinction that I am not representing 3M, I'm representing chemists," when speaking about potentially contentious issues. Remember to be clear when you make public statements, such as when writing a letter to an editor.

Be ready for the commitment

In 1982, Jesse Jones decided to run for office while working full time as an organic chemist at Baylor University. "I grew up in a small East Texas town. Those who were successful academically, you were expected to give back to the community," he says. "I have to kind of laugh now at my initial efforts." He made no plans for what would happen if he had won that race, he says, including how he would support his family on $600/month. Ten years later, when he ran again and won, he was better prepared. The last of his seven kids were in college, his house was paid off, and "much of our financial obligations were behind us."

 

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Comments

Avatar of: Bernat Soria

Bernat Soria

Posts: 1

September 15, 2008

As University Professor for more than 20 years I I found always peculiar why scientists do not get involved in politics. Now, after more than one year as a Minister of Health of Spain, I understand why. Even with the experience of chairing a Departament or a School in the University or 4 different scientific societies (I chaired 3 scientific societies in Spain (Biophysics, Physiology and Diabetes) and one in Europe (European Biophysical Societies Association) I found the experience interesting but hard. As a a scientist I worked also very hard, but at least it was a respected credible job. Politicians (at least spanish ministers) also work hard. There is no training for such a job, but we scientists should commit with taking more responsability in politics, otherwise others will do the job. As a scientist we use to be critical on politicians and how thinks should be done, when you are in politics you can actually do things. It is not so easy, but I did not find another way. You plan to stay in science at least send your suggestions to your representative or directly to the government. It works. Evenmore, you could be the next Minister.
Avatar of: JEFFREY HURST

JEFFREY HURST

Posts: 1

September 16, 2008

I congratulate you on the recent article on this topic since I personally feel it is critical that those in scientific professions become involved in the political process for a variety of reasons that you enumerated in the article but would also add that in addition to providing a perspective on topical science issues, that skills in writing and communication are sometimes as important since I have found that by being on several nonprofit boards and now serving as president of a a local homeowners association that "paralysis by analysis' tends to creep into meetings. The ability to communicate clearly and succinctly is critical and I credit my training to this ability. Finally, I would add one modest bit of advice. While being active in politics is a laudable goal be careful what you wish for as I have found the time commitment substantial whether it be phone call, correspondence or informal discussions since I have found one can easily have hundreds of hours committed. All that being said, become involved at whatever level you find appropriate for your career and family situation. One of my favorite bumper stickers said " don't complain about farmers with your mouth full". One can apply the same logic to science.

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