A little light on the idea of science for the people.


August 8, 2011
Groups Call for Scientists to Engage the Body Politic

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 ³I don¹t know.² 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
/psychology_and_psychologists/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier>  and a
veterinarian), a chemist, a microbiologist and 6 engineers.

Now several groups are trying to change that. They want to encourage
scientists and engineers to speak out in public debates and even run for
public office. When it comes to global warming
inline=nyt-classifier>  and a host of other technical issues, ³there is a
disconnect between what science says and how people perceive what science
says,² said Barbara A. Schaal, a biologist and vice president of the
National Academy of Sciences <> . ³We need
to interact with the public for our good and the public good.²

Dr. Schaal heads the academy¹s 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.

³We are looking for people who are energy experts and who have a real desire
to reach out,² Dr. Schaal said.

Separately, a five-year-old nonprofit group called Scientists and Engineers
for America <> , or Sefora, offers guidance and
encouragement to researchers considering a run for public office ‹ from
local school boards to the House and Senate. With more scientists involved
in the legislative agenda, the group maintains, there can be better decision
making in things like research financing, math and science education and
national infrastructure problems.

³Just get involved, the country needs your expertise, your analytical
thinking and your approach to issues,² Vernon Ehlers, a physicist who came
to Congress in 1993, says in a video on the Sefora Web site. ³If you can
learn nuclear physics, you can learn politics.²

In a telephone interview, Dr. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican who retired this
year, said he thinks a kind of ³reverse snobbery² keeps researchers out of
public life. ³You have these professors struggling to write their $30,000
grant applications at the same time there are people they would never accept
in their research groups making $100-million decisions in the National
Science Foundation or the Department of Energy,² he said. He said it was
³shortsighted² of the science and engineering community not to encourage
³some of their best and brightest² into public life.

Until this year, Dr. Ehlers was part of a three-man physics caucus in the
House, along with Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, who was elected to
Congress in 1998, and Bill Foster, Democrat of Illinois, who won his seat in
2008 but lost it last year to a Republican with Tea Party
vement/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier>  support.

This year, Dr. Ehlers and Dr. Foster formed a bipartisan political action
committee they called Ben Franklin¹s List, whose goal was to offer engineers
and scientists the credibility and money they need to win office.
³Scientist, politician, patriot,² Dr. Foster said of Franklin. ³It¹s all

Ben Franklin¹s List was to be modeled on Emily¹s List, a group organized in
1985 to advance the cause of female candidates who supported abortion
ne=nyt-classifier>  rights. But Ben Franklin¹s List would have no
ideological litmus test.

In a sense, however, the project is suffering from its own ethos: Dr.
Foster, its major organizer, announced in May that he was a candidate for
Congress again and therefore would have to withdraw from the effort.

³There¹s no way I can run a nonpartisan organization the same time I am
running for Congress,² he said.

Dr. Foster, a onetime physicist at Fermilab, said he feared his departure
for the campaign trail would be ³a mortal blow² to Ben Franklin¹s List. But
Dr. Ehlers would not declare it dead, even though the project is more than
he can run himself, especially since he is out of Washington now. He said he
hoped others would embrace the idea.

³I would be willing to join forces with them,² he said. ³I am happy to help

Generally, hopes for technical bipartisanship rest in part on the belief ‹
widespread among researchers ‹ that the nation¹s engineers, as a group, tend
to be Republicans while its academic scientists tend to be Democrats. And in
theory, as Dr. Foster put it, if people on both sides of the aisle can agree
on ³the quantitative facts² of an issue, policy differences need not
inevitably lead to bitter partisan gridlock.

In other efforts, the American Association for the Advancement of Science
offers fellowships 
<>  that put new
Ph.D. researchers into Congressional offices and federal agencies. And the
Aldo Leopold Leadership Program <>  offers
environmental researchers training in how to communicate with the public and
policy makers. One of its founders was Jane Lubchenco, a marine scientist
who left a research position at Oregon State University in 2008 to lead the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sometimes finances are an issue. ³It¹s difficult to monetize something like
this,² said Brian D. Athey, a professor of biomedical informatics at the
University of Michigan Medical School and the chairman of the board of
Sefora. And he said Sefora did not know how many of the scientists and
engineers who have attended its workshops have sought ‹ or won ‹ elected
office. ³We need informed members of Congress, we need informed city mayors,
we need governors who understand science and engineering,² Dr. Athey said.

There is plenty of scope for these efforts, said Dr. Foster, who cited
³glaring instances of technical ignorance on both sides of the aisle.² He
recalled a fellow Democrat (whom he would not name) as advocating greater
use of wind power ³because windmills poll so well² ‹ 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.

Whether these various efforts can succeed is an open question.

Daniel S. Greenberg, author of the 2001 book ³Science, Money and Politics²
(University of Chicago Press), said in an interview that he thought the odds
of success were ³pretty poor,² in part because of the widespread belief that
such activity is inappropriate for serious researchers or taints their
objectivity. He pointed to the presidential election of 1964, when
scientists organized opposition to Barry Goldwater, the Republican
candidate. Goldwater was defeated, but, Mr. Greenberg said, the effort left
many researchers feeling ³we have sullied science.²

Even today, when researchers enter the political arena, ³the scientific
establishment holds that against a scientist to some extent,² 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 ³were wasting
ml?inline=nyt-classifier>  time and a sellout.² Young researchers today want
their work to be ³relevant, useful and used,² he said, but ³they still get
that message from their mentors.²

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.

³If you are a businessman, your business goes off the rails,² Dr. Foster
said. ³If you are a lawyer, your practice will degrade. You are asking
people to make a sacrifice, no question about it.²

In an interview last week, Dr. Foster compared what he called political
logic with scientific logic, citing the debate over the debt ceiling
debt_us/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> . ³The political logic is Œwhat I
can get away with saying that people will believe,¹ ² he said. ³The
scientific logic is Œwhat are the best estimates for the relevant numbers.¹
² When the two collide, he said, ³the political logic is overwhelming.²

Still, he plans to break away from his Congressional campaign this week to
address a conference at Brown University organized by the American Physical
Society, the nation¹s major organization of physicists. He developed the
outlines of his talk when he was working on Ben Franklin¹s List. His topic:
being a scientist in Congress.

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