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.