Of all of the pathologies plaguing Congress today—partisan gridlock, a de facto three-day workweek, a revolving door between elected officials and lobbyists— one in particular commands little attention— its lack of professional diversity. When Congress’ homogeneity receives criticism, it’s usually an indictment of the fact that most of Congress is becoming increasingly polarized and that most elected officials are out of touch with average Americans. However, few critiques of Congress center on its occupational homogeneity. With a dwindling number of representatives from technical science backgrounds, Congress is largely dominated by representatives from the legal and business world.
Where are all of the scientist-policymakers? Well, they’re not being elected to national office. Executive-branch federal agencies such as the EPA, Office of Science and Technology, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission require regulators and policy experts with scientific expertise, but there’s no mandating professional diversity and technical expertise in Congress.
The numbers reflect this phenomenon. Lawyers, unsurprisingly, comprise most of Congress. Of the 100 seats in the Senate, only one is filled by someone from a technical science background. In its entirety, the Senate is comprised of four non-profit and community workers, seven educators, three farmers and ranchers, three medical professionals, twenty-two business-people, a whopping forty-five lawyers, nine career politicians and government employees, two entertainment and media executives, three career military and law enforcement officials, one social worker, and only one engineer. The House is more professionally diverse, but again, the plurality of members remains lawyers, 128 to be exact. Only a mere two out of 435 Representatives—a microbiologist and a physicist— come from science backgrounds (Bussinessweek.com).
This lack of occupational diversity in Congress, especially the lack of leaders from technical science backgrounds, impoverishes not only the organizational culture of Congress, but also its ability to critically engage scientific issues and make the best policy choices. Every organization, even one as notoriously factious and polarized as Congress, develops its own organizational culture. Most House Reps and Senators are former lawyers or business-people, and therefore come to Congress with the biases, skill sets, knowledge, and worldviews of those professions. Granted, many in Congress have had a variety of invaluable professional experiences— from military service, to education, to medicine— and boast impressive resumes, but the fact remains that most are lawyers. The lack of Congressmen from technical science backgrounds adversely affects Congress in the most ostensible way—Congress sorely lacks the expert skills and perspectives of the technical science community. In a 2012 interview with Scientific American, Representative Bill Foster (D- Illinois), then one of only two physicists in the House of Representatives, revealed how his scientific background informs his approach to making public policy decisions: “It’s very valuable when you’re formulating policy to attach even a rough number to what’s under discussion. That’s an instinct that engineers and scientists have.” Foster also highlighted the need for more scientists in public office:
I’m not advocating that Congress be dominated by scientists, but when I had a look at the composition of the U.S. Congress, even with a very generous definition of scientists, then roughly 4 percent have technical backgrounds. More people with scientific and engineering backgrounds simply have to say that they’re going to spend part of their lives in electoral politics explaining to the American public some of the fundamental facts about science and science policy as they relate to their public life (Scientific American).
Partisan politics often poisons the policy-making process, and while divorcing politics from policy is nearly impossible in Congress, lawmakers still have much to learn from the way the scientific community prizes empiricism and objectivity to critically engage challenging questions.
In February 2014, Congressman Rush Holt (D- New Jersey), the other half of the duo of physicists in the House of Representatives, announced his retirement. Before coming to the Capitol in 2009, Holt was a plasma physicist and assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. According to Science Magazine, “Holt was once part of a triumvirate of Ph.D. physicists in the House. But longtime Representative Vern Ehlers (R-MI) retired in 2010, and Representative Bill Foster (D-IL) returned to the House only last year after losing his one-term seat in 2010.”
It’s neither realistic nor feasible to expect the professional composition of Congress to change drastically in the next few years; the incumbency advantage, money politics, and the political climate in large part determine who returns to Congress. If we can’t elect a swath of nuclear scientists, particle physicists, engineers, and bio-chemists to Congress, we can at the very least educate and train the next generation of public servants to master technical science concepts. Former UC Berkeley physics professor Dr. Richard Muller had the foresight to address this problem by creating a course entitled “Physics for Future Presidents.” Now one of the most popular courses on the UC Berkeley campus, “Physics for Future Presidents” instructs students in basic physics concepts and their real-world, public policy applications so that students attain a working competency in rudimentary physics concepts. The engaging course explores a variety of critical topics in the physical sciences (e.g. quantum physics, relativity, atomic bombs, waves, light, climate change, gravity and space, nuclei and radioactivity, etc.), dispels popular misconceptions propagated by politicians and the media, and elucidates fascinating but little-known facts: How would global warming cause rising ocean levels and the flooding of coastline towns and cities? If the human body is itself radioactive, are fears of radioactivity irrational? What are the practical applications of wave-particle duality? Why are hydrogen fuel cells impractical? And many more.
Take for example the field of nuclear science. Nuclear science touches upon some of the most critical policy areas of our day— from nuclear waste disposal and radioactivity, to nonproliferation, to nuclear security and terrorism, to nuclear power—and is rife with opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration between the science and policy communities. Sadly, the field is often prone to irrational fears and misconceptions propagated by the media and popular culture, to which even some of our most sophisticated elected leaders may fall prey. With the retirement of Congressman Rush Holt, there’s one physicist left in Congress, a prospect that likely doesn’t bode well for the future of nuclear policy or the national attention it receives. More scientist-statesmen in Congress might translate to more voices for a coordinated global nuclear security effort, more minds explaining how to assess a country’s nuclear latency, more ideas on safe nuclear waste storage, and less irrational fears about radioactivity and more rational solutions.
Philosopher-kings may have been the ideal rulers for Plato’s utopian Kallipolis, but more of today’s leaders should be scientist-policymakers. Atmospheric pollution, reconnaissance, global warming, alternative energy, and nuclear nonproliferation are all policy areas where leaders from technical science backgrounds can make major contributions. In order to craft good public policy, we must train our future policymakers to have a basic understanding of fundamental technical science and an appreciation of the contributions of technical science to public policy so that they can make informed, responsible decisions.