The Sciences

Do Politicians Understand the Science?


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Ever since joining an listserv before the 2008 election, I've been receiving emails from all sorts of folks across levels of government. Last night a note came from a candidate running for Senate in a state I've never resided in. Since the topic being discussed was the oil spill, I read on. I agreed with much of the sentiment--that the devastation in the Gulf is sad, that we need to protect the marine realm, and that better policies should be instituted to make sure it never happens again. But then I looked for substance. I wanted to read his positions on the critical issues at hand related to oil, energy, national security, and so on. "We need an energy policy" it said. That was all. There was a pretty photo of him looking at the ocean too. It's not that I discourage good intentions, but real leaders in government need to show us how they have thought through the complexities on subjects like energy. On reading that email, my take home was that this person didn't have much to bring to the table. Candidacy usually involves a lot of lip service to be elected, and if that occurs, much time in office must be spent maintaining the position for the next cycle. An email that says a candidate wants "an energy policy" tells me nothing. I need to find out how he plans to work (as a freshman Senator no less) to achieve that end and what his ideas for what better policies would sound like. Lately we've been discussing the growing rift between science and the American public. Perhaps the best place to begin bridging the divide is to get more of those with scientific expertise working in political positions of influence. For this to happen, policy has to become a more acceptable trajectory for young people in science, and less of a so-called "alternate career choice" *cringe*. It's not just about running for office either. I would love to see more Congress people with science advisors given the most pressing issues are related to climate, oceans, energy, and human health. Many of those gambling with the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants at the moment do not have the expertise to understand the ramifications of their decisions. Some are influenced by special interest groups. We can and must do better. I often meet students who tell me they went into science to make a significant contribution to the world. By getting involved in the policy making process, they might very well play the most important role of all. So to those reading this in advisee positions, to teachers and high school guidance counselors, to parents and mentors: Encourage those young people who understand what's at stake and have the capacity to come up with real solutions--to our growing energy problem, a warming planet, and the rest of the challenges ahead--to consider politics.

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