Does Congress Need More (Social) Scientists?
August 16, 2010
By Kerry Bolger
Does Congress need more scientists? U.S. Representative Vernon J. Ehlers of Michigan thinks so. Ehlers, a physicist who is retiring from Congress after 17 years, has said that "someone has to replace me—we can't let this go backwards."
In the current Congress, only 17 House members and no senators are scientists (as defined by the admittedly arbitrary criterion of holding a Ph.D. in a science field). Social scientists make up about half that group. Educational Researcher recently asked those social scientists whether Congress needs more of them. Their answers reflect two themes: Congress needs members from more diverse backgrounds, and science is uniquely valuable—if it is skillfully applied.
Representatives Judy Chu of California and Dave Loebsack of Iowa both told Educational Researcher that Congress would benefit from more diversity. "It's good to have members of Congress from a variety of backgrounds," said Loebsack, a political scientist. "It probably wouldn't hurt if we had more scientists—Congress certainly has some professions that are overrepresented." According to Chu, a psychologist, "The more members from every walk of life that we attract, the better we're prepared to make decisions on the diverse set of issues we confront each day. Dealing with all sorts of issues from agriculture to NASA means that it's vital for us to have a number of different types of experts serving here."
Representative Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, an engineer and political scientist who is Co-Chair of the Congressional STEM Education Caucus, agrees that Congress needs more scientists. "There's no question that we have too few people trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics involved in government in America. People trained in these fields not only bring unique perspectives to substantive issues faced by government policy makers, they also bring special problem-solving skills to the table."
Representative Brian Baird of Washington, a psychologist who is retiring from the House this year after six terms, believes passionately that Congress needs more scientists—and more social scientists in particular. "I would encourage social scientists to run for office," Baird told Educational Researcher. "I so believe in the potential of what we have to offer, as disciplines and as individuals," he said, but "we're punching well below our weight." During his time in Congress, Baird led the fight against repeated political attacks on social science research funding. That funding is chronically under attack, he explained, from people who believe that "social sciences have nothing to teach us." According to Baird, "It's not enough to send us white papers." Instead, scientists should "get out of the ivory tower" and "become much more involved in politics." That includes learning to make their research findings relevant in the contexts of policy and politics, running for office, and supporting candidates for office who are friends of the social sciences.
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