Why Americans Should Put More Scientists in the White House

Why don't more leaders in the U.S. have science backgrounds?

What is the Big Idea?

As the U.S. wades deep into the election season, voters are bombarded with information and raising questions about the candidates' qualifications. But one question that doesn't get asked often is why don't more leaders in the U.S. have science backgrounds?

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, John Allen Paulos weighs in on the question and points out the deficit of scientists in leadership positions in the United States. In China, eight out of the nine top political positions are held by engineers. President Hu Jintao was trained as a hydraulic engineer and Premier Wen Jiabao as a geomechanical engineer. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in physical chemistry and Margaret Thatcher has a degree in chemistry.

In Singapore, president Tony Tan and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong both have degrees in mathematics.

Paulos points out some other glaring numbers. "Of the 435 members of the House there are one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist, six engineers and nearly two dozen representatives with medical training," he says.

What is the Significance?

So how is it that America has failed to give scientists and engineers their time in the spotlight as leaders? Paulos says scientists lack the delicate touch that makes politicians charming and effective.

One reason is that an abstract, scientific approach to problems and issues often leads to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs and scientists are sometimes tone-deaf to the social environment in which they state their conclusions. A more politically sensitive approach to problems and issues, on the other hand, often leads to positions that simply don’t jibe with the facts, no matter how delicately phrased. Examples as diverse as stem cell research and the economic stimulus abound.

Politicians, whose job is in many ways more difficult than that of scientists, naturally try to sway their disparate constituencies, but the prevailing celebrity-infatuated, money-driven culture and their personal ambitions often lead them to employ rhetorical tricks rather than logical arguments. Both Republicans and Democrats massage statistics, use numbers to provide decoration rather than information, dismiss, or at least distort, the opinions of experts, torture the law of the excluded middle (i.e., flip-flop), equivocate, derogate and obfuscate.

In other words, colorful anecdotes usually trump hard facts and figures. And sometimes "too few scientists are willing to engage in public debates, to explain the relevance of their fields clearly and without jargon, and, in the process, to risk some jeering from a few colleagues." 

Norm Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin says this needs to change. The path to national success is science and engineering and he argues that the key to inspiring students to enter the profession is by giving scientists more attention.

"Scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They’re not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S., but rather as society’s leaders and innovators." he said in a Forbes article. "Why does this matter? Because if American students have a negative impression – or no impression at all – of science and engineering, then they’re hardly likely to choose them as professions.

In an increasingly technologically sophisticated world, the United States could "benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government," says Paulos. "More people with scientific backgrounds would be a welcome counterweight to the vast majority of legislators and other officials in this country who are lawyers."

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