Are scientists underrepresented in Congress?

Various scientists I know have been linking to a NY Times blog post bemoaning the fact that scientists are underrepresented in the US government. The author, John Allen Paulos, is a justly celebrated advocate for numeracy, so you’d expect him to get the numbers right. But as far as I can tell, his central claim is numerically unjustified.

As evidence for this underrepresenation, Paulos writes

Among the 435 members of the House, for example, there are one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist, six engineers and nearly two dozen representatives with medical training.

To decide if that’s underrepresentation, we have to know what population we’re comparing to. And there are three different categories mentioned here: scientists, engineers, and medical people. Let’s take them in turn.

“Pure” science .

The physicist, chemist, and microbiologist are in fact two people with Ph.D.’s and one with a masters degree.

Two Ph.D. scientists is actually an overrepresentation compared to the US population as a whole. Eyeballing a graph from a Nature article here, there were fewer than 15000 Ph.D.’s per year awarded in the sciences in the US back in the 1980s and 1990s (when most members of Congress were presumably being educated). The age cohort of people in their 50s (which I take to be the typical age of a member of Congress) has about 5 million people per year (this time eyeballing a graph from the US Census). So if all of those Ph.D.’s went to US citizens, about 0.3% of the relevant population has Ph.D.’s in science. A lot of US Ph.D.’s go to foreigners, so the real number is significantly less. Two out of 435 is about 0.45%, so there are too many Ph.D. scientists in Congress.

Presumably more people have masters degrees than Ph.D.’s, so if you define “scientist” as someone with either a masters or a Ph.D. in science, then it might be true that scientists are underrepresented in Congress. I couldn’t quickly find the relevant data on numbers of masters degrees in the sciences. In physics, it’s very few — about as many Ph.D.’s are granted as masters degrees in any given year, according to the American Institute of Physics. But it’s probably more in other disciplines.

So I’m quite prepared to believe that  having 3 out of 435 members of Congress in the category of “people with masters or Ph.D.’s in the sciences” means that that group is underrepresented. But I’m not convinced that that’s an interesting group to talk about. In particular, if you’re trying to count the number of people with some sort of advanced scientific training, it makes no sense to exclude physicians from the count.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that there are about 1.6 million engineering jobs in the US. The work force is probably something like 200 million workers, so engineers constitute less than 1% of the work force, but they’re more than 1% of the House (6/435). So engineers are overrepresented too.


Doctors are even more heavily overrepresented: there are about a million doctors in the US, which is about 0.5% of the work force, but “people with medical training” are about 5% of Congress. (Some of those aren’t physicians — for instance, one is a veterinarian — but most are.)

So what?

As a simple statement of fact, it is not true that scientists are underrepresented in Congress. What, then, is Paulos claiming? I can only guess that he intends to make a normative rather than a factual statement (that is, an “ought” rather than an “is”). Scientists are underrepresented in comparison to what he he thinks the number ought to be. Personally, my instinct would be to be sympathetic to such a claim. Unfortunately, he neither states this claim clearly nor provides much of an argument in support of it.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

9 thoughts on “Are scientists underrepresented in Congress?”

  1. I would bet that almost every field represented in Congress is overrepresented with respect to the population as a whole, due to the fact that lots of fields (cosmetology, auto repair, etc) are not represented at all in Congress. Maybe what he means is that scientists are an under-represented category of the subset of the population likely to be elected to congress–i.e. under-represented with respect to some reasonable prior.

  2. Absolutely, Brent. Do we really want political leaders at the highest and most critical level of decisionmaking, dealing with enormously complex issues, to have AVERAGE educational background? Well, as a matter of fact, that was a presumption of the Andrew Jackson administration; It abandoned the practice of the first six Presidents who continued Washington’s model of hiring government officials and employees based on education and competence, in favor of the assumption that any citizen should be able to perform any governmental function.

    Ted Bunn’s point is cute but shallow. Ted: do you do your physics at that level?

  3. If scientists are over represented, what do you call lawyers? Nigh on to half the members are lawyers, not trained in any scientific or other endeavor. There are a lot of scientific issues that need to be looked at and most members of Congress do not have a clue.

  4. Better to ask how many Lawyers there are in congress and whether we are over represented in Law. Or for that matter how many house wife’s, single mums, African Americans, women! are represented in Congress. What about bigots, zealots and fundamentalists – surely they are over represented! How many atheists are there in congress?

    What I’m really saying is that Congress or any of the houses of parliaments in democracies of the western world, including Australia, where I am from, are woeful at any true representation. They are also lobbied to by vested interest and the corporation or lobbyist with the deepest pockets wins! They have direct conversations, great influence and are really driving the decisions that affect the world in which we live.

    Think coal seam gas, oil exploration, casinos, large scale development, mining leases, port expansions, petroleum industries, plastic industries, power generation, banking and finance, stock markets, etc. etc. For the powers that be, these industries are the ones they care about most. These industries are amongst the industries with greater influence. These industries drive the daily decisions made by our parliamentarians. The people are merely and end to a means. Consumers provide opportunity, but you and I are really no more thought of than that.

  5. I am not sure what he meant but I know what I think…… Scientists are underrepresented due to the fact that in our current complex world, advanced training in critical thinking, data analysis, scientific reasoning, with a foundation in biology (the study of life) SHOULD be required of anyone in congress. Physicians, Veterinarians, Biologists, and other life scientists should be hugely over-represented. Other pure scientists (physics, engineering, etc..) should also be over represented if only to help sort the issues that overwhelm the average citizen. Lawyers, as well as most other professions, are filled with smart people, but not those well trained in biology which is the ultimate need today as our population soars towards 10 billion, and the risks to our planet and therefore our lives mount……

  6. So then why are you confounding your numbers by assuming that the Ph.D is the only level of science required to understand complex national issues regarding science? Furthermore, Ph.D’s were not required for as many positions when your cohort sample was being educated. Perhaps including the general population percentage to include Masters, and Bachelor levels of sciences is more appropriate. Your use of Doctors is pretty laughable as well you are partitioning scientists into small groups and wold then be forced to compare those to Doctors of all disciplines too i.e. Ob-Gyn, Dermatology, and on and on. So perhaps sharpen up your study then attack the mans physics, or critique his physics if you have the gumption 🙂

  7. You’re applying a logic to one group of people in congress and then neglecting the fact that white people, men, lawyers, and christians are, I’m almost certain, grossly overrepresented in congress.

    And I absolutely agree with Brad: “Do we really want political leaders at the highest and most critical level of decisionmaking, dealing with enormously complex issues, to have AVERAGE educational background”

  8. “And I absolutely agree with Brad: “Do we really want political leaders at the highest and most critical level of decisionmaking, dealing with enormously complex issues, to have AVERAGE educational background”

    There is the story that Eisenhower was shocked when an aide mentioned that fully half of the U.S. population was lower than average in intelligence. Reminds me of those old pimp-your-website spam emails: “We’ve managed to place thousands of websites into the top 10″.

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