Do we need more scientists in Congress?

Yesterday I posted a criticism of John Allen Paulos’s blog post asking “Why Don’t Americans Elect Scientists?” I focused on the numbers, arguing that scientists are if anything overrepresented in Congress. But it’s worth stepping back and looking at the bigger question: Why might we want more scientists in Congress?

The usual answer, as far as I can tell, is that technology-related issues are important, so we should have representatives who understand them. As Paulos puts it, “given the complexities of an ever more technologically sophisticated world, the United States could benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government.”

I guess that’s true, but there are lots of areas in which one might wish for expertise in Congress, and I’m not sure technology’s all that near the top. My wish list might include people with expertise in economics, diplomacy, demography, ethics, sociology, and psychology above technology.

I’m not sure that “scientist” is all that great a proxy for “expert in technology” anyway. Some scientists certainly have such expertise, but many don’t, and many non-scientists do. How good a proxy it is depends in part on what you mean by the word “scientist.” Paulos seems to mean “person with some sort of technical training,” but in that case you should certainly include engineers and doctors, in which case the level of representation in Congress is quite high.

When a scientist says we need more scientists in Congress, I suspect that the real reason is not expertise in technology but some combination of the following:

  • Scientists are smart, and we need more smart people in Congress.
  • Scientists will be more likely to base policy decisions on analytic, data-based arguments.
  • Scientists will be more likely to support increased funding for science.

I’m actually sympathetic to all of these arguments, but let’s remember that not all scientists meet these criteria and plenty of non-scientists do.


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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!

3 thoughts on “Do we need more scientists in Congress?”

  1. Congressmen are by nature required to be generalists, crafting legislation and voting on a variety of public policy issues. It’s impossible for anyone to be an expert on all of them, which is why Congressmen have large staffs of advisors to serve as the subject experts on specific legislation. What we need is to elect people to Congress who are smart enough to hire people with technological expertise and actually listen to them. But then you have the problem that those types of people can probably do better working in the private sector.

  2. Scientists are not just people who are technology experts. Sociologists and Psychologists are scientists too y’know.

    sci·en·tist (sn-tst)
    A person having expert knowledge of one or more sciences, especially a natural or physical science.
    scientist [ˈsaɪəntɪst]
    a person who studies or practises any of the sciences or who uses scientific methods

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