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Let science lead: We need more leaders with science backgrounds

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The current coronavirus pandemic is teaching us the importance of accurate scientific knowledge to guide political decisions. We are seeing how political leaders in Italy, Spain, the UK and the U.S. ignored scientific advice and pushed their countries to the brink of catastrophe. In all four cases, after initially ignoring the claims and data provided by the scientific community, the leadership changed strategies and began accepting their guidance — when it’s most likely too late

The coronavirus crisis is not an isolated case, climate change is also a good example of how political leadership ignores science. Sadly, not trusting is costing many lives and threatening the survival of our planet.

Based on data from the Congressional Research Archive, the professional experience of the vast majority of the members of the 116th Congress comes from politics, business and law. Based on this same survey, when adding healthcare professionals and engineers to the equation, we end up with 37 STEM inclined representatives in the House and the Senate combined — 7 percent of Congress. 

However, if we restrict the definition to formerly practicing scientists, there is only one: Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois who was for 25 years a researcher on high-energy particle physics at the renowned Fermilab

By comparison, law-related professionals constitute 35 percent of our congressional representatives. The scarce representation of scientists, also of STEM-related professionals, among our legislators, is probably one of the reasons why science is ignored among our leaders. Science has few authorized voices in Congress that can effectively advocate for it. 

This is not the voters’ fault; not many scientists run for office. During the midterm elections, 18 STEM-related candidates ran for federal office, including Bill Foster. Twelve of them won. That is a great accomplishment, but the numbers are small compared with the total number of seats, and Dr. Foster is still the only member of Congress that holds a Ph.D. 

Why don’t scientists run for office? There are many reasons. For one thing, scientists are not normally exposed to the wiles of federal policymaking processes as much as lawyers. Fortunately, programs for early-career scientists, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, are trying to bridge this gap. 

However, there is nothing similar for more senior and experienced researchers to help them to transition between science and government. Another problem is the intensity of science. Leaving your lab for a legislative period or two essentially means shutting it down, unless you lead a very strong, well-established facility and have someone you can leave in charge — which is not the most common scenario. 

Retired scientists are probably the best candidates to run for office, as they most likely do not lead active labs and are very experienced. However, it would be ideal to have a Congress with a diverse representation of scientists from different generations and backgrounds.  Finally, the mechanisms that the political parties use to recruit candidates for Congress are better fitted to attract lawyers or public servants, not scientists. To overcome this, initiatives such as 314 Action are essential. Since 2014, 314 Action has been recruiting and helping scientists and other STEM professionals run for office; they actively helped nine of the 2018 STEM candidates get elected.

To establish a fluent dialogue between our citizens, our leadership, our government, and science, it is not enough to just call on scientific advisors for the technical issues. We need scientists acting as decision-makers in Congress, passing laws and defining policy. Not only that, we need scientists acting as city mayors, governing states, or —why not? — presiding over the nation. We find a fine example of that in Germany.

The response of the country against coronavirus has been one of the best in Europe, and the best among highly populated European countries. The coronavirus death per capita in Germany is seven times lower than in Spain and four times lower than in the United Kingdom. The reason for that is a strategy based on massive testing and following the scientific advisors’ recommendations when implementing measures to fight the pandemic. It has been noted that a key aspect of this success is that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a scientist, holding a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry

As a scientist, she relied on and trusted the scientific experts to prepare Germany’s response against coronavirus. She insufflated trust into Germany’s citizenry during public appearances where information, honesty and rigor were a cornerstone of all her speeches, contrasted with the daily briefings of the president of the United States, where misdirected ideas that are confusing and, in some cases, even harmful for the population are communicated. The death toll per capita in the U.S. doubles that in Germany.

By not having enough scientists actively involved in politics, we are losing a rich and valuable way to perceive our world, making the debate of ideas in our legislatures poorer and less diverse. We are also losing their insight in the way we shape the future of our communities, the laws that are being passed (or not) now will define the nation in the following years. Laws and executive decisions that are mainly written and executed by professional politicians, businessmen and lawyers. The world we live in and the world that is coming is the world envisioned by them.

Science has pushed our societies farther, has led us to live a healthier and longer life. I would like to see science and scientists playing a major role in building our communities and leading our countries, not being consulted only when they are the last hope to solve a crisis.

Javier del Campo, Ph.D., is a microbial ecologist and an assistant professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. 

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