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A crash course in true political science

Campaigning Scientists
Paul Bunje a Californian who earned his doctorate studying snail evolution is photographed, heads back to school to learn a trickier task: How to get elected to public office.Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Daniel Suson has a doctorate in astrophysics and has worked on the superconducting super collider and a forthcoming NASA probe. Now he's heading back to school to take on an even trickier task — getting elected to public office.

He is among a growing number of scientists who feel slighted and abused in the public debate in recent years and are mobilizing for a new effort to inject "evidence-based decision making" into public policy.

On Saturday, Suson, dean of engineering, mathematics and science at Purdue University Calumet, will join more than 70 other scientists, engineers and students at a hotel at Georgetown University for a crash course on elective politics.

"I've always been interested in politics, but my participation has been limited to yelling at my television," said Jason Haeseler, a Florida engineer and former registered Republican who will take the class and hopes to run for office as an independent.

The workshop includes advice on putting together a campaign staff, raising money, keeping a budget and using the Internet to their advantage. There will be networking and cocktails, staples of Washington politics.

They will also learn the art of dealing with the media and mastering the all-important sound bite — something of a challenge for scientists more comfortable with the arcane.

Science has become a part of every major issue of modern life, said neurologist Alan Leshner, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"At the same time that's happening, there's increased tensions between science and society," he said.

Scientists cite the debate over global warming as an example of having their insights and warnings cast aside. They have also complained the Bush administration has censored some of their research on warming and endangered species.

Scientists are also pushing hard for a presidential debate this year focusing on climate change and other science issues. So far, they have not persuaded the presidential candidates to agree to the forum.

Rep. Bill Foster, a physicist elected to the House in March as a Democrat from the Illinois district once held by then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, said the push for a larger role for science in politics is important.

"Politicians have thought they could get away with saying things that are quantitatively false," Foster said in an interview Friday.

Foster said he wants more fact and less ideology in political debate. He said the Bush administration's "twisting" and "abusing" of science policy has caused scientists to become more politicized.

The group running the course, Scientists and Engineers for America, doesn't ask political affiliation of its students and has teachers from both parties, said Lesley Stone, a lawyer who runs the organization.

"Scientists are trained to solve problems and use evidence-based decision making and we think those are really useful skills for elected officials to have," she said.

Congress already has a sprinkling of scientists — three physicists, three chemists, a microbiologist and a biomedical engineer. There are also 13 medical doctors, two dentists, three nurses, two veterinarians, a psychologist, an optometrist and a pharmacist.

That's nothing compared with 215 lawyers.

"Physics is a lot more fun than politics because it presents a great intellectual challenge. You're wrestling with the secrets of nature," said Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., the most senior of the three physicists. "Politics is not hard. It's learning to work with people."

Ehlers described decision-making in Congress as "irrational" — not necessarily a bad thing because it may mean the decisions are connected to emotions and people.

Foster, the Illinois Democrat, said he already has seen a difference between his old world of physics and the new one of politics.

"Both worlds are populated by smart people, most of them trying to do the right things," Foster said. "The thought patterns and internal logic of why things happen are very different."

Suson, who recently moved from Texas to Indiana, says he's several years away from a first run for elective office. He worries that politics could be harder than physics: Learning physics went along "a fairly linear progression," he said.

"Politics is not that. You've got to do something that I find a lot of Ph.D.'s don't do well and that's listen," he said. "You have to pay attention to what people want."

But there's a risk, said Paul Light, author of the new book "A Government Ill Executed."

While the public perceives scientists as being objective, Light said he worries "the more active scientists and engineers in the political debate, the more they risk their objectivity."

Paul Bunje, a Californian who earned his doctorate studying snail evolution and works as a policy fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency, hopes Saturday's class isn't about big ideas and concepts.

The scientist in him wants to set the soaring rhetoric aside and learn the practical steps for an eventual dip into elective office.

"Just how different is this from the life of a scientist, and is this something scientists can be good at?" he wondered.

Light said it may mean making some personality changes for the scientists.

"Scientists will have to get rid of their pocket protectors and kind of improve their political skills and get a more visible sense of humor perhaps," Light said. "But I think they'll be fine politicians."

Academics may be used to the "backstabbing" of university life, Light said, but he added that politics includes something scientists could be less familiar with: "backslapping."