Since the early 1970s, all aspects of academia have skewed left. With that political shift, the confidence that scientists are neutral arbiters for the public good has also declined on both sides.
More Republicans than Democrats think the fix is in regarding a green 'agenda' and global warming whereas more Democrats than Republicans think scientists are shills for Big Ag, Big Pharm, etc. regarding food and vaccines. Basically, science can't win but there was a time when being an academic, and certainly a scientist, was impressive and not a presumption about a political world view. Getting into the political muck - and plenty of advocates for science recommend doing more of it, not less - has been a bad thing for credibility.
I'm not here to try and explain the skew - even people who consider themselves the reality-based community are not always rational and politics brings out the irrational in humans. Nonsense like that 'left wing people are smarter and the right is too dumb for academia' or 'right wing people care too much about money' doesn't add up; despite what you may have read in pop psychology articles, there is no special gene that Americans have evolved that makes them left or right, and when academia was balanced politically a few decades ago, it paid terribly compared to now, so it isn't money. The skew left also can't be because one side is more 'pro-science'. Funding talks when it comes to supporting science and Republican administrations have consistently supported science more than Democratic ones, instead funding is dismissed as unimportant when it deviates from a predisposed political belief. Despite the spin that he was anti-science, President George W. Bush was the first president to federally fund human embryonic stem cell research and the NIH budget doubled under Republicans, so most outside the life sciences were never buying the spin that he 'banned' stem cell research. If it were simply a question of funding, most scientists would be Republicans, if it were just a question of "pro-science" culture, there would not be the disconnect between the hard sciences and the life and social sciences when it comes to political diversity.
Yet there is a disconnect.
First, let's discuss the biggest problem for science culture in 2012 and it is not that Obama might not get reelected. Basically, politicians on both sides don't care what academic scientists think. They are scrambling for every Hispanic vote yet academic scientists are given token lip service and not much else.
I got a mass email from Shawn Otto, co-founder of Science Debate, concerned that most politicians were not answering their science questions. I have discussed this issue for years (and again recently) and I may be the only person in science media who has noted the Big White Elephant in the room; despite being a $140 billion enterprise, politicians can safely ignore science. The reason is simple; academic scientists have let pundits in their midst frame the debate to imply they are never going to vote for a Republican - only dumb people vote for Republicans - which means their votes are never 'in play'. If no votes are up for grabs, Democrats don't need to listen, all they have to do is a 'get out the vote' campaign a week before the election. Likewise, Republicans know academics are a lost cause regardless of what they do so, like campaigning in California, any efforts will be token.
Thus, Democrats like Sen. Harry Reid, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and lots of others who hold seats on important science and environmental committees can ignore pleas for answers to science policy questions right along with Republicans. What are scientists going to do, endorse a Republican if Democrats don't reply? Nope.
Other than being invoked for either the scientization of politics or the politicization of science, politicians don't want to hear from science. Nor are they listening. Romney and Obama are happy to have one of their handlers draft some generic responses to science questions, but no one in Congress needs to bother. And so they don't.
As I have noted above and in the past, diversity of political thought is one thing Hispanics get right. They are not a bloc voting for anyone, they voted for Bush and then they voted for Obama. As a result, both parties are scrambling to create positions that appeal to them.
Chemists get that right too - but some of that is because there are a lot of scientists in the private sector of chemistry, so they are immune to academic cultural pressure. Like the rest of the hard sciences, even within academia they are more diverse than the life and social sciences, they realize that there is no 'pro-science' party and that every politician picks and chooses their science positions based on confirmation of belief.
All fine, yet the leadership, the 'elites' that the left loves in invoke in their appeal-to-authority fallacies, of science societies ignore their members and make endorsements that may hurt their cause in the long run. Rebecca Trager of the Royal Society of Chemistry quotes Glenn Ruskin, a spokesperson for American Chemical Society, who says, "The biggest difference between the candidates is that Obama has a well-defined plan when it comes to scientific investment" and Ben Corb, an official with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, who says "Obama has a pretty clear track record that we can be supportive of".
Really? We all agree we need to be wary of presidents who ignore scientists in the administration, who edit science reports to match their agendas, who squelch scientists that disagree, and who limit federal funding for (well, 'ban') hESC research. Those are things President Obama has done, as Dr. Alex Berezow and I note in Science Left Behind. He simply swapped out conservative anti-science beliefs with progressive ones, his methods have been identical regarding the three things scientists were most critical of Bush about. So Ruskin and Corb above, representing tens of thousands of scientists, are not talking about a cultural track record, being pro-science, they are only talking about funding, where Republicans have historically led. In other words, there is no way they were going to endorse anyone but a Democrat regardless of data.
Now, President Obama did spend. He gave money for science, just like he vowed; he also vowed to spend more money on everything and did that too. He seems to think the treasury is a magical place and you just print more bills and he can give them out but chemists know there is no magic pot and when the president is throwing money at everyone, he has no special place in his heart for science. His 'cash for clunkers' program was terrifically popular with people who bought new cars using taxpayer money. It cost each of us $25,000 per automobile to swap out old cars that were going to be replaced anyway and it did nothing at all for emissions. His stimulus plan gave an additional $10 billion to the NIH and over $21 billion for science overall but you can't just throw money at problems or that ol' dragon cancer would have been cured 20 years ago. His Department of Energy subsidized the energy sector to the tune of $72 billion. Does that really make someone pro-science? No, it means someone can't balance a checkbook.
Trager's article is 1,500 words telling the chemistry world why they should love Obama and how much 'concern' there is about Romney from science leadership. Yet despite the media and leadership telling them what to believe, Romney is receiving twice as much in donations from chemists as Obama.
Is the American Chemical Society using its money to act in ways its members do not support? It wouldn't be the first time, as their war on open access publishing can attest. Do 'elites' in the ACS or other science groups regard their members as misinformed or misguided? Patronizing, but possible.
Scientists in academia also need to recognize that they cannot let science media or elites create an 'us and them' mentality if they want to be heard. Republicans have consistently led in science funding and that counts for more than pretty words. No other voting bloc rationalizes its position by claiming a position on something else is important; teacher unions do not support Democrats because of late-term abortion, they support Democrats because Democrats put unions first and scientists should also act in their own interests, not someone else's. The education unions would never let a Democrat talk about being pro-union and then tear them down in policy the way scientists have allowed four more years of anti-science beliefs to go by unchallenged.
Listening to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie meander during his talk at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, he only said one thing that I thought was interesting; "They believe in teacher's unions, we believe in teachers".
What he meant was that union rules that drum out good teachers at the expense of the ones who have been there longer is not good for teachers nor is it good for society- and teachers are also not happy with that culture. Did Christie sway any votes? No, like with the Democratic National Convention this week, he was talking primarily to the faithful, but he had it right that, like with science organizations, the elites in education leadership are more out of touch with their members than they seem to realize. So Christie was appealing to them directly. $56 out of $60 million in campaign contributions distributed by the NEA and the AFT have gone to Democrats yet only 51% of teachers call themselves Democrats. Teachers are putting themselves 'in play' even if their unions are in the bag for one party. That's smart, it means Republicans will have have to compete if the 26% listing themselves as 'independent' are actually independent and not simply trying to not look like the union teacher stereotype.
If academic scientists (and all academics, really) want respect and not a 'you will take government money whether we listen to you or not' mentality from Congressional politicians, they need to stop penalizing conservatives in academia and start showing the same political independence, tolerance and creativity about politics that they show about science.
The 21st century is a science century. Scientists are a $140 billion chunk of America - if the science community makes politicians do what it wants rather than accepting what politicians do, that is a win for all.
Want more myths and fallacies about science and society debunked? Science Left Behind comes out September 12th, 2012.
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