For too long scientists have approached politics with one hand tied behind their backs. This November, Chris Mooney says, that's going to change.

Illustration by Adam Billyeald

From the November issue of Seed:

Two years ago I attended an event at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio sponsored by a group called Scientists and Engineers for Change. Lawrence Krauss headlined a bill that included Leon Lederman and two other Nobel Laureates. One after another, each speaker blasted the administration of George W. Bush for its treatment of science. For sheer intellectual content, the event rated an A, but its political influence seemed limited. The media largely passed on it too: There was a story buried deep in the next day’s local paper, but that’s about it.

Scientists and Engineers for Change formed to support the election of John Kerry in 2004. Today it has reemerged bearing a new strategy, a new name—Scientists and Engineers for America—and a new attitude, one reflecting the idea that, to flex their political muscles, scientists need to do a lot more than simply give talks. Mike Brown, a lawyer and political consultant who directed the successful 2004 congressional election campaign of Jim Moran (D-VA), is the group’s new executive director. Making the news with petitions and talks is fine, he says, but “you have to have follow-up and make sure that these moves really lead to electoral action.” Brown hopes Scientists and Engineers for America can build upon the experience of the 2004 election, channeling outrage over repeated attacks on science in Congress and the executive branch into actual votes in 2006 and beyond.

Scientists and Engineers for America exists as a “527” group like MoveOn.org or (much as we hate to mention them) Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; in accordance with electoral laws and fundraising regulations, such groups cannot make direct endorsements or coordinate with candidates but can run ads criticizing or praising specific candidates’ positions and engage in other political activities. The group will analyze the voting records of members of Congress on matters of science and seek to educate the public about the importance of scientific integrity. Assuming it can attract enough funding, Scientists and Engineers for America has a real chance to redefine the role of science in politics, at a moment when such a redefinition is increasingly essential. More than ever before, scientific information has fallen under political attack; and this requires—no, demands—an effective political response.

What Scientists and Engineers for America seeks to accomplish runs strongly against the instincts of the nation’s scientists, however, who have traditionally been much more inclined to write a letter to Nature than sign a check funding attack ads. Scientists have preferred less direct means of influence, like releasing technical reports and studies with thinly veiled policy implications, as opposed to directly confronting political candidates who egregiously misuse and abuse scientific information. Science, they have often argued, must enjoy bipartisan support in order to ensure steady levels of federal research funding. Explicit engagement in politics would inevitably upset this fine balance, prompting politicians to make research dollars contingent on scientists’ political support.

One prior attempt by scientists to shape politics overtly demonstrated this inertia. In 1996 a group called Science Watch Inc., with a star-studded roster of Nobel Laureates and science policy luminaries, announced a set of ratings of Congress members—not unlike what Scientists and Engineers for America is planning—based on 30 votes they had cast on science-related issues over a two-year period.

The Science Watch approach closely mimicked political ranking systems regularly
employed by interest groups ranging from the League of Conservation Voters to the Christian Coalition. Yet when Democrats on the whole scored considerably better than Republicans on the survey (just as they do in LCV surveys), many Republicans and scientists alike denounced the ratings. Robert Walker, a denier of human-caused global warming who was then the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science, accused the survey of “politicizing science.” “I don’t think you could find a member [of Congress] who is anti-science,” he later added. (Walker’s own vote rating was 40 percent; he had supported the killing of the Office of Technology Assessment, Congress’s world-renowned scientific advisory body.)

The chief issue is ensuring that science actually plays its proper role in informing political decision making and preserving the role of science in a democracy.

That was the last time Science Watch released a congressional evaluation. But as we now know, the attacks on science from a decade ago were just the beginning. Today, though, the chief issue isn’t funding; it’s scientific integrity. It’s ensuring that science actually plays its proper role in informing political decision making and preserving the role of science in a democracy. All these issues have monumental implications for the future—America’s, and that of our planet. A science watchdog group with teeth is more crucial than ever.
Going into the November congressional elections, Scientists and Engineers for America has targeted an as-yet unannounced group of congressional races to try and influence. Whatever happens when votes are cast in November, the group must be sure to handle the issue of partisanship with agility, both in 2006 and as candidates and advocacy groups gear up for 2008. As the stem-cell vote in July demonstrated, Republicans are the most influential foes of science today—but not every Republican. Scientists and Engineers for America should identify science-friendly Republicans as well as Democrats and try to help them in their races. Though the “war on science” has clearly taken place in the context of Republican political rule, the group should reward Republicans who want the party to reform itself.

Most important, if the pro-science community mobilizes, it will quickly discover a coterie of political allies. “What’s happening to the Congress is that there is a bloc of people who vote in support of the religious right’s agenda, or who vote to support candidates who discount or misuse science,” Mike Brown observes. “We need the other bloc, the people who want change, to also vote and fight for the elections.”

The scientific community is ready to become that bloc—more so than at any time in recent memory. True, it means entering a brave new political world, but its one we’ve been pushed toward for quite some time. Scientists haven’t yet been doing any real pushing back; they’ve fought with one hand tied behind their backs until now. It’s a strategy that won’t work anymore. As Bob Palmer, the former Democratic staff director of the House Committee on Science, has stated, “politics is a contact sport which operates by reward and punishment.” The sooner the scientific community embraces this reality, the better, both for themselves and for the future of science and policy in America.

Originally published October 5, 2006

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