The Democrats and the scientific estate

Scientists are popularly respected, and friendly to Democrats. The Republicans have been mistreating scientists and science. This is a political opportunity for the Democrats, but one they’re not currently grabbing.

1. “Science” as a belief system is at least as potent in American life as religion. People &#8212 including people who read astrology columns, attend mega-churches, and tell pollsters they don’t believe in evolution &#8212 trust scientists, think that most practical issues ought to be addressed on the basis of scientific knowledge, and believe that growing scientific knowledge (which most of them don’t sharply distinguish from technology) will solve their problems. Even the global warming denialists appeal to the (largely mythical) divisions among scientists; no one suggests that we address the problem by prayer. (Natural science is far more potent in this way that social science.)

2. Large numbers of relatively prosperous people (and some astoundingly rich people) make their living from scientific activity and think of themselves as scientists.

3. Except for chemists and geologists, who mostly work in private industry, scientists tend to lean Democratic.

4. Scientists aren’t very mobilized politically. Presidential candidates don’t give talks at big scientific meetings.

5. The Bush Maladministration and the Republican Party have shown their hostility to, and contempt for, science in myriad ways: making scientifically nonsensical policy decisions and pronouncements, vetting members of formerly nonpartisan scientific advisory panels for political reliability, and interfering with stem cell research.

6. Over the longer term, major institutions for providing scientific advice to government have been seriously weakened (the White House Science Adviser’s office) or killed (the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment). The Clinton Administration showed no impulse to restore the Science Adviser’s office to its Killian-Kistiakowsky era prominence, and the resurgent Congressional Democrats haven’t move to restore OTA.

7. The universities, and especially the elite universities, are hated by the right wing for good reason. But they’re also the gatekeepers of the meritocracy and major engines of scientific progress, which means that neither corporate America nor well-off and rich individuals are really inclined to be hostile to them. As with the military, but with the opposite valence, the universities are respected and admired, and their work valued, even by those who don’t share and don’t like their overall political orientation. Putting more money into the universities is arguably good policy. It’s certainly good politics for the Democrats, since it’s both popular and a way to increase the power and wealth of an economic sector whose employees and managers are overwhelmingly friendly to Democrats.

8. There’s an opportunity here for the Democrats generally, and for any of the Democratic Presidential candidates specifically, to speak out for both the ideals and the material interests of the scientific community. There ought to be room for more than $7 billion for the NSF in a Federal budget heading for $3 trillion. Even the biologists, who have been doing very well out of the National Institutes of Health, would like to see that budget grow. Most of the voters will agree.

Update A chemist-reader urges me not to forget engineers, who historically lean Republican but who aren’t happy campers now:

Silicon Valley despises Bush, which goes to your points #2 & 5-8. The hottest single button, I think, is creationism in the schools, followed closely by stem cell research, followed at some distance by global warming. Mileage may vary.

I would add that engineers find very uncongenial the general atmosphere of magical/wishful thinking that surrounds GWB. Engineers pride themselves on being reality-based.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: