APS News

Civic Engagement Benefits Both Science and Society

Text of APS Statement on Civic Engagement

At its November meeting, the APS Council has passed the following statement on civic engagement of scientists:

"Many of the complex problems our society and its public officials face require an understanding of scientific and technical issues. Basic scientific knowledge is critical to making balanced policy decisions on pressing issues such as climate change, energy policy, medical procedures, the nation’s technical infrastructure, and science education standards.

"Increasing the representation of scientists and engineers in public office at the federal, state and local levels, and in positions of responsibility at government agencies, can help ensure that informed policy and science funding decisions are made. Scientists and engineers in public office–including school board members, mayors and legislators–have made significant contributions, not only on specific scientific issues but also by bringing their analytical and problem-solving abilities into the arena of public service. Additionally, many have found that civic engagement has contributed to their professional development through exposure to the broader implications of their work.

"The American Physical Society recognizes that its members elected to public office or who hold key scientific and technical positions within government effectively serve both the physics community and the broader society. We strongly support the decision of members of the scientific and engineering communities to pursue such positions."
The APS Council passed a statement supporting the civic engagement of scientists at its November meeting (see sidebar).  

“Civic engagement is good for physics and it is good for the country,” said Francis Slakey, APS Associate Director of Public Affairs.

APS has been working with other scientific societies to increase scientists participation in public service at the federal, state and local levels. In May, APS and other scientific societies sponsored a campaign education workshop (see APS News, June 2008). The workshop was organized by Scientists and Engineers for America, an organization that aims to promote a politically active scientific community. There were almost a hundred attendees, of whom at least half a dozen worked on a campaign this election season, according to Slakey.

Lesley Stone, Executive Director of Scientists and Engineers for America, identified several dozen people with science backgrounds who ran for Congress this fall. For instance, chemical engineer Marge Krupp ran for Congress in Wisconsin is 1st district against incumbent Paul Ryan. Though she didn’t win the election, she said voters seemed to respect a scientific background. “People think that being a chemical engineer is so cool,” she said. Krupp says she ran for Congress because of her strong opinions on several issues facing the country, including some, such as global warming, where a scientific perspective could be valuable. She pointed out that the general analytical skills and understanding good data from bad are useful for many issues. “We do need more scientists and engineers in office,” she said. Among the current members of Congress, three have PhD’s in physics.

In addition to being elected scientists can also serve in administrative positions in the executive branch. Robert Eisenstein, a member of the APS Panel on Public Affairs who worked for more than ten years in a leadership position in the mathematical and physical sciences division of the National Science Foundation, said that he had often found it a struggle to convince scientists to do that kind of public service. “I love the interaction between science and policy. I wish the community respected it more,” he said. He noted that many scientists do engage in public service in various ways, but that the perception sometimes is that the work isn’t interesting or that you can’t have an effect. “It’s not true that you can’t have an effect. You can have a huge effect,” he said. “The bottom line is there’s a civic aspect to being a scientist. Yes, it takes time, and yes, it’s hard, but it’s important.”

One of those who attended the May workshop and then got involved in a campaign was Maria Cranor, who worked for Barak Obama. Cranor, a physics graduate student in Utah who also has experience in business and management, had never participated in a campaign before. “I thought the conference was marvelous,” she said. She made contacts with other scientists interested in public service and met other Obama supporters. “One of the reasons we got involved in the campaign was because of that conference,” she said.

Cranor volunteered as an “Obama fellow” for six weeks in the summer, during which time she learned about community organizing, and then was hired as a field manager. Working in Colorado, she organized support for Obama, made cold-calls to potential supporters, and set up meetings. “It was a fabulous learning experience for me,” she said.

While the campaign work mostly involves building relationships with people and didn’t use her specific scientific expertise, she said good analytical skills are often useful. She also believes the campaign experience will enrich her teaching in the future. Cranor is interested in teaching science to nonscientists, as well as teaching undergraduate and graduate students more about policy issues related to science and getting them to think more about the uses to which science is put. 

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Ernie Tretkoff