Physics of Politics: Commentary, Andrew Zwicker

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of the television series “Cosmos” once wrote that, “The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it.” If only things in politics were that simple.

Federal investment in basic research not only fosters new discoveries and new innovations, it has helped power economic growth in the US for decades. Yet, as many of us are acutely aware, the percent of discretionary spending by the US in research and development is at an all-time low and our global leadership in technology and innovation continues to slip. In parallel, there is an increase in an anti-science attitude that is evident among some members of Congress with the result that important scientific challenges have become partisan political battles (eg. climate change mitigation).

What is going on?

One thing to note is the background of our elected leaders. The number of members of Congress who identify their professions as lawyers, business people, or career politicians is at an all-time high. There are a handful of physicians, a few engineers and currently only two scientists, both physicists. One of them, Rush Holt (D-NJ12), recently announced that he will step down at the end of the current term leaving Bill Foster (D-IL11) as the sole member of Congress who is actually a scientist. This leads to situations where the background of the 40 members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology consists of more than half as either lawyers or self-identified career politicians, two engineers, and exactly zero scientists. While technical issues are clearly within the natural purvey of a scientist/politician, the interesting question to ask is whether a scientific background is valuable in dealing with other issues such as the economy, education, or social security.

Carl Sagan, the astronomer and host of the original Cosmos series, once wrote, “In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics...”

And that’s exactly the point. Scientists are, by our nature and training, perpetually skeptical and constantly open to new ideas. As scientists, we are guided by data, by facts, by evidence to make decisions and come to a conclusion. We strive to understand the “big picture,” and we understand the limitations of our conclusions and predictions.

Imagine how different the political divide would be if both sides used a data-driven scientific approach to guide policy and create legislation instead of an approach based on who can make the best argument for their version of the “facts.”

Should we only elect scientists? Of course not. But if we want to start to move out of our current stalled state of affairs, we need more scientists and more critical thinkers in all levels of government.

Given that as a background, I decided to do more than just think about these issues or complain about the current state of affairs. As it turns out, I live in Rush Holt’s congressional district and I decided to run for his seat in the NJ Democratic primary against three people with extensive political experience even though I have never held public office.

This was not an easy decision. First, there was the consideration that running for political office is a full-time job and I would have to take a leave of absence from work. For many of us, our research is all-consuming, time-sensitive and stepping away from it is difficult. There was also the personal decision of entering a field that currently has a rather poor reputation and would involve not only an enormous amount of time, but also significant stress. Did I really want to be scrutinized, judged, and spend day and night campaigning?

After many discussions with my family and scientists that have both held office or run unsuccessfully for office the message was clear – Congressional seats open up rarely and the opportunity to run for one, regardless of the odds is even more rare so it was either now or never. My odds of winning were small, but I felt that as long as the probability was greater than zero I had to give it a try. So I co-opted Holt’s bumper-sticker slogan, “My Congressman IS a Rocket Scientist,” changed it to “Keep your Congressman a Rocket Scientist,” and jumped into the political arena.

I only had 3 months to put together a campaign team (we may have had the largest number of PhDs on a campaign staff in the history of American politics!) and we had to learn everything on the fly. The goal was to build up my name recognition as quickly as possible so we put out 2,000 lawn signs before anyone else, went to street fairs, private homes, carnivals, town hall meetings, anywhere that I could meet voters and talk about the issues.

People ask me all the time about the experience, whether it was positive or negative, was I disillusioned by the “politics,” why would I want to ever become a politician. In the end, I can honestly say that it was (mostly) enjoyable, surprisingly stressful, and incredibly rewarding. I met so many new people, those that I never would have met otherwise and talked about issues that they cared about – taxes, health care, gun control, job creation, the environment, and more. I participated in a series of debates with the other candidates that felt like a general oral exam from graduate school, where I was asked anything and judged by strangers. But I was very well prepared and did what we always do as scientists, when asked a question I answered it directly. That stood out in the political arena and was greatly appreciated everywhere I spoke.

Of course that doesn’t mean that a scientist automatically will make a good politician. In fact, the opposite can be true. Politics is about emotions while science is about facts. The trick is to learn how to combine the two. Thus, I learned to open my responses with an anecdote about a student I helped or my mother’s social security check before launching into a fact-based response.

For many people, knowing that I was a scientist was a sufficient reason to vote for me because having more scientists in politics was that important to them. Republicans and Libertarians supported me too, typically because they were in a technical field and saw the advantage of a scientist representing them.

Of course being a scientist could only get me so far and I didn’t win. I came in last with a bit more than 7% of the vote, which was significantly more than what political observers expected. The reality was that there was simply not enough time to get my name out there, to build up a network that would let me truly compete with people that have held public office for decades.

In the end I think it is clear, scientists are uniquely trained and uniquely qualified to serve in public office. It’s not for everyone, but if you have ever considered it, at any level, it is well worth the effort, regardless of the outcome.

As for me, if at first you don’t succeed…

Andrew Zwicker is the Editor of this newsletter, a plasma physicist, and the Head of Science Education at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.