If we start by counting my years as an undergraduate, I’ve been a scientist or scientist-in-training for over a decade. During that large chunk of my life, I’ve heard many of my research colleagues, peers, and teachers lament the deplorable excess of scientific illiteracy among those who make such critical decisions about funding for scientific research programs: the politicians. Of course, one cannot expect a thorough scientific education and training among politicians – most of them were trained and educated in the law, or some other field that flows more naturally toward a political career the United States. In many other countries, the same trend rings true. Sure, the subjects may change (in countries with frequent coups d’etat, for example, a military background might be a better stepping stone to a government position), but I know of no nation where scientists involve themselves in the political realm at high frequency.
This is no surprise. Presumably, most scientists aren’t in government because they’re simply too busy being scientists, or branching easily into alternative careers like teaching or industry. However, in electoral democracies, the voters theoretically have a unique opportunity to elect nearly anyone of any educational or vocational background to office.
So, do we see scientists standing for public office, brining their unique skill sets and backgrounds to the political world? From my perspective, not really. In the United States, many folks who seek elected office or senior civil service positions are still lawyers or political scientists. As a whole, scientists in government remain confined to the areas wholly encompassing science policy, such as the CDC or NASA. The same is true for many other western democracies. But, here and there, you’ll find exceptions to this rule: folks who were trained and educated first as scientists, and later sought out roles in government outside of science’s traditional influence. I’m fascinated by these people. What made them switch careers? Have they brought unique scientific perspectives to their offices? What scientific fields do they come from?
I cannot say what impact this small minority of politicians has had on scientific discourse in the political realm. I’m sure many of my colleagues would still grumble on the low value of scientific truths in government on all levels, particularly in the United States. Still, it is worth noting at least some of the scientists who have taken the bold step into government. Below is a list of some of the more prominent examples of scientists-turned-politicians, from the United States and other countries. I have deliberately left out one unique subset of this group: the doctors-turned-politicians. Those individuals who left medicine for government service will be considered in a future post.
For now, enjoy this all too brief survey of (non-medicine) scientist-turned-politicians.
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (2005-present).
When political commentators discuss Angela Merkel, she gets many “first” labels: first female chancellor, first chancellor who was raised in East Germany, etc. But, before she was Chancellor Merkel, before she became involved in the growing democracy movement in the waning days of the East German communist regime, and before the Berlin Wall fell, she was Dr. Angela Merkel. Daughter of a Lutheran minister, she studied physical chemistry and worked in academia for several years in East Germany, ultimately earning her doctorate in quantum chemistry. After German reunification, she was elected to parliament and served in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s cabinet as Minister for Women and Youth. To help launch her political career, she was given a more substantial portfolio in 1994, becoming Minister for the Environment and Nuclear Safety. In the 2005 federal elections, she led the center-right Christian Democrats to victory, becoming leader of the largest country in the European Union. Her government won a fresh mandate in 2009, and she makes headlines today in her ongoing negotiations with the Greek government over the latter’s crippling financial crisis – a crisis that could spread easily to other E.U. economies. Many political commentators hope the Greeks take note of the Merkel government’s fiscal responsibility.
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (1979-1990).
Like Chancellor Merkel, Margaret Thatcher’s background was in chemistry. She was a scholarship student at Oxford, ultimately earning degrees in chemistry and crystallography. One of her tutors was Dorothy Hodgkin, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1964. It was also at Oxford that Thatcher (then Margaret Roberts) began to pursue her political interests, joining (and ultimately leading) the Oxford University Conservative Association. After Oxford, she spent several years working as a research chemist for a plastics company, before her political involvement accelerated in the 1950s. She stood for election twice in a safe Labour seat (losing both times), married Denis Thatcher, studied law, started a family, and never looked back. In 1959, she was elected to parliament, and rose through the Conservative Party’s ranks to become education and science minister in the early 1970s. By 1975, she was head of the Conservative Party and, in 1979, Prime Minister. The Thatcher governments tackled economic stagnation, fought Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and dealt with the continuing Northern Ireland Troubles, including the 1984 Brighton Hotel bombing that attempted to kill her and the cabinet. Thatcher escaped unscathed, despite the destruction of her hotel bathroom and the deaths of five people, including a member of parliament. The “Iron Lady” retired in 1990, becoming Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.
Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China (2002-present).
I look on President Hu as the most prominent example of China’s experiment with “technocracy-lite.” Many current senior Chinese officials, for all intents and purposes, resemble technocrats, with many executive bodies run by senior engineers, applied scientists, and other skilled workers. This policy stands in stark contrast to some of the earlier partisan governments of the communist regime. True, government officials are still loyal communists (How else could they get in power?) and toe the line well with party policy and the military. But, some would argue that this style of civil service permits practical reforms to be implemented gradually, as necessary. Thus, enter President Hu. With a degree in hydraulic engineering from Tsinghua University (he met his wife there) and membership in the Communist Party of China, Hu worked in numerous engineering projects across the vast Chinese interior early in his career. He eventually managed party affairs for the ministry responsible for water and electricity. Winding his way through a party bureaucracy that makes my head spin, he steadily worked his way up the hierarchy until, in 2002, he succeeded Jiang Zemin (himself a former electrical engineer) as President of the People’s Republic of China. His presidency has been marked by the SARS crisis (for which he recruited another scientist-turned-politician, Wu Yi – see below), North Korean nuclear ambitions, thawed and re-frozen relationships with Taiwan, and the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
Wen Jaibao, Premier of the People’s Republic of China (2003-present).
Much like President Hu, Premier Wen’s rise to power involves an initial training in an applied science coupled with membership in the Communist Party of China, and then many years spent rising in the party bureaucracy to a position of vast power. As a student at the Beijing Institute of Geology, young Wen learned the intricacies and complexities of Earth’s structure. He now takes that knowledge and applies it to oversee the intricate and complex structure that is the government of China. Though appointed in 2003, his most defining moment as a “man of the people” came in response to the disastrous 2008 Sichuan earthquake. While other government officials traveled to Sichuan and stood stiffly and awkwardly among survivors, Premier Wen drew praise for his more warm, sympathetic, and understanding style. The man is a geologist, after all.
Wu Yi, Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China (2003-2008).
Wu Yi earned a degree in petroleum engineering from the Beijing Petroleum Institute in 1962. That same year, she joined the Communist Party of China, and began a political career alongside her career as a petroleum chemist. She rose to management level of a Beijing refinery, but moved on to political office by the late 1980s. A year before the Tiananmen Square protests, she became deputy mayor of Beijing. In the 1990s, she worked her way through trade ministries and the Communist Party structure. In 2003, she was appointed health minister during the SARS crisis, and won widespread praise for her openness and directness with the public and the press. Before retiring in 2008, she spent her last few years in government dealing with the new issue of lead contamination in Chinese-made toys. Her direct demeanor made her relatively popular in China, as did her rather independent personal style. For example, unlike many of her male colleagues, she refrained from dying her grey hair to a uniform coal black.
Stephen Chu, United States Secretary of Energy (2009-present).
President Obama won widespread praise for selecting Dr. Chu to head the U.S. Department of Energy. Dr. Chu’s career to that point had been almost entirely academic. From an academically gifted family, Chu earned undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics from the University of Rochester, before obtaining his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. Later, at Bell Labs, Dr. Chu conducted research to use lasers to trap and cool atoms, work that would earn him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. He joined the faculty at Stanford University in 1987, and later moved back to Berkeley to head the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Under his leadership, the Lawrence Berkeley Labs began to focus more on the development of renewable energy sources. On 20 January 2009, the United States Senate unanimously confirmed him as the 12th United States Secretary of Energy. However, he still continues to do research, publishing a paper in Nature as recently as last month.
Dixy Lee Ray, Governor of the State of Washington (1977-1981).
As a Washingtonian with a deep interest in politics, my best interpretation of this state’s rather silent attitude toward its first female governor is that, frankly, Dixy Lee Ray is the governor no Washingtonian wants to talk about. Born and raised in Tacoma, Ray earned her Ph.D. in marine biology from Stanford University. She was a professor of zoology at the University of Washington for over twenty years, with an overlapping appointment as director of Seattle’s Pacific Science Center during her last ten years in Puget Sound. Due to her very public concern over American energy policy and security, President Nixon appointed her to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1972. There, she became a vocal supporter of nuclear power. After a brief appointment to the Department of State in 1974, she moved back to Washington, winning the 1976 gubernatorial election. Once in office, however, Governor Ray clashed with many of her Democratic Party colleagues due to her advocacy for nuclear power, support for oil tankers in Puget Sound, and other policies that enraged environmentalists. Two days after Mt. St. Helens erupted in May 1980, Governor Ray surveyed the disaster zone in a helicopter, later commenting, “I feel like I’ve just come back from the moon.” She was defeated for re-election in the 1980 Democratic gubernatorial primary. After leaving office, she spoke out against the extreme elements in environmentalist movement. I would love to sit down with Governor Ray and get to know this obviously intelligent and complex person better. Unfortunately, she died in 1994.
Claude Allègre, French Minister of National Education, Research, and Technology (1997-2000).
Geochemist Claude Allègre is one of the more controversial climate change skeptics in France for two main reasons. First, his service in the French government in the late 1990s. Second, before he was against the idea of man-made climate change, he was for it. Dr. Allègre is widely considered to be one of the first scientists to warn that human dependency on fossil fuel-laden energy sources was warming the planet. But, as evidence accumulated that supported his cause, Allègre famously denounced those findings and abandoned the idea of man-made climate change altogether. Colleagues have attacked Dr. Allègre as a flip-flopper, and his former compatriots in the Socialist Party distanced themselves as well after he feuded with the party’s 2007 presidential nominee. Armed with a Ph.D. from the University of Paris in 1962, Dr. Allègre began with a stellar career in Earth sciences, publishing widely and ultimately becoming a member of the French Academy of Science and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In 2009, French political circles buzzed that Allègre might again be appointed to a position in the French government. Ultimately, no appointment was offered, possibly due to his controversial position on climate change.
Vern Ehlers, United States Representative for the 3rd District of Michigan (1993-present).
Dr. Ehlers holds the unique distinction of being the first physicist elected to Congress. A Minnesota native, he earned his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1960. He moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan afterward and taught physics at Calvin College. Gradually, he became involved in Republican Party politics, beginning with a county commission, and later serving in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature. In 1993, he won a special election to Congress for the 3rd District of Michigan. A self-described moderate, Dr. Ehlers is a member of the political group Republicans for Environmental Protection, as well as the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership. He will not seek re-election in 2010.
Rush Holt, Jr., United States Representative for the 12th District of New Jersey (1999-present).
Representative Holt is the second physicist to serve in the U.S. Congress, the first Democrat, and the first (that I know of) to use his degree on campaign bumper stickers (“My congressman is a rocket scientist!”). This son of a former West Virginia senator, Holt, Jr. obtained his Ph.D. in physics from New York University. He joined the faculty at Swarthmore College, moved to Princeton University, and worked briefly for the U.S. Department of State. In his first attempt to run for Congress, he finished third in the Democratic Party primary. In 1998, he prevailed in the primary, and squeaked by in the general election. Redistricting in 2000 made his district more reliably Democratic (see Dr. Bill Foster’s entry below, too!), and Dr. Holt, Jr. quickly distinguished himself as one of the most liberal members of the House of Representatives.
Bill Foster, United States Representative for the 14th District of Illinois (2008-present).
When Illinois politicians geared up to redraw Congressional districts following the 2000 census, Democrats controlled the Illinois General Assmbly, but a powerful Illinois Republican, Dennis Hastert, was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Reportedly, the two parties avoided a bitter political feud by agreeing to carve up electoral districts to favor incumbent parties. Speaker Hastert’s 14th District of Illinois, therefore, was adjusted to take on a particularly red hue. Then how did Democrat Bill Foster win the special election to fill his seat? It might be an indication of the particularly sharp blue turn my home state took in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election. Or, perhaps the candidate himself is the answer. As it happens, the Chicago suburbs that make up the eastern portions of the Illinois 14th Congressional District house the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which is exactly where Dr. Foster got a job after completing his Ph.D. in physics at Harvard University. He spent 22 years doing research at Fermilab, making particular use of the giant particle accelerator there. After Hastert resigned his seat in 2007, Dr. Foster threw his hat into the ring. Funds for alternative energy and universal health care were focus points of his campaign, as well as ending the Iraq war. He edged out the same Republican opponent in 2007 and 2008. We’ll see what 2010 has to offer.
Bonus List! These folks don’t really fit the mold of scientist-turned-politician. Still, I couldn’t resist.
Various members of the Imperial House of Japan.
In Japan, the Chrysanthemum Throne is inherited, not elected or appointed. But, that hasn’t stopped several members of the Yamato Dynasty from pursuing careers in science. Most famously, the Shōwa Emperor (commonly known as Emperor Hirohito in the U.S.), who reigned from 1926-1989, had a marine biology laboratory built in his palace, and published articles under the name “Hirohito.” While the Shōwa Emperor’s primary research interests were hydrozoans (relatives of jellyfish and corals), his eldest son is interested in fish. Emperor Akihito (he publishes under this name, minus the “Emperor” title) is particularly interested in the evolutionary relationships among different species of goby fish. He has published articles on this subject in the journal Gene, as well as commentaries on the history of scientific research in Japan in Science and Nature. Emperor Akihito’s younger brother, Prince Hitachi, holds a degree in chemistry, and conducted research into cancer biology and cell division. Of Emperor Akihito’s three children, two are scientists. His younger son, Prince Akishino, has a Ph.D. in ornithology. However, he is also very interested in fishery policies (an interest he likely learned from his father). Emperor Akihito’s only daughter, Princess Sayako, also studied ornithology in school (she particularly likes kingfishers), and became a part-time research associate. However, in 2005, Princess Sayako left the Imperial Family (as required by law) when she married a commoner. Becoming Mrs. Sayako Kuroda, she left her job in ornithology research to prepare for a life outside of the Imperial Palace. No word yet as to whether she’ll retain access to her grandfather’s laboratory.
Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (2006-present).
As an undergraduate at Stanford, Katharine Jefferts studied biology. She obtained a master’s degree in oceanography and a Ph.D. in marine biology from Oregon State University, and married a mathematician named Schori. In the 1980s, she worked for the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. However, by the early 1990s, she felt a more spiritual call, and adjusted her career accordingly. She earned her master’s of divinity degree in 1994, and became Episcopal Bishop of Nevada in 2001. In 2006, the Episcopal Church elected Dr. Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop, becoming the first national church within the Anglican Communion to elect a female leader. Dr. Jefferts Schori is on the frontline of issues that are splitting the church and the Anglican Communion, particularly over the issues of homosexuality and the role of women in the church. More conservative Episcopal parishes and dioceses have divorced themselves from Dr. Jefferts Schori’s authority, and realigned themselves with conservative Anglican churches from Africa and South America. Jefferts Schori has remained firm in her devotion to the full inclusion of homosexuals into the Episcopal Church, though she regrets the schism this issue has caused.