why science and politics don’t mix
It’s become a new ritual in American politics. At some rally, a candidate campaigning for public office says that he never did well in math and science and unlike his elitist, smarmy opponent, he knows that all the college degrees in the world are no match for the school of hard knocks. And that, he contends, is why he’s a better candidate. He’s an average person like us, not some hoity-toity empiricist draped in sheepskins, so do the right thing and vote for him. Then in office, he and his colleagues cut funding for R&D projects and make it more and more difficult to get research grants as the country wonders why there’s a decline in science and engineering students in America in stark contrast to other nations.
Once upon a time, the United States created a culture in which science was going to create the kind of future we still only dream about. Those learned men and women in lab coats would be deciphering our genomes, defeating diseases left and right, building fusion reactors for cheap, safe electricity and outfit the military with weapons so devastating, wars would last just days. Scientists used to be part heroes and part celebrities, working behind the front lines of making the future of our wildest dreams a reality. But that was long ago. That was before a major shift in culture. Government went from being seen as an enabler to an incompetent mess unable to perform or oversee the simplest task without waste, corruption and total incompetence.
Ronald Reagan summarized this culture best during his speeches when he said that there were no smart people in government and anyone who was actually competent was working for huge corporations. Over the last 30 years, that’s been the prevailing worldview. If you want to make real money, if you want to be of real use, if you want to be smart, you go work for a company or on Wall Street with the yuppies. They were the golden boys and girls. They were the future with their financial and management savvy. Government? A pack of used up old geezers. Practically rejects if you will. Discarded refuse from companies where they no longer could do anything even remotely useful. Yes, to a certain extent this is a hyperbole, but it does shine a light on the cultural subtext which is still going strong today. Why then should we bemoan our leaders for doing a bad job when we elect them with the expectation that they’re borderline useless? We’ve set them and ourselves up for failure by electing them on this premise.
This undercurrent also creates double standards. When the stock market suffered a blow from the credit crunch and the resulting recession, the government made up of the people born and educated into the culture in which business was all-important to the nation’s survival, rushed to give a $700 billion bailout to banks that caused the mess in the first place. As I was writing a pair of essays on the subject for BusinessWeek.com, I couldn’t help mentioning that this is not the first time banks that made bad or careless bets were rescued from their own mistakes via a government intervention and a large corporate welfare program. In the 1980s, bankers vowed that never again will they play fast and loose with money and cause taxpayers billions. But hey, if they mess up, it hurts the economy and we can’t allow major campaign contributors, err… I mean pillars of industry to falter, can we? Besides, it’s taxpayer money, the taxpayers will make it back as soon as these wounded giants start hiring with their corporate welfare checks, right?
Compare that to what happens when scientists use tax money for a complex project designed to help us understand the elemental basics of biology that could lead to new treatments in the future? They’re lambasted for wasting taxpayer money or used as poster children for how the stupid government is so wasteful that it lets biologists get away with hundreds of thousands of dollars on researching fruit flies. Never mind it’s to understand how developmental diseases manifest themselves during embryo development. How dare they use taxpayer money? Don’t they know we need that to underwrite bad debts for Wall Street? Or worse yet, when this money is used on extremely difficult and complex projects like nuclear fusion. That’s decades away! Come back to us when you figure it out, you money gouging ivory towered academics!
And what about the candidates for public office mentioned in the beginning, raised on the idea that science is a wasteful pursuit for dreamers and a life worth living is spent in a cubicle of a corporation? What message does he send to little Johnny or Suzy, lambasting someone for his or her education? Don’t try too hard, math and science are for suckers who couldn’t survive in the real world? It’s all right to be a C student as long as you have the street smarts to go with it and can watch the movie Office Space without feeling bad about your dull office routine?
I will readily concede that practical experience is important and will teach you things that you’ll never learn in any classroom or lab. I’ve been there myself. But having your degree and doing well in your science and math classes will help you deal with whatever life throws at you. Being knowledgeable is not a handicap. It won’t turn you into an evil genius or a socially inept nerd of a 1980s teenage movie. And dammit, it’s important to understand the world around you.