Dokken: When Worlds Collide

We need more scientists in Congress.

by Natalie Dokken | 5/18/20 2:00am

The Spanish flu, AIDS, smallpox, the Black Death — new and deadly diseases pop up frequently throughout history. But in a world in which we carry computers in our pockets, it’s easy to forget about how much we still don’t know. In the face of COVID-19 and all of its unknowns, scientists are now taking much of the blame. Without proper representation in our legislative bodies, science is left undefended and unfairly battered. 

Media output in the U.S. reflects the negative climate surrounding science. The media is infested with clips of the president and governors touting the importance of the economy above public health and blaming scientists for not fixing the situation faster or alerting the government sooner. Limited scientific representation in our government leads to situations like the one we are in now — one where there aren’t enough individuals within the governing body to advocate for and defend science. 

Out of the 535 members of Congress, 214 have a law degree. Only 21 have medical degrees. A common explanation for this vast discrepancy is that the world of science, which many perceive to be pure and absolute, should not be muddied by the chaotic, messy world of politics. 

This phenomenon is evidenced in a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, in which just 43 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats stated that they thought that scientists should take an active role in politics. Meanwhile, 56 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Democrats said that scientists should focus instead on establishing scientific fact. 

This reality is disconcerting. Not only does it dismiss the idea that scientists can both be unbiased in their determination of fact and advocate for sound policy decisions, but it also ignores the reality that many policy debates focus on scientific topics. 

From climate change, cybersecurity, health care, weapons development and disease prevention and control, politics is not mutually exclusive from science. While the existence of such committees is important, having them be comprised of lawyers, businesspeople and career politicians can, and has, lead to disastrous outcomes. 

In the 2018 hearings regarding Facebook’s user privacy software, the extent of Congress’ scientific illiteracy was laid bare. While the majority of questions weren’t unexpected, many did reflect a clear gap in scientific understanding. A few highlights included now-retired Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) asking how Facebook makes money given that it is a free application, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) repeatedly questioning whether Facebook could read the “emails” he sends via WhatsApp. When Zuckerberg answered any question, he was rarely pressed about specifics, which is typically standard in such proceedings — suggesting that the elementary tech knowledge the legislators had was inadequate to identify any omissions or contradictions. 

Furthermore, scientific research funding has remained relatively stagnant over the past decade, even as the cost of doing research continues to rise. Since 2006, federal scientific research funding has hovered below $35 billion. In contrast, research spending has increased rapidly over the years as the cost of doing research has skyrocketed. 

A major contributing factor to the rising costs of research is to do with the increasing difficulty of finding new ideas to research. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economics found that in order to sustain current GDP growth per person, the effort put into researching new ideas must double every 13 years. This suggests that in order for the U.S. to maintain economic stability, there needs to be a massive increase in the funding of research.

A continuation of underfunded research  could be disastrous. Without an increase in federal research funding, conducting scientific research in the U.S. will become progressively more difficult. While having more scientists in Congress doesn’t necessarily mean that research funding will increase, having representatives with years of experience in the field — who know the harm of depleted research funds — would be a step in the right direction.

There are many lessons to be learned from COVID-19, one of the most prominent being the necessity for scientific literacy, representation and appreciation — especially within governing bodies. COVID-19 should be seen as an example of why science is fundamental in innovation as well as in maintaining the status quo. In the end, science is what will ultimately lead to the end of this crisis — it’s time we pay it more attention.