Science in the Senate

Out of our 100 current U.S. Senators (all of whom hold bachelors’ degrees or above), 55 are law school graduates. This makes some sense. The purpose of Congress is legislative. While the work can be (and has been) done well by non-lawyers, the eye toward incentives and consequences that practicing lawyers develop is vital to distinguishing good legislation from bad, and that skill is often intertwined with (although also often distinct from) questions of policy.
 
But aside from that, what Senate demographic markers are actually in the best interests of the country? Are there ways to look at a legislative chamber with an eye toward elevating scientific findings?
 
Over the past 30 years, the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the natural sciences and in engineering has hovered between 20 and 25 percent. While about a quarter of Senators hold BS (or higher) degrees, only eleven Senators hold degrees in the natural sciences or engineering: John Boozman (R-AR, optometry), David Perdue (R-GA, industrial engineering), Jim Risch (R-ID, forestry), Rand Paul (R-KY, ophthalmology), Bill Cassidy (R-LA, neprology), Steve Daines (R-MT, chemical engineering), Bob Corker (R-TN, industrial management), John Barrasso (R-WY, orthopedics), Chris Coons (D-DE, chemistry), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA, speech pathology), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM, mechanical engineering).
 
I, perhaps like you, was surprised to see this list dominated by Republicans. And in considering graduate degrees, it becomes even more unbalanced (4 medical degrees and David Perdue’s applied mathematics MS for Republicans, zero total for Democrats).
 
But perhaps that speaks to the broader problem. All eight Republicans listed above voted against Brian Schatz’s 2015 amendment to include language that humans contribute to climate change. A mere degree in a technical field is not a proper proxy for legislating based on scientific consensus.
 
And indeed, with the possible exception of Perdue, there are no indications that anybody on that list had significant experience in perhaps the purest duty of the scientist: through the research process, interpret your findings and come to conclusions about them. As somebody who loaded up on research credits for my chemistry degree, I was able to witness this process up close, but as an undergraduate and therefore the most junior person in the lab, I generally was personally assigned to tasks that were still exciting but less likely to produce noteworthy results.
 
In many ways, it makes sense to me that all four former practicing physicians (Boozman, Paul, Cassidy, Barrasso) in the Senate are Republicans—they didn’t run for elected office with their science hats on; they ran more likely because their income bracket places them in a constituency that stands to materially benefit from the Republican party platform.
 
To parallel the point above, the planks in the platform that may move the Bill Cassidys or the John Barassos of the world may not have an inherently pro-science or anti-science position. But in our current situation, other planks definitely do, and it is up to us to discard the credentials of those who seek to represent us when they indicate that their positions are not in line with our view of those credentials.
 
Observe, learn, act. It’s just science.
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