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A Scientific American President

posted Mar 10, 2015, 8:40 AM by Vondriska Lab

As we brace for the coming tsunami of campaigning for the next American presidency—expected to consume over a billion US dollars from each of both the major parties, plus perhaps again as much from party-affiliated special interest companies and individuals—should not the scientist, like any other voter, consider what values one’s profession could contribute to the stewardship of the nation? Maybe the STEM electorate should consider putting forth one of our own: could some of the successes of the German economy be attributed to the analytical mind of Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate physical chemistry? (But then, Marion Barry had a graduate degree in organic chemistry and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a doctorate in civil engineering…physician Rand Paul publically disparages vaccination, one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of medicine). No, rather than looking for a scientist to run for office, what the scientific community can do is act as a voter bloc. What sort of values might we advocate for, notwithstanding our own personal (subjective) political tendencies?


Reliance on Data

While the candidate surely appreciates the polling data streaming to the campaign bus, how many politicians understand the actual numbers behind the positions they hold? Stump speeches rarely allow for the data behind the dogma to be completely presented, but debates and campaign policy statements are places where the candidates should be taken to task for a granular defense of the positions on domestic and foreign issues. How many previous candidates wilted when asked for the specifics on the positions they take? Scientific thinking can ensure that the politician is held to the details.


Hypothesis-Based Inquiry

Every candidate will refuse, out of hand, to answer hypothetical questions. And they will get away with this refusal. This is absurd. Effectiveness as a leader of any group is defined, perhaps principally, by how one can deal with the unknown, a concept that is inherently hypothetical. We should stop electing leaders for their positions on events passed. Candidates must be made to cogently propose and respond to hypothetical situations about all issues of national importance. Only if the public demands that the candidate has the gravitas to articulate, and then publically defend, logical decision-making about the future (informed by wisdom of the past, fine) can we expect that s/he will have the boldness, when elected, to prosecute this vision.



Unlike the scientist, it would be imprudent for a president to approach the job as an experimentalist. A trial and error approach to foreign or domestic affairs seems unwise. But like the scientist, the president can seek to innovate new solutions. How might this look in real terms? Beyond the sound bites, the scientific candidate would explore creative approaches to existing, intractable problems. And in turn, the politician would be judged on her/his ability (and willingness) to marshal the right people to quantitatively evaluate the efficacy of a proposed solution. Creativity is a mixture of boldness and humility, a willingness to take on seemingly intractable problems while remaining grounded at once in reality (history, for the politician, or in the published literature, for the scientist) and optimism.


Peer Review, Transparency & Reproducibility

To suggest a change in the method, the substance, of politics, in any organization, let alone the American government, is a fool’s errand. Human social interaction will not change in an election cycle. The electorate can, however, have a strong influence on what politicians need to talk about to get elected. Jon Stewart and Matt Drudge have powerful effects on what politicians must say and even what actions they must take. Most scientists do not have audiences of similar scale, but the principle of vocal criticism of the government is the same, be in on a blog or over the hedges with the neighbor.


The scientist can wait for the campaign fury in the run up to November 2016 blow over and hope an American president is elected that not only supports science but that brings to bare on governance the virtues of science. But inaction and waiting are not the methods of science. While the means of politics are fixed, the goals are malleable and the scientist must be willing to wield the hammer. The reliance on government funding to support scientific research and medical/engineering advances—apart from individual civic duty—means that federal politics is (another) area where the scientist cannot remain silent. 


Tom Vondriska

March 10, 2015