Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Civic Scientist

Our jobs encompass a major part of our lives. When we think about our professions, it is essential to consider how our community of professionals is perceived by others, especially policymakers.
This is true for scientists. Science is vital to the well being of our nation and that is why practicing scientists and even students of science receive special treatment from the government, often in the form of grants, subsidies, or scholarships.

At the end of the day, we have policymakers (often without science backgrounds) making decisions about science that could have negative impacts on research and the scientific community. The scientific community often criticizes policymakers on the grounds that they don’t really ‘get’ science, yet few scientists have any training or interest in policy or politics.

However, when scientists combine their academic credentials along with a desire to change the world, the results can be dramatic. Well known examples include Albert Einstein, whose writings on the threat of nuclear proliferation informed policymakers on the specter of a nuclear armed world. James Hansen, now at Columbia University, was the first to alert members of Congress about the dangers of climate change. You may not recognize his name, but a PhD physicist and former professor, Dr. Vern Ehlers recently stepped down as the representative from Michigan’s 3rd district after a distinguished career in Congress.

What these individuals all have in common is a commitment to science, but also an awareness of the role that science plays in the well being of our nation. They dedicated their intellect and zeal to ensure that science would continue to serve society, while advocating for a government that was willing to support a vibrant scientific community.

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  1. In light of this posting, you might find the discussion at Science Policy for All ( interesting. In two postings, graduate students and postdocs begin to explore the challenges and opportunities for scientists to step up as "civic scientists.

  2. Thanks Ric. Science Policy for All is a great resource and I look forward to getting more familiar with it!