Taken for Granted: Doctoral Candidate

Credit: Kelly Krause, AAAS

Microbiologist Peter Ferguson spent years on a conventional scientific career path, first as a graduate student at Canada's University of New Brunswick and then as a postdoc at the University of Western Ontario in London, a city of 350,000 people midway between Detroit and Toronto. Now he aspires to a career that is anything but ordinary. Come May, he hopes to become an MP/Ph.D.

"I want [the university] to get more research money, to be as good as they can. I'm a booster, except in the area of employment issues, [where] I think there's a need for improvement." -- Peter Ferguson

No, that “P” is not a typo. Ferguson wants to be one of the Members of Parliament voted in by Canadians in the federal election scheduled for 2 May. He is the candidate of the New Democratic Party (NDP), one of Canada's three nationwide political parties, in a three-way race to represent his home riding (the Canadian term for an electoral district) of London West. If he wins one of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, the elected lower house of Canada's Parliament, he will serve approximately 100,000 constituents.

Federal electoral politics may seem a long way from the lab bench, but for Ferguson the move from studying protein assembly to giving speeches and serving constituents seems like a natural progression. His post-postdoc political career emerged from years of activism, both on campus and within the local party organization.

Ferguson encourages other scientists to get involved in public issues and electoral politics. With technical questions so central to contemporary problems, "it does help to have an engineer or a scientist at the table," he tells Science Careers. The great majority of politicians lack the technical or scientific knowledge needed to fully understand these issues, he says, and scientists are thin on the ground in law-making bodies compared with, say, attorneys. According to the Congressional Research Service (to use a cross-border example), among the 535 people in the current United States Congress are three physicists, a chemist, a microbiologist, and six engineers.

Choosing politics

"When you've lived [a scientific] life and you understand the technical issues, and also when you understand how scientists and science companies work, you have a better ability to cut through the BS. ... You can better separate the sales pitch from the science," Ferguson says. Scientists are especially well equipped to differentiate valid findings and positions founded on ideology. For that reason, Ferguson strongly supports free expression of scientific views and conclusions by government scientists, who, he and other critics argue, have been muzzled by the government of Canada's prime minister, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper.

So how does one go from postdoc to pol? "I've been interested with politics my entire life, ... but [until recent years] I never expected that I'd one day enter politics directly as a candidate," he says. From graduate school on, he has been in the habit of helping fellow students and postdocs with problems, first as president of his graduate student association, then as a founder and president of the postdoctoral association at Western, and later as a leader of a successful drive to unionize Western's postdocs.

"I really did love science," he says. "I had a very strongly positive postdoc experience." But "not strong enough to get me a faculty position. ... At that point I was ready to leave." He says his wife, Judith, a clinical psychologist, "has a good career here" in London. The couple have two young sons. "We said, 'Let's make a life in London,' and politics ... really appealed to me."

After working as a postdoc in three different labs at Western, in 2008 he left academic science to work as an organizer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union the Western postdocs joined. Ferguson had already been politically active for several years, having worked on a campaign in 2004.

In 2008, the person slated to be the local NDP parliamentary candidate declined to run. "I had planned on becoming a candidate in a few years," Ferguson says. "I jumped into the breach -- this was 5 months after my postdoc years were over -- and I was now a candidate, much sooner than I had planned. It was a great experience." He garnered 15% of the vote. "Despite losing, I was hooked and looking forward to running again." With three candidates in the present race, including the current incumbent, he's not the front-runner. But with only a plurality needed to win, the challenge he faces is not insurmountable, he believes.

In Canada, it's easier for a person who has spent years doing relatively impecunious work to run for national office than it is in the United States. Election campaigns are shorter, there are fewer voters to reach, and campaign spending is limited by law. Candidates still have to raise some money, but "much less" than do candidates in the United States, Ferguson says.

Ferguson would not be the first academic scientist to move into national politics; Representative Rush Holt (D–NJ), for example -- the physicist who recently beat IBM's Watson at Jeopardy! -- went directly from Princeton University, where he was assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, to a U.S. congressional seat.

Peter Ferguson (Credit: Sandra Dufton Photography)

Postdoc and other issues

Ferguson is now focusing his main attention on national issues such as accessibility to and affordability of higher education, the loss of Canadian jobs to countries with cheaper labor costs, and what he considers the inadequate level of Canadian investment in research and development.

Nonetheless, the issues that concerned him as a postdoc still strongly engage his interest. "There is a disconnect in the production and employment of Ph.D.s. It's bizarre if you think that this is a group of people who have the highest degree that a university can give, then they walk across that stage, they get that diploma, and they may as well just have walked off a cliff on the other side. They disappear. They're not tracked. ... [People] say, 'That's just the way it is.' Well, people are dying of uterine cancer, and no one says, 'That's just the way it is. Let's not do anything to fix it.' "

Last month he was thinking of attending the National Postdoctoral Association's (NPA's) annual meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, until it became clear that new elections would very likely be called soon and he knew he would be his party's candidate. As it happened, the parliamentary vote of no confidence in the ruling Conservative government, which triggered the May national elections, happened the very day NPA convened. Instead of conferring with fellow scientists about postdoc issues, Ferguson spent the weekend organizing his campaign.

Despite his concern about postdoc issues, Ferguson, who hopes to represent part of a city with a university that enrolls 30,000 students and employs thousands of workers, says he supports the university fully. "I want them to get more research money, to be as good as they can. I'm a booster, except in the area of employment issues, [where] I think there's a need for improvement."

Even if he doesn't win this time, he's "in for the long haul," he says. "I'm going to mention my scientific background and say that I think that politics does need more scientists, [although] that's not going to sway people." Nor does science help develop the skills needed to run for office, he warns other would-be politicians. "In the lab, I worked long hours. ... We used to call molecular biologists moles [because] they never see the light of day. They certainly do not build up the social networks that are necessary in politics, [where] you've really got to be sociable and friendly so people trust you."

But in one way, becoming a successful politician, he says, is "just like doing science. You know how you beat your head against the wall with an idea? Ninety percent of the time you figure out first what doesn't work before you figure out what does work. I apply that same mentality to politics. I'm still learning a lot. I'm not daunted by failure. It's an experiment or series of experiments every day. I'm going to keep doing these experiments until I get the answer that gets me elected."

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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