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Opportunities: The Political Scientist

The season of "capital P" Politics is upon us in the United States. To most scientists and engineers, the vapid debates and tawdry verbal tit for tat from the candidates define politics and politicians. When empty slogans and dodgy statistics win out over sound analysis and quantitative reasoning, many members of the scientific community retreat to the comfort of their laboratories or lecture halls.

"Little p" politics is also a derisive term to many scientists. It is used to describe a process that (they feel) operates on influence, opinion, and conflicted interest rather than merit, honesty, integrity--and data. Many scientists and engineers believe life in academia is rife with "politics," especially when decisions are made that they disagree with! (Funny-but-true story: Henry Kissinger was once asked why fights in academia were so bitter and acrimonious. He replied: "Because the stakes are so small.")

Science is about building intellectual consensus. In this respect, it is politics. Understanding how to connect with and influence others is a critical skill in science, especially in an environment of scarce resources.

First: define your terms

Despite the pejorative view that many scientists and engineers have about the word, not every definition of the word "politics" is loaded. The word comes from the Greek "politiko," which means "citizens." "Politics," according to Wikipedia, is the process by which groups of people make decisions.

By this definition, politics is a social process. In science, making decisions about how to allocate finite resources (research and development dollars, journal pages, tenure-track positions) inevitably involve dialog, consensus building, and compromise--the fundamental tools of politics.

It's about more than data

The culture of science is rooted in the belief that data, rational argument, and logic constitute the foundation upon which all decisions should be based. But scientists would be the first to admit that it is rare that a set of data is so complete and compelling that all counter-arguments can be laid to rest. Most of the time, scientists are working on subjects for which the answers remain unclear--that's why they are investigating them in the first place! So the need for persuasion lies even within the heart of scientific inquiry.

Even though we scientists and engineers pride ourselves on our discipline and objectivity, we all know that subjectivity influences how we interpret data (at least at first). Thomas Kuhn recognized this subjectivity in science when he studied the process of scientific discovery. Kuhn found that scientists respond to the same set of facts differently depending on their background and experience. Eventually, the scientific community comes around to a new truth because, well, it is the truth and the evidence supports it. But the rate at which the scientific community adopts a new idea depends (among other things) on how effectively the scientist communicates and persuades his or her community of colleagues.

The politics of scientific communication

Your success as a scientist will depend not just on your work ("what you say") but also on how you present your work to others and how effectively you interact in the scientific community ("how you say it"). Although it's true that compelling data and sound, rational argument are the foundation of scientific persuasion, there's far more to it than that. Giving a great technical talk is more than simply presenting great data: You must also tell an interesting story. Giving an invited talk at another institution is not just about scientific communication; it's about getting invited to give the talk first, and then, once there, getting to know them better (and perhaps establishing a collaboration or two). Going out to dinner with the journal club speaker is far more than an opportunity for a free meal (which, admittedly, is a high priority). Such opportunities form social connections and cement relationships and trust, two defining factors in effective politics.

The politics of the job search

Young scientists tend to believe that their scholarly output will be the main factor that employers use to judge them as candidates. (Advisers--whose principal motivation is to obtain the highest rate of scientific productivity from their students and postdocs--often spread this misapprehension.) As a result, young scientists may focus all their energy toward publications and fail to invest time and sweat in other aspects of professional development. Colleges, universities, and industry care a lot about scientific output and potential. But they also care about a candidate's teaching skills, communication skills, potential for leadership, and personality fit within a department. Being an effective scientist, teacher, and colleague requires all those other "political" skills. After all, one critical question on the minds of the members of a search committee is: "Can I see myself working alongside this person for the next 20 to 30 years?"

The politics of funding

More and more, getting funded means more than just doing great science. Not only must you have a track record of excellent work, you must also choose to work on problems that are important. Even if you are not directly working on a "hot topic du jour," your chance of funding is higher if you can connect your research to areas of national priority. Making a connection between your work, the work of others, and technical matters of national priority is another example of sound scientific politics. Making solid connections with your program officer and other scientists in your field improves your chances of getting funded.

The politics of science

We scientists believe that we are, collectively and individually, engaged in an endeavor that merits public support. In the extreme, there is bred in our culture of science a level of entitlement to public financial support for research.When members of Congress fail to pass funding increase upon funding increase, year after year, the scientific community reacts with disbelief and indignation.

The first law of successful politics is recognizing that you are, in fact, operating within a political process. It's important to acknowledge that as a scientist you are involved, to varying degrees, in multiple political processes.

First--and most central to your career--is the political process of doing science and influencing the opinions of your scientific peers. The foundation of this political process is good scientific work--but to ensure that your science (along with your career) flourishes, you have to engage the scientific community smartly and effectively, with honor and integrity.

But being at your most effective as a scientist also requires constant engagement in a broader sense, not just with the politicians in Washington, D.C., but with the people around you who vote them into office. Given the intense and busy nature of most scientific careers, it is easy to feel that one simply has NO TIME for such constructive engagement. Furthermore, most scientists are given no guidance about the most effective and time-efficient methods of civic engagement. But rather than look down on the process of politics, the successful scientists and engineers of the future will find ways of understanding and participating in "politics" while not losing sight of the higher ideals of their scientific community.

Norman Augustine in his recent editorial in Science laments, "How can America's political leaders be expected to make sound policy decisions in a world of increasingly complex science and technology if the most qualified individuals in those fields remain absent from the field of play?"


Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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