Skip to main content

The scientific method in public office

Watervliet Mayor Mike Manning has instituted solar power projects on public buildings to lower the city's electric bill. (Photo: Courtesy of the City of Watervliet)

Data analysis and fact-based decision making are common to those in STEM fields. When an engineer, physicist or child psychologist becomes a mayor, state senator or member of Congress, they take those valuable skills with them and the result can be an eye-opening civics experiment for all involved.

Mike Manning is a materials engineer and lifetime resident of Watervliet, N.Y., a town of approximately 10,000. He had no interest in politics until he realized that the only way he was going to see any change in his community was to get involved.

"I ran for council first, and once I saw how everything works, I felt I could do more if I was the mayor," said Manning. "In the middle of my first council term, I ran for mayor and won. Now I'm in my second."

Not satisfied with hearing from city and staff members, "this is the way we've always done it," Manning addresses city problems the same way he takes on engineering problems: He prioritizes the needs, makes a plan to address them using the resources available and adjusts all of it as needed.

That approach appears to be working. When he took office in 2007, the city was $500,000 in the red and Manning saw that raising taxes wouldn't solve the problem long term. The immediate task was analyzing and changing the city budget, which eliminated the deficit before the end of Manning's first term in office. He also wanted to explore new ways to increase revenues; his expertise in engineering helped.

"We jumped right into solar projects. We're launching an organic waste energy program," Manning said. "We also have a hydroelectric plant, a one-megawatt plant."

These projects are serving as the foundation for even larger endeavors, including a plan for constructing a five-megawatt hydroelectric plant that is currently under review with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, according to Manning.

His professional background made it easier for Manning to explain the benefits of these innovations and to navigate funding options. Already familiar with the technologies under consideration, he was able to identify the public funding sources available to municipalities interested in using solar energy and generating hydroelectric power. Manning was able to immediately alleviate one of the biggest concerns that usually come with unfamiliar technology — how to pay for it. He was also able to explain the cost-benefit analysis of solar technology, making it possible for his constituents, peers and city staff to quickly learn about the ideas and embrace and support the unconventional approach.

"Seeking new revenue sources or turning expenses into revenue, like we've done with some of our waste programs, is the only way to survive," said Manning. "The creativity and the exploration part of [being a] scientist would be a benefit to a person running a governmental body — the discovery, the invention that comes with the tech side."

Psychology and politics

The majority of professionals Manning encounters in politics are lawyers. While those individuals are good at addressing the various issues of governance; he believes scientists do, too.

He encouraged people with a science-tech background to get more involved. "We don't need them to overtake the running of these organizations but we definitely need to balance the scales," said Manning.

California State Rep. Leland Yee agreed. A child psychologist in San Francisco, his interest in helping others inspired him to run for the school board. After that successful campaign, he won a seat on the city's board of supervisors and then in the state senate.

"I have a passion for service, and I wanted to use my psychology to better the lives of children," said Yee. "What I bring to the public policy arena is a clear understanding of science, a clear understanding of data — the importance of data, how to read data, how to understand data — and a passion for trying to make public policy based on objective information rather than 'he said, she said' and somebody that may have more influence than others deciding on public policy."

When Yee hears a proposal, the first thing he does is to ask for the data, the studies, and the names of professionals in the field backing the idea. That doesn't go over very well, he said. A non-profit staffer or representative from a group with a specific objective — such as reducing childhood obesity by banning vending machines or soda from school cafeterias — will pitch their effort as viable public policy. And when Yee asks for evidence they don't have any to offer.

"It's simply about [the] organization, the individuals they represent — that's what they believe in," said Yee. "If I ever said that to my professors, they'd probably take back my Ph.D."

Yee called the process of crafting legislation "ineffective" because it doesn't use the scientific method of gathering as much information as possible, including opposing perspectives. By following his training, Yee's been accused of "going over to the dark side" simply for meeting with a colleague of a different political party or opposing perspective.

However, Yee is also frequently called on to explain data analysis or interpret scientific reports. That's one way he believes he makes a significant contribution.

"The general public simply wants good public policy. People are even willing to tax themselves if the tax is going to help make their lives a little bit better," argued Yee.

Good public policy requires the ability to view issues and data with an objective eye, something else scientists bring to the political process. When elected officials step back from argumentation and thoughtfully consider the best possible solution, observes Yee, constituents are more likely to think their best interests are being protected, not those of a special interest group or some other biased entity.

Red or green button?

How a scientist makes the move from his or her field of training into politics is as unique as the variety of people who pursue a science career.

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) was a high-energy physicist and particle accelerator designer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) before entering politics.

After 23 years at Fermilab, Foster "fell prey to my family's recessive gene for adult-onset political activism."

Foster's father was a scientist-turned civil rights lawyer "who wrote much of the enforcement language behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964," according to Foster.

Like Yee, Foster has ended up acting as a science consultant for other lawmakers who don't understand data or reports related to a piece of legislation.

"I remember overhearing a conversation between two congressmen at one point saying, 'We should put more windmills in our energy policy because windmills poll so well,'" Foster recalled.

He chose to remain silent in that instance, but he usually tries to "gently correct" misperceptions and misinformation. Just as Foster consults with a retired general in Congress about military issues, he's happy to serve as a science consultant to his peers.

"Almost every issue that we face has a scientific or technological edge to it," Foster explained. "If you look at border security, there are real questions as to how effective all of these high-tech border fences are now and will ever be. I often get asked questions by other members of Congress. They'll say, 'We just had a hearing on this and this. Is this really a worry or is this not a worry?' "

Foster speaks at colleges and universities about what it means to be a scientist in the political arena. He always includes a "heartfelt pitch" for students in any field of science to consider public office. Yes, the process is grueling and the outcome uncertain but the rewards great, he tells them.

To further illustrate his point, Foster describes a card containing a microchip used by members of Congress to vote on legislation.

"You take your card and you put it into a box full of electronics and then you press the red button or the green button, and the world changes a little bit," Foster explained. "Everything else you do is secondary to that, because if you make the right decisions for the long-term best interests of those you represent, you have the opportunity to do real good for our country. That's why you take the job."

'Go for it!'

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), whom Foster refers to as the "other 50 percent of strategic reserve of physicists in Congress," came to politics after a successful career in academia. He counts himself fortunate that his first venture into public office, the position he now holds, was successful. And his enthusiasm for the work is unbounded.

"It can be very rewarding. It's hard to see anything that's more important," said Holt. "There are lots of ways to get started. Get on the town environmental commission or work up through the board of education or volunteer for a state legislator. Work in a congressional office or campaign — those are ways to get started, and it works."

And the reason he traded full-time science for politics?

"You help people live richer lives," he said. "Some of it is to alleviate suffering, some of it is to enhance opportunities."

In recognizing the important role government plays in safeguarding the rights and freedoms of individuals, Holt believes a community is strengthened by the involvement of citizens with varied perspectives and life experiences. He said the attitude of "You're on your own. You go figure it out" gets society into trouble, not out of it. As a result, he had a clear and simple message for scientists who are considering running for office.

"Go for it!"


Margo Pierce

Related Scientific Disciplines