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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 17, 2010

Politics in the Lab

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Posted by Derek

Man, have I been avoiding this topic. But I think it's time. Slate recently published this piece on the political affiliations of scientists, with the provocative sub-head: "Most scientists in this country are Democrats. That's a problem."

Is it? Is that even true? The piece is based on this survey by the Pew Foundation, which was conducted in 2009 by surveying over 2000 members of the AAAS. Now, I'm trying to come up with the figures, but my strong impression is that the organization skews pretty strongly academic, which might account for some of the numbers. (Science, for example, runs articles like this one, explaining the mysterious world of industry to job-seekers.

So I'm not sure if the Pew numbers are accurate. Still. . .for what it's worth, they come out like this: for self-described party affiliation, Dem/Rep/Ind, the general public was 35/23/34, and the sample of scientists was 55/6/32. And in more philosophical terms, as self-identified liberal/moderate/conservative, the general public was 20/38/37, and the scientists were 52/35/9. Those are some pretty stark differences - correcting for sample bias would probably even things out some, but I can't imagine it would be enough to take care of a gap that large.

The Slate piece says that this is indeed a problem:

During the Bush administration, Democrats discovered that they could score political points by accusing Bush of being anti-science. In the process, they seem to have convinced themselves that they are the keepers of the Enlightenment spirit, and that those who disagree with them on issues like climate change are fundamentally irrational. Meanwhile, many Republicans have come to believe that mainstream science is corrupted by ideology and amounts to no more than politics by another name. Attracted to fringe scientists like the small and vocal group of climate skeptics, Republicans appear to be alienated from a mainstream scientific community that by and large doesn't share their political beliefs. The climate debacle is only the most conspicuous example of these debilitating tendencies, which play out in issues as diverse as nuclear waste disposal, protection of endangered species, and regulation of pharmaceuticals.

I think that's a reasonable summary, especially if you're the sort of person who thinks about politics all the time. But that's a key consideration: not everyone does. It's hard to remember this if you're interested in politics yourself, and if you spend a lot of time following current events and world affairs. Politics, and political ideology, is just one template people use to view the world. Everything can be fit into it one way or another, and it's fun to keep score. I imagine the point-totaling sound as being like a pre-digital pinball machine: chunk-chunk-chunk-ding! This side scores, that side scores.

But how much of this overlaps with what goes on in the labs? The examples in the quoted paragraph certainly do, but there are many less politically contentious issues that are scientifically important. It's hard to fit disagreements over dark matter or RNA's role in early life forms into a left/right framework, much less intramural spats like the structure of the norbornyl cation, the usefulness of total synthesis, or how much palladium you really need to do a metal-catalyzed coupling.

In the end, I think the "it's a problem" conclusion of the Slate article should be amended to "it's a problem if you measure everything by politics". That's a temptation that should be avoided, as far as I'm concerned. Orwell was right to consider a world where everything was subordinate to political concerns as a nightmare. And while I have strong political opinions myself, and follow the whole business much more than I follow any traditional sport, I still would like to have some areas free of it.

Comments (63) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. Hasufin on December 17, 2010 11:05 AM writes...

Several chemists I knew in the EPA were alienated very much by the Bush administration's funding and treatment of science. Being rational people, I think that this affected their overall view of the Republican party, but they'd be willing to reconsider if it were demonstrated that the acts which alienated them weren't representative of Republicans as a whole.

In other words, the scientists I've known personally are neither Democrats nor Republicans - they are *scientists*, and their concerns are related to science.

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2. Hap on December 17, 2010 11:05 AM writes...

It wouldn't necessarily be a problem in lab, but science requires funding, and sometimes its conclusions require people and governments to do things. If most people (who don't do science or are acting as ordinary citizens) think that scientific outcomes are politically determined, then the results that people don't like become easier to ignore and people's support for science education and funding would likely decrease. Eventually, that would be a problem. Asking people to use logic to evaluate political questions would be out of character, and exceedingly unlikely, but the only real way out of our messes. If people can't generally evaluate the truth of scientific claims, then perceived bias is going to affect how they view such claims.

Political bias might just be part of our education or funding systems, but one might also worry that scientists do have systemic biases. As someone on Pharyngula put it (or quoted it), science is supposed to be a process that makes it hard for us to fool ourselves. If that method doesn't work, well, we also have a problem. (A recent New Yorker article (12/13?, pp. 52-57) also brought up issues of what we can believe in science - again, how well the method works to keep us from fooling ourselves, and concludes that somehow, it doesn't work as well as we'd hope.)

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3. passionlessDrone on December 17, 2010 11:22 AM writes...

Hello friends -

One wonders how many of those people have decided to identify as Democratic or Indepdendent precisely because identifying as Republican mandated supporting some positions that are simply undefendable from a rationalist standpoint?

This isn't about 'scoring political points by acusing Bush about being anti-science', it is about acknowledging reality. Young Earth Creationists, or people who do not believe in evolution, thought Terri Shaivo on a ventilator wasn't playing God, but taking her off one was, or don't seem to understand the difference between weather and climate are overwhelmingly Republcan. There is plenty of ignorance on the other sides of the aisle, but when it comes to actively arguing against science, including basic premises on which things like biology are founded, Republicans are the gold medalists.

It is one thing be friends with people like that, but the Republicans are attempting to craft policy based on foundational ignorance. They are dangers to what might be gained by application of the scientific method.

If more scientists identify as Democrats or Independent, good news. Great news.

- pD

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4. Neurosloth on December 17, 2010 11:25 AM writes...

What interests me more than the numbers (which seem accurate enough) is the direction, if any, of causality. Are scientifically-minded people more likely to develop a liberal worldview, or are liberal-minded people more likely to become scientists?

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5. LinearEquations on December 17, 2010 11:52 AM writes...

The breakdown of scientist polled is as follows

Govt Scientists -- 1200
Academia -- 933
Non-profit -- 267
Industry -- 133

(Solved a system of linear equations, numbers don't sum up exactly because the total percentages given did not equal 100)

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6. Adam on December 17, 2010 11:53 AM writes...

"It's hard to fit disagreements over dark matter or RNA's role in early life forms into a left/right framework"


Many on the right would disagree with you on that, on account of the absence of early life forms because God created everything in six days and faked the fossil record, and evolution being a liberal conspiracy and all.

Just sayin'.

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7. bad wolf on December 17, 2010 12:02 PM writes...

I certainly don't need more polarized debates in another sphere. But as you can see above some folks are quick to say that a self-described party member uncritically accepts every position offered by their party affiliation. This is hardly the case, as Blue-dog Democrats and Log Cabin Republicans could attest.

There is a good question of why this situation exists (scientists become democrats or democrats become scientists?) but i would suggest that there would be advantages to playing both sides of the political divide to your advantage--if you are perceived as being beholden to one party, that party will take you for granted and the other party will see no gain in doing things for your benefit.

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8. Ken Bob on December 17, 2010 12:08 PM writes...

As someone willing to admit to being a conservative Republican, those of you deriding the right are painting with a very broad brush. Conflating fundamentalism (i.e. strict creationism) with conservatism is not being intellectually honest. The same would be true if I conflated Michael Moore with all Democrats believing that Cuba has the best health care system in the world.

The AAAS tends to lean left, because many like me don't like to fund left leaning organizations with dues. That only exacerbates the leftward tilt, as membership in the AAAS is not a good statistical sampling of the population of scientists.

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9. Industry Guy on December 17, 2010 12:28 PM writes...

Assuming Comment #5 is correct, then why is this news? Do you think a survey of lawyers, or accountants, or educators, or janitors in which 95% of the respondents are from government/academia/non-profit and 5% from industry would look any different?

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10. RM on December 17, 2010 12:37 PM writes...

Ironically, I think it's Democrats' incompetence which nets them scientists' support.

Republicans have a better PR machine. (Something I've heard both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge.) We hear about Republicans' cause celebre - in excruciating detail, from both sides of the aisle. We therefore hear all of the stupid, anti-science things that Republicans believe in. As to what Democrats believe? It really doesn't get much airplay. There's probably a lot of woo/power-of-positive-thinking/etc. idiocy in the Democrat camp, but we never hear about it, so it really doesn't factor into peoples' opinions.

Additionally, Republicans (deliberately) present a united front, so it looks like the entire Republican camp is united behind the cause celebre. Democrats are less cohesive, so it's easier to dismiss the wack-jobs as being unrepresentative of the Democratic party as a whole.

Another issue is that Republicans attempt to style themselves as with the independent working man (think Joe the Plumber). It's all to easy to cultivate a pro-working-man image by being anti-intellectual (especially if the intellectuals are already viewed as liberal/Democratic).

So if your party is spouting non-science, bashing scientists, and belittling scientific research ("they're studying fruit flies?"), and especially if your PR machine keeps it in the press, you're going to drive away scientists.

That said, I agree with Derek in that political affiliations aren't a be-all-end-all. It only becomes an issue when people are so invested in their political identity that they try to influence experimental results to come out in accordance with their established position.

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11. fuelair on December 17, 2010 1:04 PM writes...

Re:Comment 10 by RM - last part. As a definite leftie (except on guns and explosives!!) I do find it fun that the most extreme cases of political bias forcing science/lab bias were the really leftie Socialists of Russia. Fortunately, I don't see much of that here. Hope I never do.

PPS to Derek - thanks greatly for Things I Will Not Work With and Max Gergel. Hunted up his 2nd volume and found an autographed copy(!) through Amazon.

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12. johnnyboy on December 17, 2010 1:13 PM writes...

I think surveying "scientists" at large will not give you any meaningful results, unless you consider the results into government, academic, and industry. And the democrat vs republican divide might not tell the whole story. My immediate colleagues in the big pharma company where I used to work were pretty much all social liberals or moderates, but a lot of them voted republican nonetheless because they thought that a republican administration would be more favorable to pharma.

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13. Phil on December 17, 2010 1:20 PM writes...

I am a slightly liberal Democrat who was and will be an industry scientist. I agree with the previous posts that the survey is overwhelmingly skewed away from scientists in private industry, and therefore the Republican count is unrealistically small. There are plenty of conservative scientists, my guess is that the count is really about 50/50 Democrat/Republican.

@RM: I hadn't thought of many of the things you wrote, but you are right about some of them. There are tons of Democrats who are totally clueless about science, and there are plenty of Republicans who are well aware of its importance (Bill Frist comes to mind).

But the bottom line is this: the Democratic party line is to support scientific research, and the Republican party line is that lots of science research is wasteful and should be cut. And apparently Eric Cantor and Adrian Smith think the public can better choose the scientific programs that deserve funding than the NSF review boards.

Whether they're better about communicating their position or not, it's wrong in this case.

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14. Sigivald on December 17, 2010 1:30 PM writes...

Passionless: I can't think of a single position "mandated" by self-identification as a Republican, let alone one that is contrary to Reason or Science.

So, no, I don't think that's real likely at all. Comforting if you're a Democrat or Green, of course, but not likely true.

You perhaps confuse the fact that people like YECs are very, very likely to not-be-Democrats* (and are thus likely, if they pick a mainstream party identification, to be Republicans) with the idea that that's somehow a part of the fact of self-identifying as a Republican for anyone else.

(* Because being a YEC is part of a specific subset of religious beliefs, which are also strongly correlated with other religious beliefs that are less laughable, and correlated strongly with not-being-a-Democrat.)

This is as ridiculous as asserting that people self-identify as Democrats because they're really Communists who want to avoid the label Communist; there are non-zero such people, but they're irrelevant to "Democrat" as a political identity in general.

(Full disclosure: I don't identify as any party, or as a "liberal" or "conservative".

Well, actually, I do identify as a liberal, just not the kind that they mean there, or the kind that has any relation to a "progressive".)

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15. wwjd on December 17, 2010 1:37 PM writes...

I remember during my college and grad school days being one of the most conservative people around. Then I entered industry and realized I was a moderate (change of comparison set, not beliefs). I think the set of people surveyed here (mostly govt & academics) caused the outcome. It would be interesting to see what the ACS would come out with using the same survey, since it has a much larger industrial participation than AAAS.

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16. passionlessDrone on December 17, 2010 1:58 PM writes...

Hi Sigvald -

I believe that what I said that being a Reuplican, 'mandated supporting some positions that are simply undefendable from a rationalist standpoint'. (perhaps I should have said, 'voting Republican')

If you voted for a Tea Party candidate, you acted to put people in policy making positions that don't believe the Earth is warming. You helped them achieve that position of power; whatever other reasons you might have had for voting Republican, the end game is the same; people with disrepsect or ignorance for the scientific method are taking decision making positions regarding funding for pure research on issues that affect everyone.

Regarding YEC, what if I find all religouns more or less equally laughable? YEC makes a good example, but really they all have about the same amount of evidence in their favor. Again, unfortunately, there is one set of politicians who consistently question the evidence of evolution, Repulicans. This is largely driven by either actual belief in the bible, or pandering towards those that do, but whatever the cause, it is absolutely the opposite of a dispassionate evaluation of the facts. These people are going to be shaping the way the department of education is funded.

I'd like to get more money at the end of the day, and the problems of large entities like government are real, but my soul isn't worth another 3%.

- pD

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17. Phil on December 17, 2010 2:15 PM writes...

The Slate excerpt Derek posted doesn't sit right with me. The implication is that Democrats only support science because it scores them points. That's like saying Republicans support fundamental Christians because it scores them points.

While the issue is complicated, it's a more true statement to say that Democratic votes supporting scientific research come from genuine belief in it, just like Republicans who side with the Christian right also believe in what they vote for. I don't buy into the cynical argument that politicians are ONLY doing what gets them votes. Positions are rooted at least partly in honest belief, but of course politicians do compromise their own beliefs in order to get elected, on both sides.

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18. hn on December 17, 2010 2:17 PM writes...

I think a major factor why scientists don't identify with conservatives is that there are far fewer "actively" religious scientists than in the general population.

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19. luysii on December 17, 2010 3:24 PM writes...

The sample is incredibly skewed toward academia. You are as likely to find out what the mass of practicing scientists and engineers, industrial chemists etc. think politically as you are to find out who won the last congressional election from reading the letters to the New York Times (before or after 2 November)

For a few useful antidotes to the notion that all scientists are objective pursuers of the truth read "Defenders of the Truth" by Segerstrale about the birth of sociobiology, or "The Linguistic Wars" by Harris about the basis of language. Chomsky comes across as he does when outside his field of 'expertise'.

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20. lenin on December 17, 2010 3:25 PM writes...

Democrats? Let's be honest. Most scientists are communists (one step past a democrat). They all dip into the same pot of money to fund their personal research, whether govt or industrial.

The Republican scientists start their own companies.

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21. trrll on December 17, 2010 3:41 PM writes...

In the past, the Republican Party has been very supportive of funding of scientific research, although that has tended to fall by the wayside in recent years, as the reluctance of Republicans to support tax increases to fund the military adventures initiated by Republican administrations leaves little money to spare for science.

The Republican Party has further lost support from the scientific community by appearing to embrace politicians who espouse crank science like creationism or rejection of global warming.

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22. socialist scientist on December 17, 2010 3:53 PM writes...

It's a little off putting when vocal Republican mouth-pieces deride higher education, call us elitist and pander to the lowest common denominator. Bush did the party damage in the eyes of scientists with his environmental polices. I think the majority of scientists strive to solve humanities problems and add to the knowledge base which, in this day and age, are not Republican values Industry scientists are only Republicans for job-security and monetary reasons.

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23. Lester Freamon on December 17, 2010 5:41 PM writes...

I think the liberal lean of the scientific community is merely a result of its atheist/agnostic lean. If we look at the problem in light of religion, then the question becomes, did scientific experiences make scientists become areligious, or did a previously held atheism lead them into science. And in my case, it's both.

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24. Jumbo on December 17, 2010 6:23 PM writes...

As a conservative/libertarian leaning scientist who worked for 12 yr at NIH and subsequently in the pharma industry, I can confidently attest to the liberal/progressive biases in government and academic labs. And I believe this is a problem, because in the current environment, progressivism is associated with entitlement. Progressive biases yield boondoggles like the California stem cell initiative, which is building beautiful new labspace and giving scientific managers cushy new jobs, but what, in truth, has the $1B spent done to advance science? Leftward political biases create situations where government and academic scientists are persuaded that slowing the increase in science funding is equivalent to a 'cut' and that tenure is preferable to outcomes-based employment. I have found the business world more comfortable to work in because fiduciary responsibility brooks no patience for slovenly incompetence. Rather than sitting in your office churning out vacuous reviews with your tenure position, if you don't generate enough lead molecules you are sh*t canned in industry. Tough world, but you know what expectations are very clearly.

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25. Anonymous on December 17, 2010 6:41 PM writes...

I don't buy into the cynical argument that politicians are ONLY doing what gets them votes.

In his campaign to be governor of Florida, Rick Scott ran an ad that consisted of the following (paraphrased because I couldn't find a Youtube of the actual ad):

"Alex Sink is proud to be endorsed by the St. Petersburg Times. The St. Pete Times endorsed someone else. Obama. How's that working out for you?"

So while you make good points and I'm not trying to argue with you, this "I'm a Republican, vote for me if you are too!" type of trolling for votes is very real and it works. My mother is fanatically religious and votes Republican no matter what because they use the word "pray" enough to appease her. I used to think she was the only person that blindly unobjective, but I was wrong. I live in a state full of people that would be her best friend.

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26. Mutatis Mutandis on December 17, 2010 7:18 PM writes...

I would suspect cold, calculating politics plays a role here. If the Republican party doesn't attract that many scientists (and in my experience Republicans are a minority even among industry scientists) it may be because it does not really want to. Just look at the (depressing) poll figures. Who can muster more votes: Scientists, or committed creationists? Who can contribute more money: Large industries with a self-interested take on the climate change debate, or research scientists?

That the majority of the scientific community leans to the left make the scientific electorate even less attractive. If you happen to be a conservative and a scientist: Though luck. I don't believe the GOP is interested enough in your ideas or your votes to risk losing the votes from, err, the other end of the rational spectrum.

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27. D'arren on December 17, 2010 8:03 PM writes...

I'm quite surprised there are as many fundamentalist religious people (Christians & Muslims) in hardcore science as there are. I actually met a postdoc is a young Earth creationist and works on - wait for it - evolution mechanisms in cancer metastasis. Thats a mind blowing amount of cognitive dissonance going on right there!

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28. anon on December 17, 2010 9:09 PM writes...

It's pretty simple. The group sampled generally have a higher level of education and IQ than the general public. So they tend to have a more thoughtful and rational perspective, hence they are Democrats, not Republicans.

Lord, please help us if Sarah Palin gets in the running again.

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29. Curt F. on December 17, 2010 9:43 PM writes...

When it comes to politics, the first thing to do is choose a side and the second thing to do is feel good about the virtue and correctness of your chosen affiliation.

Remember, at all costs, to view things along a singular axis of us vs. them. They are bad and we are good. That's all there is to it!

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30. Anonymous BMS Researcher on December 17, 2010 10:26 PM writes...

A few years ago during lunch in meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Labs a fellow from Canada asked me, "how did Bush get elected, most of the Americans I know dislike him just as much as I do?"

I replied, "well, think about which US citizens you know. First, you're a scientist so probably many of them are scientists. Second, you come from Eastern Canada so the closest part of the US for you is the Northeast. If you were a plumber from Manitoba you'd probably meet a rather different subset of the US population."

I do highly recommend the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State in which the authors use demographic data to describe the main political alignments of the US. Scientists, by and large, tend to have high educational levels and live in large metro areas. More of us live on the coasts than in the middle of the country. With these factors alone one could predict a fairly liberal perspective among scientists. Whether we're more or less liberal than can be explained by such demographic data, I dunno, but it does seem clear to me that demography can explain a lot.

Furthermore, scientists by and large are the offspring of college-educated parents. My parents are retired college faculty, so I basically grew up on campus, and then of course I spent more time on various campuses as a student and postdoc before moving to industry. It was very noticeable to me that students from working-class backgrounds rarely chose "academic" subjects like English, History, or Science. Students who were the first in their families to attend college mostly chose "practical" fields like Business or Engineering.

While I don't know where all of my colleagues at BMS stand politically, since I spend most of my time talking about science rather than about politics, those whose views I know best mostly have a very negative view of the Republican Party. Perhaps those more on the business side have different views, but among those doing actual science here I think Republicans are a minority.

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31. Greg Hlatky on December 17, 2010 11:12 PM writes...

"It's pretty simple. The group sampled generally have a higher level of education and IQ than the general public. So they tend to have a more thoughtful and rational perspective, hence they are Democrats, not Republicans."

"The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican." - Luke 18:11

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