Where are the Republican Scientists?

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 2:39 PM EST

Daniel Sarewitz writes in Slate today about a Pew poll showing that only 6% of scientists identify as Republicans (55% are Democrats and 32% are independents), a state of affairs he finds alarming. Matt Steinglass, though perhaps less alarmed, wishes Sarewitz had spent more time trying to figure out why so few scientists are Republicans. He proposes three possibilities:

The first is that scientists are hostile towards Republicans, which scares young Republicans away from careers in science. The second is that Republicans are hostile towards science, and don't want to go into careers in science. The third is that young people who go into the sciences tend to end up becoming Democrats, due to factors inherent in the practice of science or to peer-group identification with other scientists.

I'd add a twist to #2: not that young Republicans are hostile toward science, but that they're more attracted to the business world and its opportunities for vast wealth than to the grind of the laboratory and its upper middle class limits. So that's where they go. Still, here's my take on Matt's three guesses:

  1. This seems uninteresting to me. Of course scientists are hostile toward Republicans. As far as they're concerned, Republicans are troglodytes who don't believe in evolution, don't believe in climate change, want to ban stem cell research, and don't want to fund the NSF. They'd be crazy not to be hostile toward Republicans.
  2. This one seems quite testable and potentially interesting. Surely there are surveys of children, teenagers, college students, and 30-somethings that correlate political views with intended career choices? (If not, there should be!) I'm not sure what it would tell us, but I'd be curious to see what the trends over time look like.
  3. This also seems uninteresting to me. After all, it's almost certainly true, both for generic reasons of basic group dynamics as well as for the specific reasons outlined in #1.

Roughly speaking, though, this doesn't seem like such a hard question to me. The more time you spend practicing science, the more time you're going to spend discovering that conservatives hold scientific views that you find preposterous. Sure, liberals have PETA and the odd vaccination fetishist, but really, it's no contest. In the Democratic Party those are just fringe views. Even the anti-GM food folks don't amount to much. The modern Republican Party, by contrast, panders endlessly to the scientific yahooism of its base. What would be amazing is if much more than 6% of the scientific community identified with the Republican Party.

POSTSCRIPT: One thing I'd be curious about is the breakdown of scientists in Pew's sample. Is it mostly members of the hard sciences, or also members of the social sciences? Also, I'll bet you'd get quite different results if you polled engineers, who are probably much more heavily Republican than scientists are.

POSTSCRIPT 2: And one more thing! I wonder how this plays out in other advanced countries, where the conservative parties are, perhaps, still fiscal tightwads but don't pander to anti-science yahooism so much. Quick, somebody do a study!

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