With the rise of fascism in Germany, Albert Einstein wrote to his colleague Max von Laue, who had encouraged him to not speak out: “I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters, i.e. human affairs in the broadest sense.”
I am a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. I am the Director of the Center for Cosmology, and involved in the Cosmic Microwave Background Stage IV experiment. I am also following up on a signal for dark matter detected with methods my colleagues and I developed when I was a graduate student.
I am also running for City Council here in Irvine.
Someone recently asked “with everything else going on, why would you do that?” The answer is simple: because there is a need. There has traditionally been strong pressure for scientists to stay out of politics. Many people think that getting involved in politics and policy will make scientists lose their credibility. In fact, the opposite is true. Peer-reviewed studies find scientists maintain their credibility in policy advocacy. In short, scientists are appropriately viewed as bringing science into policy, as opposed to bringing politics into the science.
Scientists are much more involved in political action now than they were a year ago: the November election was a paradigm shift for the scientific world. Americans put into office a president who was openly hostile to scientists and the scientific method. Climate scientists, for example, almost unanimously warn us that our planet is headed over a cliff if we don’t curb carbon emissions; denialism of climate change is about as scientifically fringe as flat-eartherism. But Donald Trump has threatened to pull us out of the international Paris Agreement, and his EPA chief intends to trash the Obama Clean Power Plan. And it isn’t just climate: we are witnessing a near-universal dismissal of expertise of almost all sorts. This is captured well in a post-election cartoon that shows an airline passenger saying, “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”
This disdain for expertise goes beyond just science and the environment. A President who dismisses the analyses of the intelligence community is inviting a new level of national instability, while his contempt for the diplomats and international-relations experts at the State Department jeopardizes global security and amplifies nuclear risks.
These have increased existential threats have prompted the physicist-led Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the Doomsday Clock closer to “midnight” than it has been since 1953, when the first thermonuclear devices were tested by the U.S. and Soviet Union. But the administration is focused instead on spending huge amounts of money for a border wall that security experts agree will not make us safer.
This rejection of the of science naturally leads to rejection of funding. The Presidential Budget Request for 2018 proposed draconian cuts to federal support of the sciences. This is despite overwhelming evidence that federal support of the sciences drives economic progress and improvements in people’s lives. Even before the information-technology revolution, about 85 percent of the growth in U.S. income per capita could be attributed to technological innovation.
It is now shockingly clear to scientists and many others that there is a strong need for elected leadership that properly embodies, acknowledges, and retains expertise, particularly with the scientific and technological challenges we face. It is clear that there is a need for competence at all levels of government, and that scientists and engineers can provide it. In fact, both Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher started out as chemists. The group 314 Action, founded by chemist Shaughnessy Naughton, matches scientists, engineers, medical and technology experts with the political experts who can help them run viable campaigns—and to date, more than 6,000 people with STEM backgrounds have approached the organization for advice on running for offices from school board to Senate.
My own determination to run for city council was inspired by growth that has recently begun spiraling out of control here in Irvine. After being incorporated as a city in 1971, Irvine grew in a measured way until the 1990’s, adding about 5,000 residents per year. Now that pace has nearly doubled. Traffic congestion is becoming worse, and housing costs are shooting up. One reason is that most private property, outside of single family homes, is owned by a private entity, the Irvine Company. Recently, its CEO attempted to attract Amazon’s second headquarters, even though Amazon insists that its new project have access to mass transit—and so far, Irvine is sticking with automobiles.
The City of Irvine has a proud history of being a leader on environmental protections. It was the first in America with a comprehensive plan to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) after Nobel prizewinning UC Irvine chemist Sherwood Rowland showed that the chemicals were depleting the planet’s protective ozone layer. Nowadays, with the threat of climate change looming, municipalities can take local action to curb carbon. These include community choice aggregation energy and a commitment to mass transit, which produces far fewer emissions than cars do.
But now—shockingly to me— the majority of Council members are climate change deniers who resist any attempt to push Irvine in the direction of climate neutrality. Given that I believe policy must be based on real evidence and informed by actual expertise, the question of why I’m running for office answers itself. And a growing number of scientists and other STEM professionals evidently agree.