Why we need more scientists in government
Having grown up in Massachusetts, I love the idea of warmer winters. A winter where I will not have a $150 heating bill? A winter where I will not need to shovel for hours when it snows?
While warmer winters are convenient for my poor circulation and wallet, they are less convenient for other animals, like seals and polar bears. These animals live on Arctic ice, and if temperatures are high in the winter, their icy homes will melt.
The Trump administration lacks individuals who work effectively to protect these habitats. Rick Perry, secretary of energy, holds only a bachelor’s degree in animal science. Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, has no formal scientific training. If individuals holding engineering, medical, and master of science degrees are considered, there would still not be enough science-educated government officials directly involved in policy-making.
Furthermore, leaders in the current administration attack the science of climate change, despite the abundance of climate-science data as well as a recent international agreement by many nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Donald Trump declared climate change a fabrication of Chinese imagination. Sonny Perdue, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, called climate science “disconnected from reality.” Scott Pruitt said “climate change alarmists” who warn of the ramifications of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should be prosecuted for fraud.
In the history of the United States, only three cabinet members have held PhDs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math — all of whom were officials appointed to the departments of Energy and Defense under President Obama. Out of all the senators and state representatives elected since 1776, only 13 individuals have held PhDs in STEM fields.
While doctoral degrees themselves do not necessarily determine the fitness of an individual to hold a position of government power, advanced degree programs in STEM provide a deep intellectual foundation and breadth of knowledge with which to make decisions that will affect the rest of the country and, in the case of climate change, the rest of the world.
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2016 set a new temperature record — the average global surface temperature was nearly 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the 20th century average of 57 degrees. This might seem minor, but NASA and the Department of Energy assert that the rate at which the global surface temperature changes is concerning.
The impacts of climate change extend beyond having warmer winters in Massachusetts; climate change implies not only increasing global surface temperatures, but also more extreme environmental conditions. For example, over the past decade some areas of the United States, like California, have experienced excessive drought conditions while other areas, like Missouri, have seen a significant increase in flooding. These abnormal weather conditions significantly affect farming and agriculture. Climate change therefore has an expansive domino effect on many different sectors.
Now, imagine a United States where cabinet members are scientists. The Department of Agriculture would collaborate with the Department of Health and Human Services to create sustainable farmland and increase the accessibility of organics. The Department of Energy would work with the EPA to expand the availability of clean-energy sources.
This may seem idealistic, but scientists made progress toward curbing climate change in the past. Former secretary of energy Steven Chu received his PhD in physics, and during his time in the Department of Energy he successfully shifted the priorities of the department away from nuclear weapon maintenance and instead toward clean-energy program construction. These programs aimed to move the United States away from its reliance on oil and coal, which both emit greenhouse gases during use.
In the current political climate, it is imperative that scientists work to engage directly with policy-making. Scientists in government should become the norm because despite my love of warmer winters, the seals and polar bears should not lose their homes.
Gina Mantica is a PhD student in biology at Tufts University.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the rise in average global temperature.