Scientist PACs and Judges

One of the most interesting suggestions made by Chris and Sheril in Unscientific America is the idea that science needs to play political hardball (page 158, in the endnotes):

Why not form a nonpartisan science political action committee, or PAC, devoted to funding candidates who are either scientists themselves or who make science a strong priority and have good records on science issues? With adequate fundind, the PAC might select, say, five or ten members or candidates to support each election cycle. If there’s a desire to be really aggressive (and we have mixed feelings about this strategy), it could also target science “bad guys”– climate change deniers, officials who promote manufactured scientific controversies, anti-evolutionists, and the like– who deserve to be unelected and give campaign funds to their opponents.

They cite the specific example of Ocean Champions, a non-partisan science advocacy group with an associated PAC.

I kind of like this idea, as a matter of principle. When I mentioned it to Kate, though, she immediately declared that it was a terrible idea, comparing it to the direct election of judges.

In her view, forming a science PAC would undercut the impartiality of scientists, or at least create the appearance of greater partisanship, in the same way that direct election of judges creates the appearance of partisan bias (and sometimes actual bias). Chris and Sheril do acknowledge this in their note:

PACs are the brass knuckles side of politics: They should only be used to support the greatest science champions or to attack the worst enemies, and should be organized by wealthy individiuals rather than by broad scientific institutions, which will rightly want to maintain more distance between themselves and direct electioneering. But there’s no avoiding the reality that for scientific information to have its maximal impact, scientists must understand what motivates those in the policy world to act. They must speak the language of politics, know its rules, and asapt to the culture of Congress, including, in some cases, being willing to fight hard when there are no other choices.

Kate remained unconvinced (at least by my summary of the argument in conversation– she hasn’t read the book). She feels it’s a Bad Thing for impartial groups like scientists and judges to be involved in the messy business of campaign financing.

Personally, I still like the idea. I think that we’ve more or less lost the appearance of impartiality already, thanks to the Republican embrace of bull-goose lunacy with regard to climate change, the teaching of evolution, and various other science issues. We’ve already got high-profile scientists involved in politics, through groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists (who send me about four press releases/ action alerts a week) and actions like the umpteen Nobel Laureates who endorsed Obama (and, for that matter, Kerry). What we don’t have on our side is money, and money makes all the difference in politics.

That’s not to say that there aren’t still problems with the idea, chief among them being raising the necessary capital. Scientists tend not to be extravagantly wealthy, particularly since the financial sector’s implosion has bankrupted all those ex-physicists on Wall Street, so coming up with the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to set this sort of thing up would be tricky. If anybody knows Paul Allen, please pass the suggestion along, but short of some Internet gazillionaire shaking out his pocket change, it’s not clear that there would be adequate backing to make a go of this.

It’s an interesting idea, though, and considerably more concrete than many of the other proposals of how to fix the status of science. I’d like to see somebody give it a go, but failing that, it’s at least a good topic for discussion. So, discuss: A science PAC: good idea, bad idea, a little of both? How could this be made to happen?


  1. #1 onymous
    July 7, 2009

    In her view, forming a science PAC would undercut the impartiality of scientists, or at least create the appearance of greater partisanship

    I don’t understand this point of view at all. For one, supporting candidates who have good records on science issues and targeting the Inhofe-types isn’t inherently partisan. To the extent that it would be partisan, it’s only because the Republican party (or, more generally, the right-wing politics+media machine) has politicized science in this country. A science PAC should certainly, for example, support Republicans who want to take action on climate change, and attack Democrats who don’t.

    Aside from that, a lot of people have this idea that scientists should somehow be objective observers. But how can they be? It’s telling that James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost experts in climate change, recently got arrested. The meme that scientists should be impartial falls apart in the face of the reality that scientists can know about a pressing problem and have very little chance to make a difference in it, especially in the face of powerful corporate and political interests. Telling them to be “objective” seems to me to be a way to silence them.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    July 7, 2009

    In her view, forming a science PAC would undercut the impartiality of scientists, or at least create the appearance of greater partisanship

    If we had two rational major political parties I would have agreed with Kate’s view. The actual situation is that we have one semirational major political party and one utterly insane political party–we’re not talking about the lunatic fringe, the hardcore crazies have taken over the party. When merely being rational constitutes a partisan position (as Colbert said, the facts have a well-known liberal bias), we have to be prepared to back that position. If that means more people like Rush Holt running for political office, so be it. (For several years I considered Holt to be “my” congressman, even though his district is in another state. That was before Carol Shea-Porter, who actually listens to rational people living in this district, ousted the Republican incumbent in 2006.) If that means having a vehicle for funding challengers to anti-science Congresscritters, so be it.

    Besides which, we see what “objectivity” has done for journalism in this country. We cannot allow the whackaloons to do the same thing to science.

  3. #3 CCPhysicist
    July 7, 2009

    I’ve been reading Fareed Zakaria’s 2003 book “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad” this summer, off and on, and have marveled at his insight into the requirements for a successful democracy (clearly explaining the many failures when we tried to impose it in various parts of the world after WW II) and the changes that I have witnessed in our own.

    Chapter 6 is about the US. In addition to practically predicting the current economic disaster as a result of the invention of credit cards for everyone in the mid 70s and its expansion through the 90s, he has a lot to say about the demise of political parties in the US. What Eric@2 is talking about, except that he doesn’t realize we have no political parties today. Certainly nothing like what we had in 1960. Read “The Making of a President” and compare it to who Obama won the nomination, and you will see.

    PACs play a crucial role in this new democracy we have created in the last few decades. They have replaced political parties as the way the people’s voices get heard and even in how the majority’s views get subverted.

    It is a very good idea.

  4. #4 CCPhysicist
    July 7, 2009

    That should be “how Obama won”.

  5. #5 Chris C. Mooney
    July 7, 2009

    Thanks for this, Chad. I am glad to see that the endnotes are not stopping you from finding some of the stuff we tucked away in them.

    I actually don’t think this would cost that much money–not if you start with Congressional races and focus on just a few where there’s really a shot of winning.

    Moreover, I don’t think it has to be “partisan” if you support both Dems and also liberal Republicans. (You can’t support conservative ones because they’ll tend to have anti-science stances.)

    I too think it should be undertaken, albeit cautiously–and perhaps merged with a state and congressional version of ScienceDebate!

  6. #6 Kate W.
    July 7, 2009

    I think a science PAC could be a good thing, especially if it was committed to being bi-partisan and would fund candidates in both the Republican and Democratic primaries if they merited it. Republicans of the non-wackaloon variety are endangered in part because the wackaloons have lots of money and lots of time. Non-local money and time often goes into defeating Republicans of the non-wackaloon variety in primaries. Moderate rational Republicans don’t the kind of fanatical base. Primaries tend to favor the extremes wings of both parties, but somehow the democrats haven’t suffered quite as badly from this.

    Then there would have to be a decision about whether or not to focus on individual races only or you pay attention to the balance of power in Congress. Former Republican Congresswoman Connie Morella from Maryland (DC suburbs), lost her seat in 2004 or 2006 not because her constituents disagreed with her positions but because there was a chance for democrats to take the House back and since the House Republican Leadership was of the wackaloon variety, women’s groups and the federal employees unions that traditionally had supported her decided to support her democratic rival not so much because he was better than she was, but because they wanted a democratic majority. I’d be willing to bet she’s not the only candidate to face this issue.

    Another challenge would be defining what “pro-science” in a way people could agree on and being able to swallow it when a pro-science candidate disagrees with something that is important to many people, but not something the organization takes a position on. At one point in my career, I spent lots of time explaining to labor PAC members that we did give money to baby killers who wanted to take their guns because they voted with the union on labor issues, their opponents did not, and we took no position on abortion and gun control.

    I wouldn’t call PACs the brass knuckles of politics. Independent expenditures are a more brutal and less transparent tool. Bundling is less transparent. Another favorite of mine is the number of women who max candidates out in both the primary and general elections who list their occupation as “housewife” for the federal election commission. It makes figuring out what is behind the money harder.

  7. #7 Skydaemon
    July 7, 2009

    This is a poorly thought out idea. The end result of which is you’d end up having your funding cut and research activities getting chained to corporations.

    The non-involvement in politics is essentially what allows research funding to remain public. If the population see acadamic scientists as taking political sides you will get significant backlash. Essentially, you will end up getting derided as religion does, and for similar reasons.

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