Political Science meets Scientific Politics

New Jersey Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker is a physicist whose area of interest is the elusive goal of harnessing nuclear fusion to provide clean, cheap energy. Fusion is the energy behind the hydrogen bomb, and people have been trying to tame it for peaceful use for decades. Zwicker’s other job is as a legislator in New Jersey’s 16th Legislative District – where he has been serving in the General Assembly since 2016.

There are two stories that Zwicker likes to tell. One is how he won his first term by a whopping 78 votes. The other is that when he got to the Assembly, he convinced the Assembly Speaker to form a committee on Science, Innovation, and Technology, of which he would be the chair – initially a committee of one.

That committee has since grown and includes a cross-section of scientific and non-science legislators.

Congressman Holt campaigning for Marie Corfield (2013)

Zwicker represents a small but growing cadre of scientists and engineers who also wear the hat of lawmaker. The progenitor of this small group is former New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, who is also a nuclear physicist and was a colleague of Zwicker at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. (Holt left Congress after eight terms and is now the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

Former Energy Secretary Dr Steven Chu (2013)

The intersection of science and politics has always been elusive. And it’s gotten worse under the Trump administration. President Obama’s Energy Secretaries, Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, were nuclear physicists. (Chu is also a Nobel Prize winner). President Trump’s Energy Secretary is Dancing With the Stars celebrity Rick Perry. Much of the GOP consists of climate change deniers, and many promote teaching of intelligent design instead of scientifically robust evolution. And there are probably even some flat-earthers hiding in the weeds.

New Jersey is fortunate to have an organization, the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, that recognizes the need to broaden the Venn diagram overlap of science and politics, and it runs an annual event to discuss this issue. This year’s event was held on Friday, and the room was packed with graduate students of just about every discipline offered at the university, as well as politicians, academics, and working scientists and engineers. Assemblyman Zwicker was one of the featured speakers.

Ruth Mandel, Eagleton’s Director, kicked off the meeting with an announcement of a small step in integrating scientific expertise into the political domain. Eagleton will sponsor up to four PhD-level scientists and engineers in a Science and Politics Fellowship Program. These fellows will be in-house science advisors within legislative and executive offices in the State of New Jersey. After receiving training on the workings of state government over the summer, they will assist decision-makers in developing policies that have scientific or technical components.

Among the other panelists were Caroline Weinberg, Co-Founder of the National March for Science who spoke about the transition of her organization to year-round advocacy, and Christopher Malloy, interim Chancellor for Rutgers’ New Brunswick Campus.

Sam Wang, a Princeton neuroscientist (who has been featured on Blue Jersey previously), spoke about his work on fixing gerrymandering and redistricting.

The participants stressed the need for scientists to become more proficient in communicating with voters. Weinberg even suggested that scientific papers be published in two versions – the traditional robust but often droll explanations and findings – and a simplified version written in lay language explaining why the research is important to non-scientists.

The election of Donald Trump and his enablers has spurred ordinary people who have never dipped their toes into politics to become activists, and they have generally been successful as the last election showed. Now scientists have jumped on the bandwagon, realizing that the benefits of their endeavors need to be better communicated outside the laboratories – not only to those who make the laws, but also voters in general.

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