Do we need to elect more scientists?

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, wrote in the New York Times yesterday that we should elect more scientists to public office.

He notes that China’s President Hu Jintao has a background in hydraulic engineering, German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a doctorate in physical chemistry and Singapore President Tony Tan has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics.

Why does this matter? Paulos argues:

One needn’t endorse the politics of these people or countries to feel that given the complexities of an ever more technologically sophisticated world, the United States could benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government. This is obviously no panacea — Herbert Hoover was an engineer, after all — but more people with scientific backgrounds would be a welcome counterweight to the vast majority of legislators and other officials in this country who are lawyers.

Back in 2008, Curtis Gilbert and looked at this issue in an episode of our Electionwise podcast (listen here). We spoke with Chad Kraus who had done a study on how many physicians had served in Congress from 1960 to 2004. He found that only 25 physicians had served during that time period. Lawyers made up 45 percent of Congresspeople, about 15 percent were business people, 10 percent were career public servants, followed by people involved in education. There weren’t enough scientists to even bother mentioning in our conversation.

Since the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development touts our state as “the perfect environment for bioscience” with statistics like “Minnesota ranks third in bioscience-related patents per one million residents and fourth in bioscience occupational employment” — I wanted to see if we have more scientists serving in our Legislature.

Our 2011-2012 Legislators don’t look that different than U.S. Congresspeople. Legislators with business/finance backgrounds are by far the largest group, followed by educators, attorneys and those who have backgrounds in public service.

Nine members of the 112th Congress are scientists and engineers, so proportionately, Minnesota has an edge on them. Out of 201 members, we have seven scientists and engineers.

The scientific seven:

Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) works as a network engineer

Rep. Thomas Huntley (DFL-Duluth) has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is a retired professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth

Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis) has Ph.D. in biophysics from Yale University

Rep. Kate Knuth (DFL-New Brighton) is a conservation biologist with a Masters of Science from Oxford University

Sen. Doug Magnus (R-Slayton) holds a bachelor’s degree in animal science from South Dakota State University

John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) studied biology at Bemidji State University and worked as a water quality specialist.

Duane Quam (R-Byron) has a Masters in Physics from University of Texas Dallas and worked as an engineer

Do we need more scientists and engineers in the Minnesota legislature? Who would you nominate?

Molly Bloom