One of the world’s most accomplished mathematicians, Fields Medal winner Cédric Villani, is running for mayor of Paris. He’s currently a member of the French national assembly. Which raises a fun question: is he the most accomplished scientific or mathematical researcher ever to hold national-level elected office?
Here’s another fun question: if you plotted scientist-politicians on a graph, with “scientific research accomplishment” on one axis and “political accomplishment” on the other, who’d be closest to the upper-right corner? Some opening bids:
- Margaret Thatcher would be very high on the “political accomplishment” axis (whether or not you think her political accomplishments were good). Now, you might think she wouldn’t be very high on the “scientific accomplishment” axis, since she only worked briefly as a food chemist. (A quick google informs me that she was involved in development of emulsifiers for ice cream.) But as you’ll see as you peruse the rest of this list, it’s pretty rare for anyone who’s been elected to national-level political office to have accomplished more in scientific research than she did.
- Similarly, Angela Merkel has a PhD in quantum chemistry, but she only spent three years post-PhD working as a research chemist. As far as I know, her scientific research is not especially notable when compared to that of other research scientists. But her research accomplishments seem to rank high when compared to those of other elected national politicians, as best I can tell from my cursory research.
- Bill Foster definitely outranks Merkel and Thatcher on the “scientific research accomplishment” axis. After getting a PhD in physics, he spent 22 years working at Fermilab, was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society, and was part of the team that won the 1989 Bruno Rossi Prize for cosmic ray physics. But as a member of the US House of Representatives, he hasn’t accomplished anywhere near as much in politics as Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel.
- Similar to Foster, Rush Holt was a physics PhD, Swarthmore prof, and then holder of some fairly high level science administration positions (including Asst. Director of the Princeton University Plasma Physics Laboratory), before becoming a multi-term Congressman.
- Harrison Schmitt was a geology PhD from Harvard. He went on to help develop the geological techniques to be used by the Apollo astronauts, and trained the astronauts in those techniques, before becoming an Apollo astronaut himself. He was the next-to-last person to walk on the Moon. Schmitt resigned from NASA to run for the US Senate, where he served a single term.
- Wikipedia has a list of PhD-holders who’ve held both elected and non-elected federal political or judicial positions in the US. But the vast majority aren’t science PhDs, and those who are didn’t do much scientific research. Among US Congressmen (besides those mentioned already), Vern Ehlers was a physics PhD and professor (primarily teaching) before beginning his long Congressional career. Jerry McNerney got a PhD in mathematics, then went into private sector engineering before moving into politics. Roscoe Bartlett got a PhD in physiology, after which he taught at medical schools for a few years. I’m not aware that he did any post-PhD scientific research. John Olver graduated college at 18, went on to a PhD in chemistry from MIT, and taught at UMass Amherst for 8 years before going into politics.
- I’m unaware of anyone who’s ever gone in the other direction, from an accomplished career as a national-level elected politician to an accomplished career as a research scientist. Are there any?
No doubt these opening bids are overly parochial–US federal politicians and a couple of European heads of state. I’m sure y’all can add to the list! (UPDATE: our commenters always come through! See the comments for several scientist-politicians who are definitely closer to the upper-right of our imaginary graph than anyone listed above.)
My tentative take-home lesson from these opening bids is that it’s super-rare for any national-level politician to first spend long enough doing scientific research to accumulate substantial research accomplishments. Why might that be? Some non-mutually-exclusive hypotheses:
- If you’ve spent a long time in any one career, you’re probably not interested in switching to some other career. Because if you were, you’d have switched long ago.
- Once you’ve spent a long time in any one career, you might have run out of time and energy in your life to switch to another career and accomplish a lot in it.
- “Antagonistic pleiotropy”: If different careers require different skills/attributes/etc., the fact that you’ve spent a long time becoming accomplished in career X probably means you lack the skills/attributes/etc. to become accomplished in career Y. For instance, many scientists might see a career in politics as requiring them to trade their objectivity for partisanship or political expediency.
- This piece from Evidence for Democracy, on the rarity of science PhD-holders among Canadian Members of Parliament, suggests some other hypotheses. For instance, the fear that, if you run for office and lose, you won’t be able to return to your scientific research career.
Note that some of those hypotheses don’t seem to apply to other pre-political careers, at least not the same extent as they seem to apply to scientific research careers. For instance, it is not rare for national-level politicians to previously have had successful business careers, or to have spent many years as lawyers. And it’s rare for people who’ve done significant policy-related research in the social sciences to subsequently go on to high-level elected office, but not as rare as it is for scientific researchers to subsequently go on to high-level elected office (think of Elizabeth Warren or Daniel Patrick Moynihan). Perhaps because successful businesspeople, lawyers, and policy researchers are more likely than research scientists to have the desire to switch to politics. And perhaps because there’s less “antagonistic pleiotropy” between a career in business/law/policy research and a career in politics. But it’s hard to say, because businesspeople and lawyers outnumber research scientists. Sheer weight of numbers presumably helps explain why people with those backgrounds become accomplished national-level politicians more often than research scientists do.
What do you think? Looking forward to your comments.