Who are the most accomplished scientist-politicians in history? (UPDATED)

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.

35 thoughts on “Who are the most accomplished scientist-politicians in history? (UPDATED)

  1. Are we excluding members of the House of Lords in the UK? Because there are a fair few eminent scientists (both current and historic).

    • Yes, sitting in the House of Lords isn’t an elected position, so that seems like a different situation to me. Lord May for instance was named to the House in large part because of his long career of outstanding scientific accomplishment.

    • [googles Paul Painlevé]…Wow! Yes, I imagine it’s going to be hard to top someone who made numerous fundamental contributions to mathematics and twice served as French Prime Minister.

    • Yes, Franklin belongs on the list; we shouldn’t construe the parameters so narrowly as to exclude him. Obviously accomplished a ton in science. For readers who don’t know him: Franklin’s a very unusual case politically, in that his main political accomplishment was helping to create a new independent country (the USA). Rather than being elected to national-level office in an existing country. But he participated in the Constitutional Convention in his capacity as elected President of Pennsylvania. Which in the context of the time basically amounted to being elected to high national-level office.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Franklin

      Chaim Weizmann I didn’t know. The fun of this thread is getting to know a bit about the people mentioned in it. 🙂 “First President of Israel and also the father of industrial fermentation and inventor of synthetic acetone” definitely puts him way up and to the right on our imaginary graph!

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_Weizmann

  2. The examples of Paul Painlevé, Chaim Weizmann, and Ben Franklin are all quite old. Of the three, Weizmann is the most recent. His scientific accomplishments date back to WW I while his political career ended when he died in 1952. So at the risk of overgeneralizing, maybe it used to be possible to be both a super-accomplished scientist, and later a super-accomplished politician, but that time has passed? Perhaps because of increasing specialization and professionalization in both science and politics?

    At an even greater risk of overgeneralizing: Franklin and Weizmann were both heavily involved in founding new countries, as part of a networks of politically well-connected intellectuals.

    • Circumstantial evidence for the “it’s now much harder than it used to be to become an accomplished scientist-politician” hypothesis: post-WW II is when national governments started systematically funding basic scientific research in a big way. And it’s when universities started massive expansion to take in returning soldiers, and then the Baby Boom generation. So post-WW II, scientific research, especially in academia, became a more attractive, and more specialized, career than it was previously.

  3. Why not more? Perhaps because in research many scientists don’t interact with as many other folks in the community as lawyers, business/sales, etc. The pool of people who might know you to encourage you to run for office, or to support a campaign seems like it would be smaller. How many scientists are in Rotary, or the Chamber of Commerce, etc? Some probably serve on school boards, but even then, if your research also includes a fair amount of travel, regular commitments to monthly (plus?) school board meetings could make it tough to run/serve. Most politicians get a start at a local level, and having the local public be able to say — oh yeah, I’m met them, they seem pretty good — is an advantage in a local campaign.

    Maybe this will change as the newer generations of scientists are more immersed in sci-comm.

    Plus there is the stereotype about the extroverted scientist is the one that looks at your shoes. Might be that campaigning is a poor fit for more scientists than folks in sales.

    If I ever run for county council, I’ll let you know. 🙂

      • I think school board is a sweet spot (or perhaps the political plateau) for scientists. Pretty sure one of the profs at Kellogg Bio Station was on the local school board when I was there. Two of my current colleagues are now–but both of them are with the Ag Extension Service. What better profile to run local than to be a trusted extension specialist in a farm state.

      • There are certainly a lot of members of various school boards at my university. The commitment has some flexibility around doing your job. It would be difficult to find the time for anything more structured I think.

    • I think there is an important line between where one can be in office and still maintain a full time job or not. Here in Maine it is very possible to serve in the state legislature while still having a full time job. In fact my state senator is a University Extension Entomologist (and he also serves on the school board in a neighboring town). Whereas in a large state like Illinois serving in the state legislature is definitely a full time job or even a large city like New York town where town council is a full time job. This is obviously a whole different decision. This line is also pretty close to the line between one can focus on doing the elected job vs where one has to focus on fund raising (US congress people devote ~50% of their time fund raising).

      Even at the non-professional level the time trade-off is real. Per Jeremy’s comment, I am currently on the local school board and seriously considered running for state legislature this year (the incumbent term-limited out) but decided not to because it would have been too much of a conflict with some career goals I currently have (finishing a book) not to mention the sense that as chair of the school board in the middle of a large building campaign that I could have more impact on the school board.

      I will say even at the part-time level scientists (and academics) don’t seem to be especially over or under represented. Running for public office takes a weird personality and its just not that common in any profession (except maybe law).

  4. Do cartographers/explorers/ natural historians count as scientists? John C. Fremont comes to mind. His research wasn’t hypothesis-driven but certainly influential in exploring and documenting the geography, flora, and fauna of the western United States. Then he became a US Senator from California in the 1850s.

  5. Hi Jeremy; given your fondness for economics, distinguished economists ought to count as ‘scientists’ if their ideas had a big conceptual impact. so I nominate Paul Douglas. inventor of the widely used Cobb/Douglas Production function. He then became a US Senator.

    • Without wanting to get into a debate over whether economists count as “scientists”, I would say that economic research usually a much closer and more direct connection to the leading political issues of the day than, say, chemistry or physics does. So for that reason, I might expect that it’d be more common for people to move from economics into politics. Then again, maybe not! (I mean, the Cobb-Douglas Production Function doesn’t strike me as the *most* policy-relevant bit of economics research…) Comparing the frequency with which accomplished researchers from different fields move into politics might be a way to test the various alternative hypotheses for why few accomplished research scientists go on to political accomplishment.

  6. Andrew Weaver has got to be somewhere to the upper-right of your hypothetical graph. He is (was?) the leader of the British Columbia Green Party after a long career as a climate scientist. And, as far as I understand, he decided to switch to being a politician after a long career because he saw that he would have much more impact that way.

    • Hmm. Not sure “leader of the BC Green Party” puts you all that high on the “political achievement” axis, given that it’s a provincial party rather than a national one, and that the provincial party has never held power (never formed a provincial government as far as I know). Weaver’s certainly a very eminent scientist–fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, AAAS, and other scientific societies. But without intending any criticism of his political career at all, it was a pretty short career–2013 to 2020–at a level below national politics.

  7. Yuval Ne’eman, for critical contributions to the standard model, prediction of the omega minus particle, and leading a Israeli right- wing party. He served in a few ministerial positions.

  8. Here in Mexico, the current governor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, was a well-respected academic physicist focused on energy consumption before being elected to office. Although appointed and not elected, the current secretary of the environment, Victor Toledo, is one of the country’s most prominent ecologists (with a focus on ethnoecology).

    • Yes, if we’re going to expand the list to scientists *appointed* to high-level administrative positions–typically, administration of science-related agencies–it would be a much longer list!

      An interesting question is why successful scientists who’ve taken up high-level admin positions in national governments don’t often seem to go on to high-level electoral politics. For instance, Jane Lubchenco didn’t run for office after her term in charge of NOAA. But hard to say how much of that is down to academic scientists preferring to return to academia after spending time as national-level government administrators. Vs. how much of it is that serving as a national-level administrator of a government agency isn’t good preparation for national-level electoral politics. For instance, I don’t think many (any?) people in the US have used their time as Secretary of Defense, or Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, or whatever, as a springboard to a successful run for federal elected office.

  9. His accomplishments as a scientist and as a politician are perhaps somewhat open to question, but I’ll mention Herbert Hoover anyway as the only POTUS I know of who ever got a degree in science. He graduated from Stanford in 1895 with a major in geology, and then embarked on a successful international career as a mining engineer. Gave lectures at Columbia and Stanford which were later published as his “Principles of Mining” (1909); this became a standard textbook in some mine schools. Hoover was also deeply interested in the history of science: in 1912, he and his wife Lou Henry Hoover (a geology graduate herself) published the first English translation of the influential Renaissance treatise on mining and metallurgy “De re metallica” (1556) by the German Georgius Agricola.

      • Margaret Thatcher. X-Ray crystallography of proteins as a student of Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkins at Oxford in the 1940s.

      • Yes, in retrospect I should’ve made explicit in the post that Thatcher got a PhD before working briefly as a food chemist. And of course, that was at a time when many fewer women went on to science PhDs, and to careers in scientific research, than is the case today. So one could argue that Thatcher’s scientific accomplishments should be weighted more highly in light of that context (and the same goes for her political accomplishments).

      • William Farquhar. Founder of (colonial) Singapore. Naturalist. Illustrations and drawings of plants in the 1850s. Similar to Wallace. Also, great-grandfather of Pierre Trudeau, and great-great grandfather of Justin Trudeau.

  10. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had a long and successful career as a scientist/administrator in space research. Later, he became the President of India (2002-07).

  11. At the risk of adding to the old-white-guy-ness of the list, I would submit that both Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt made original contributions to natural history, geography, and other more descriptive sciences that were big at their time, as well as funding/supporting important expeditions (not forgiving the imperialist and exploitative nature of their activities). Antoine Lavoisier was also a mega-weight chemist (recognized and named oxygen and hydrogen, helped construct the metric system, wrote the first extensive list of elements) who was guillotined during the French Revolution because of his role as an administrator of the Ferme générale, a powerful and unpopular tax-collecting arm of the government. Finally, there are a number of low-profile scientists who used their careers in science as cover for espionage on behalf of governments, thus contributing to politics in a less public but potentially still relevant and important way (you could imagine this as providing politics with primary data, in a way). Examples include Norwegian entomologist Astrid Løken, American herpetologist Edward H. Taylor, and America physicist Theodore Hall.

    https://www.nature.com/news/taxonomy-the-spy-who-loved-frogs-1.13710

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrid_L%C3%B8ken

    I also agree that Emperor Hirohito probably ranks pretty high on both, if royalty count as “careers in politics”

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