The importance of STEM in Congress

Angie Craig, Kim Schrier, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Abby Finkenauer, and Sharice Davids line up as they join other members of the freshman class of Congress for a group photo on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Nov. 14. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Angie Craig, Kim Schrier, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Abby Finkenauer, and Sharice Davids line up as they join other members of the freshman class of Congress for a group photo on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Nov. 14. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The 2018 midterms have resulted in the most diverse Congress ever. A record number of women were elected to seats. The first Native American women were elected, as well as the first Muslim women. The new diversity is not just demographic-based, however. Nine new members with STEM-related professions also won election this cycle. Some of their professions include aerospace engineering, biochemistry and ocean science. While nine may not sound like a lot, consider that only about 7 percent of the most recent Congress members had some kind of STEM background.

It’s not hard to guess why so few STEM people make it to Congress. It’s not a background traditionally associated with politics. So one issue is that people who tend to be interested in political office shy away from a career in science. They know pursuing law or business as an occupation can help put them on track for a career in politics. In this way, there is a natural lack of politically-inclined scientists in a populace that is less likely to see them as sound political material.

Another reason is that scientists often see science in general as above, or at least separate from, politics. Some may fear politicizing issues that they believe should not be susceptible to partisan debates. It is clear now, however, that there are those in Congress who openly politicize issues like climate change. It is long overdue that those with a STEM background make their presence felt not only in advocacy but as members of the government.

The reason why diversity in general is so important in government is because of the different perspectives, ideas and experiences a diverse group will possess. In regard to scientists, their mindset is rooted in fact. Not alternative facts. Not the facts that special interest groups pay them to spout. Just facts. They take the evidence that is presented and come to conclusions based on that evidence. This is not to say they are emotionless robots or anything, but they are the type of people who will make decisions only when they have weighed all arguments and feel they are well-informed.

Scientists aren’t all perfect, of course, but they tend to make their judgements based on evidence. That means they’re less likely to blindly vote along party lines. Having high profile scientists in Congress also gives them the authority and positioning to challenge politicians and special interests who deny or ignore scientific facts for personal gain. Climate change is the chief concern here, but on issues regarding tobacco, opioids, marijuana and more, it’s always better to have a scientist in the room. Scientists can act both as a check on and guide for the uninformed, depending on their natural inclination.

Consider what happens when you don’t have scientists in the appropriate positions of power. The outgoing head of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith, was a climate change denier. Yes, someone who did not believe in established science was leading the group in charge of science. If you think that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Smith’s tenure suffered allegations that he undermined peer review at the National Science Foundation and blocked EPA efforts to regulate polluting companies. He has also been accused of using subpoenas to intimidate and smear certain scientists.

We cannot continue to have a government filled only with lawyers and career politicians. We need those with unique perspectives, ideas and strategies. Those with a STEM background are a part of this, but it is just as important to have representatives with experience in liberal arts, such as musicians and writers. The same old types of people are going to give us the same arguments and solutions to problems we’ve been hearing for years. It is only through employing the skills of a diverse group of individuals that we can grow as a nation.


Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.