Let science be a springboard for politics
As they make plans for Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues, many Americans also think of Thomas Jefferson penning the US Declaration of Independence. Fewer realize that Jefferson regularly corresponded with scientists of his era, such as the chemist Joseph Priestley, credited with the discovery of oxygen. Priestley also enjoyed meeting with his friend Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman and inventor, to discuss ideas ranging from electricity to the theory of gases to the necessity to defend religious freedom.
Although governments retain science advisers, shape priorities for research and fund most academic science, the social worlds of science and politics have become estranged. Scientists’ engagement in civic life has come to be denigrated as an intellectually inferior pursuit. Unless research programmes are threatened, scientists have generally been silent on politics. Now, in today’s hyperpolarized environment, many are re-engaging, and even running for office (see Nature 544, 259–261; 2017).
I am a chemistry professor who teaches undergraduates, runs a research lab and serves as an elected official — as a board member of the United States’ fifteenth-largest school system serving students from kindergarten to the end of their secondary education. Our 181 schools will enrol 161,000 students next year.