Politically active scientists can struggle to find the time and energy to bridge both worlds, and there’s always the risk that an unpopular stand could cause friction. But there are also benefits: politics can provide another avenue for networking and outreach. And, ideally, scientists will be able to give governments the kind of input needed to produce informed policy. Political involvement can also create a sense of real-world accomplishment that is sometimes hard to find in the lab. “Nothing’s more rewarding than combining the two passions,” says David Mazzocchi-Jones, a neuroscientist at Keele University, UK, and a member of the local Labour Party.
Researchers who manage to break into the political world could have a huge impact on policy, says Jeff Schweitzer, a former marine biologist who worked as a science-policy analyst for the US Clinton administration in the 1990s. “The biggest thing that a scientist brings is a method of thinking,” he says. “They have a vocabulary that non-scientists might not have.” Scientists in government can help to bridge the gap between policymakers and the researchers who study, in great detail, how the real world actually works, he adds.
So compelling is political work for some scientists that they turn it into a full-time profession. Stacey Danckert, who has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Waterloo, Canada, declined a prestigious two-year grant from the Alzheimer’s Society in 2013 because she found it tough to balance research, politics and family commitments. “I decided to follow my passion for the environment,” she says.
She left the lab and is now policy coordinator for the Green Party of Ontario and a twice-unsuccessful Green Party candidate for the Provincial Parliament of Ontario. In her view, it’s almost impossible for a scientist to run for political office while staying in the lab. “It’s important to get your name out, and you can’t do that without spending a lot of time,” she says. “The two pursuits require endless dedication.”
Similarly, Jess Spear, a former climate scientist who worked at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, Washington, left research to join Socialist Alternative, a socialist activist group, in 2011. After running unsuccessfully for the Washington state House of Representatives in 2014, she is now a full-time organizer for the group. “The more I got involved in climate science,” she says, “the more I became aware that we don’t just need more data. We need political will.”