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Only 6 Percent of Scientists Are Republican. Is This a Problem?

Writing in Slate last week, Daniel Sarewitz worries that only 6 percent of scientists self-identify as Republican. But is this really a problem?

Writing in Slate last week, Daniel Sarewitz discusses a 2009 Pew poll that shows only 6 percent of scientists self-identify as Republican. That's compared to the 55 percent who identify as Democrats, 32 percent who identify as independent, and the rest, who "don't know" their affiliation.

It is, he suggests, a problem that needs to be rectified:

It doesn't seem plausible that the dearth of Republican scientists has the same causes as the under-representation of women or minorities in science. I doubt that teachers are telling young Republicans that math is too hard for them, as they sometimes do with girls; or that socioeconomic factors are making it difficult for Republican students to succeed in science, as is the case for some ethnic minority groups. The idea of mentorship programs for Republican science students, or scholarship programs to attract Republican students to scientific fields, seems laughable, if delightfully ironic.

Yet there is clearly something going on that is as yet barely acknowledged, let alone understood. As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure science insulated from dirty partisanship.


In fact, psychologists have actually been very eager to explore the relationship between political orientation and various personality traits and a lot of that work is relevant to the present discussion. I'm surprised Sarewitz doesn't mention it. This longish piece from Psychology Today provides a pretty good survey of what psychologists have found. Here's the summary:

The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers—John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley—found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.


Are we still surprised that there aren't tons of Republican scientists? Liberals tend to be more intellectually curious, comfortable with ambiguity, and attracted to novelty. Those are traits that are critical for scientific investigation. And academia would be a pretty bad place to spend your career if you like clear lines of authority and rules.

This doesn't mean liberals are necessarily better or smarter. The typically conservative traits of orderliness, loyalty, and rule-following are positive, too. It's entirely possible—I'd say it's likely—that conservatives make better soldiers and sports teammates.

What it does mean, however, is that the small percentage of Republicans in science isn't due to a bias in the scientific community or a recruiting failure. It's just a natural sorting of people based on their personalities.

We shouldn't expect that half of our scientists be Republicans any more than we expect half of all NRA members be Democrats. The imbalance is only a problem insofar as it furthers a suspicion of science based on the misconception that the scientific community has a political agenda.

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