The Pew Research Center has come out with a poll comparing scientists’ attitudes (on scientific and other matters) with those of the general public. Among its revelations was that Republicans comprise 6 percent of scientists. That’s not a typo. Meanwhile, 55 percent of the scientists polled were Democrats, 32 percent were independents, and others were none of the above.
Throw in the scientists who are independents but lean toward a party, and the numbers change only modestly: the GOP figure goes up to 12 percent, while the Democrats get 81 percent.
By contrast, Pew puts the Republican share of the general public at 23 percent — a dismal figure but at least well removed from single digits — compared to 35 percent for Democrats and 34 percent for independents. In terms of ideological self-rating, there again is a big gap between scientists and the general public. The breakdown among scientists was 9 percent conservative, 35 percent moderate and 52 percent liberal, while among the general public, conservatives were 37 percent, moderates 38 percent and liberals 20 percent. Throw in “very liberal” as a category and 5 percent of the public goes there, versus 14 percent of scientists.
Given figures like these, Republicans might be tempted to just write off scientists as a source of votes and support. That would be a mistake. For one thing, the Republican Party has an image problem these days, often involving perceptions that the party is lacking in intellectual firepower. Being estranged from the scientific community exacerbates that perception. It makes it harder for Republicans to win the college-educated vote, where the party once had the edge, and winning elections without that edge has proven to be a difficult task indeed.
Moreover, Republican politicians need to have some scientists in their camp if they intend to govern competently when they do win elections and have to address science-related issues. Plus, looking more closely at the Pew data on scientists’ policy views, one sees that there are some opportunities for Republicans to build credibility with the scientific community without turning into liberals or assuming that science and liberalism necessarily come as a package.
Consider some figures from the Pew report: Among scientists, 84 percent think the Earth is getting warmer due to human activity, whereas 49 percent of the public thinks so. So far, so bad; the climate issue clearly has been a major source of tension between scientists and the GOP. But then we learn this: among scientists, 70 percent favor building more nuclear plants (compared to 51 percent of the general public). Is there not an issue there for Republicans to grasp? The Democratic Party is not going to be known for its pro-nuclear enthusiasm anytime soon. Republicans could be, but have been too busy undercutting the pro-nuclear case by denying that a scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming exists.
Similarly, 93 percent of scientists favor the use of animals in scientific research, and 82 percent believe that all parents should be required to vaccinate their children. (The figures for the general public, respectively, are 52 percent and 69 percent.) It requires no great ideological leap for Republicans to point out that animal research, within ethical constraints, is needed (and that the most fervent opposition to it comes from the left), and to disassociate themselves from pseudoscientific anti-vaccination fear-mongering.
Republicans should align with the scientific community when they can, and disagree when they must but couch their disagreements in ways that suggest a respect for the scientific process. It may not turn a majority of scientists into Republicans, but from 6 percent there’s plenty of room for improvement.