Scientist PACs and Judges

One of the most interesting suggestions made by Chris and Sheril in Unscientific America is the idea that science needs to play political hardball (page 158, in the endnotes):

Why not form a nonpartisan science political action committee, or PAC, devoted to funding candidates who are either scientists themselves or who make science a strong priority and have good records on science issues? With adequate fundind, the PAC might select, say, five or ten members or candidates to support each election cycle. If there’s a desire to be really aggressive (and we have mixed feelings about this strategy), it could also target science “bad guys”– climate change deniers, officials who promote manufactured scientific controversies, anti-evolutionists, and the like– who deserve to be unelected and give campaign funds to their opponents.

They cite the specific example of Ocean Champions, a non-partisan science advocacy group with an associated PAC.

I kind of like this idea, as a matter of principle. When I mentioned it to Kate, though, she immediately declared that it was a terrible idea, comparing it to the direct election of judges.

In her view, forming a science PAC would undercut the impartiality of scientists, or at least create the appearance of greater partisanship, in the same way that direct election of judges creates the appearance of partisan bias (and sometimes actual bias). Chris and Sheril do acknowledge this in their note:

PACs are the brass knuckles side of politics: They should only be used to support the greatest science champions or to attack the worst enemies, and should be organized by wealthy individiuals rather than by broad scientific institutions, which will rightly want to maintain more distance between themselves and direct electioneering. But there’s no avoiding the reality that for scientific information to have its maximal impact, scientists must understand what motivates those in the policy world to act. They must speak the language of politics, know its rules, and asapt to the culture of Congress, including, in some cases, being willing to fight hard when there are no other choices.

Kate remained unconvinced (at least by my summary of the argument in conversation– she hasn’t read the book). She feels it’s a Bad Thing for impartial groups like scientists and judges to be involved in the messy business of campaign financing.

Personally, I still like the idea. I think that we’ve more or less lost the appearance of impartiality already, thanks to the Republican embrace of bull-goose lunacy with regard to climate change, the teaching of evolution, and various other science issues. We’ve already got high-profile scientists involved in politics, through groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists (who send me about four press releases/ action alerts a week) and actions like the umpteen Nobel Laureates who endorsed Obama (and, for that matter, Kerry). What we don’t have on our side is money, and money makes all the difference in politics.

That’s not to say that there aren’t still problems with the idea, chief among them being raising the necessary capital. Scientists tend not to be extravagantly wealthy, particularly since the financial sector’s implosion has bankrupted all those ex-physicists on Wall Street, so coming up with the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to set this sort of thing up would be tricky. If anybody knows Paul Allen, please pass the suggestion along, but short of some Internet gazillionaire shaking out his pocket change, it’s not clear that there would be adequate backing to make a go of this.

It’s an interesting idea, though, and considerably more concrete than many of the other proposals of how to fix the status of science. I’d like to see somebody give it a go, but failing that, it’s at least a good topic for discussion. So, discuss: A science PAC: good idea, bad idea, a little of both? How could this be made to happen?