Scientists leave GOP due to attitudes toward science
Politics • Do the Republicans drive away researchers tackling the world’s key scientific problems?
Published: August 29, 2013 06:50PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:33PM

Scientists used to be well represented among the nearly half of Americans who voted Republican. But that’s changed over the years, and one poll found that just 6 percent of scientists call themselves part of the GOP now.

What happened? There might not be textbook answers, but there are theories.

Barry Bickmore, a professor of geology at Brigham Young University and onetime Republican convention delegate in crimson-red Utah County in the nation’s reddest state, has pondered the issue at length. He contends his party is increasingly ruled by zealots and a demand for “ideological purity” that turns off scientists.

He says most examples are in the environmental sciences. And he points to the time in 2009 when majority-party Republicans in the Utah Capitol put climate-science doubters on a pedestal — while rejecting the mainstream scientist view about the danger global warming poses and even taking a beef about a Utah State University physicist to the university president.

“Scientists just don’t get those people,” he says of Republicans who adhere to party orthodoxy about scientific questions on climate change, evolution and other hot-button issues. “They [in the GOP] are driving us away, people like me.”

He points to the 6 percent statistic from a 2009 Pew poll, and wondered aloud if any other voting group offered lower GOP support.

(There was, it turns out. Just 3 percent of black women voters gave their support to GOP candidate Mitt Romney in the last election, and the percentage of all blacks voting for him was double that.)

Stacy Morris Bamberg, an expert in the biomechanics of walking at the University of Utah, suggests a number of reasons for the growing divide.

One might be that back when more scientists were part of the GOP, the party itself was more moderate. Now conservative Republicans and the tea party — with their focus on free-market capitalism and less federal government — have shifted the whole party to the right, and left scientists behind.

She wonders, too, if support is eroding along with federal funding for scientific research, especially basic research that might prove important long-term but offers few prospects for immediate money-making. While research grants shrink, the government dollars going to commercial research and development has swelled.

“It feels like an assault on science,” says Bamberg, an independent who’s voted for several Democrats lately. “It feels like a personal assault almost.”

And then, there is the antipathy toward scientists and their work that is increasingly part of the GOP dialogue.

Examples include the U.S. House majority leader’s “YouCut” campaign to target National Science Foundation grants and Sen. James Inhofe’s famous declaration that climate science is a hoax.

More recently, there was the House Science Committee’s subpoena of the raw — and legally protected — data used in air-pollution research. The fight involved two Utahns, Rep. Chris Stewart, chairman of the House Environment Subcommittee, and C. Arden Pope, a Brigham Young University economist whose groundbreaking work on the pollution-health link is the foundation for the nation’s health-based regulations.

There are lots of theories about the source of the mutual discomfort.

One theory goes that conservatives tend toward a single-minded, “authoritarian” world view, so they are less comfortable with the uncertainty that’s built into the practice of science.

Another hypothesis holds that the stauncher someone is about free-market economics, the more likely they are to see conspiracies in science, such as NASA faked the moon landing, there’s no proof cigarette smoking causes cancer and climate change is a hoax.

Jim Callison says he’s not sure what’s behind the change.

A Republican and water scientist who oversees Utah Valley University’s Environmental Management Program, he suggested the rift is overblown. In his personal dealings with politicians, he said, he hasn’t perceived tension.

“The GOP is not as anti-science as they are portrayed,” he said, pointing to the media as a big part of the perception. “It casts [Republicans] as uninformed and uneducated.”

Callison is disappointed to see how science has become politicized, though he understands how climate change, for instance, became a sore point for the GOP, since the “cure is worse than the disease” with the prospect of carbon taxes or greenhouse gas trading.

“You can just about tell someone’s views on science by their politics, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.

Daniel Horns, assistant dean in the college of science and health at UVU, wonders if there are personality traits underlying what has become a mutual distrust.

Scientists, he said, have a built in comfort with uncertainty because “there’s uncertainty in every result.” Conservatives, meanwhile, might not accept uncertainty as easily.

And that makes the rift somewhat less of a curiosity and more of a problem in a world where curing deadly viruses, understanding cancer and coping with global environmental change are all too real.

“If we don’t have scientists making the decisions, or in the trust of the decision-makers,” he said, “then we can’t be sure that political decisions are going to be based on the best data.”

State Climatologist Rob Gillies would agree.

At the Utah Climate Center based at Utah State University, he sees invaluable solutions in research for everyday problems, such as how ski areas will survive the shrinking snow seasons and how to plan water supplies in the nation’s second-driest state.

“Ignoring science,” he says, “comes with risk.”

fahys@sltrib.com

Twitter: @judyfutah