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Do Scientists Make Good Presidents?

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This week, Mexico elected its first female president, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo — a politician with a background in physics and environmental engineering. Despite her scientific pedigree, not all researchers are confident that she will have their interests at heart, given that her mentor and predecessor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, cut science budgets and had a sometimes antagonistic relationship with the Mexican science community.

Speculation now abounds about whether Sheinbaum Pardo will prioritize evidence-based decision-making.

To get a view of what might come, Nature talked to historians and policy experts about how five other scientists-turned-world-leaders fared in office, and whether their backgrounds in science were a benefit — or a detriment.

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Some say science expertise is a double-edged sword. Researchers “know very well how to gather information from various actors in society”, says Sayaka Oki, a historian of science at the University of Tokyo. But at the same time, if they rely too much on their own intellect instead of listening to constituents, they can get “trapped in their own self-righteousness”, she adds.

Herbert Hoover, US president, 1929–33Herbert Hoover studied geology in the 1890s at the then-fledgling Stanford University in California, and went on to earn a fortune as an international mining consultant. While living in London at the outset of the First World War, he achieved fame setting up a food-relief programme for German-occupied Belgium. Later, he was invited by Woodrow Wilson, US president at the time, to manage US food supplies for the remainder of the conflict.

Hoover became US Secretary of Commerce in 1921 and quickly solidified his reputation as an able technocrat. But that same technocratic bias might also have blinded him to the larger social, cultural and political concerns that arose as the country stumbled into the Great Depression, says David Cole, president of the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That recession, the worst in US history, began shortly after Hoover, a member of the Republican party, was elected president in 1929.

Many of the government measures to create jobs and bring the country out of the depression were actually started under Hoover, Cole says. But he wasn’t able to sell his vision to the public, and voters ousted him after a single term. “Hoover worked himself almost to death trying to engineer the country out of the depression, but he was politically tone deaf,” Cole adds.

Margaret Thatcher, UK prime minister, 1979–90Margaret Thatcher, who trained as a chemist, is probably one of the best-known and most divisive prime ministers that Britain has had. During her chemistry studies at the University of Oxford, UK, she spent a year investigating the structure of an antibiotic in the laboratory of Nobel prizewinning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin. Thatcher went on to work as a research chemist at a plastics company, and then at a food company, before quitting research for a life in politics.

She led the United Kingdom’s right-wing Conservative party to electoral victory in 1979, following a wave of trade union strikes in which more than 4 million workers demanded pay rises higher than they were being offered. During her 11-year premiership, Thatcher privatized state-owned industries and public services — including water, gas and electricity — and cut spending on health care, education and housing. The funding cuts, along with surging unemployment, damaged her popularity. But her reputation got a boost in 1982, thanks to a UK victory against Argentina in a war over ownership of the Falkland Islands.

Throughout her time in office, Thatcher did not seem to apply much of her scientific training to political leadership, says John Muellbauer , an economist at the University of Oxford. “She was a conviction politician, so she led by ideology and simple beliefs rather than evidence-driven policy,” Muellbauer says.

A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, president of India, 2002–07Even before becoming president, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen (A. P. J.) Abdul Kalam was a nationally recognized figure. As an aerospace scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation, he oversaw the development of India’s first home-grown satellite launch vehicle, which in 1980 thrust the Rohini Satellite 1 into low-Earth orbit. “He did marvellous work,” says Venni Krishna, a science-policy researcher at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. Kalam later moved to India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation, where he headed the country’s strategic ballistic missiles programme.

In 2002, Kalam was elected India’s 11th president, with support from both the ruling and the opposition parties. The role of president in India is largely ceremonial — the prime minister is head of government — but Indian presidents have the power to reject bills passed by parliament. Kalam’s election was “hugely inspiring”, especially for young scientists, says Rohini Godbole, a particle physicist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

Kalam belonged to a generation of scientists who rose to prominence in an India that had become newly independent of British colonial rule. He had a vision of using home-grown science and technology to propel the country’s development, and injected “confidence in the scientific systems”, Godbole says.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, 2005–21Trained as a quantum chemist, Angela Merkel was the first woman to become chancellor of Germany, when she was elected in 2005. By the time she left office as leader of the centre-right Christian Democrats, 16 years later, she had become Germany’s second-longest-serving head of government.

Merkel obtained a PhD in quantum chemistry in 1986, studying reaction dynamics at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin–Adlershof, in what was then East Germany. As a political leader, she was known for her pragmatism in dealing with issues ranging from the European debt crisis to the phaseout of nuclear energy in Germany to the COVID-19 pandemic, says political scientist Matt Qvortrup at Coventry University, UK. “The way she approached political questions was by using a sort of scientific testing, seeing what theories might work and being willing to falsify them,” he says.

Overall, her background in science “was definitely a virtue”, says Qvortrup, and it probably influenced her ability to work collaboratively. Her focus was on policy — how to solve a problem — rather than on politics, which is more about how to win an argument, he says, adding that as a result, she had high approval ratings among people in Germany.

Yukio Hatoyama, prime minister of Japan, 2009–10Yukio Hatoyama’s time as the head of Japan’s government was short-lived, which some researchers attribute partly to an idealism that many scientists possess. Hatoyama, a leftist, was too “pure” and theoretical in his reasoning, says Oki at the University of Tokyo.

Hatoyama received a PhD in industrial engineering from Stanford University. He worked as a researcher in applied probability, first at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and then at Senshu University in Tokyo, before launching his political career. Coming from a family of politicians, he was part of “a political genealogy”, says Yasushi Sato, who studies science policy at Niigata University in Japan.

In September 2009, Hatoyama became Japan’s 93rd prime minister, following an election victory by his Democratic Party of Japan. The party immediately set to work cutting government spending, including funds for science programmes. But pushback from the scientific community preserved key projects, including a synchrotron radiation facility.

Only eight months after taking office, Hatoyama resigned, having failed to fulfil his campaign pledge of relocating a controversial US military base from the island of Okinawa. Instead, he had agreed to move the base to a less crowded location on the island, which angered locals. Oki says public discourse at the time labelled Hatoyama as “naive” and lacking an understanding of the world.

The upshot?Scientists who have succeeded in leading their countries tend to think first and foremost like politicians, says Mike Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York, who tracks federal science-policy issues. With regard to Sheinbaum Pardo, he recommends that she draw on her scientific knowledge, but not depend on it. “Science is not the be-all and end-all in politics.”

Many of Sheinbaum Pardo’s critics, including some scientists, worry about Mexican democracy, arguing that she has become too close to the increasingly powerful political machine built by her predecessor. “If I were advising her,” Lubell says, “I would say that making sure that Mexican democracy thrives is going to be essential to Mexico’s ability to advance in science and technology.”

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on June 6, 2024.

Source : Scientific American

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