OPINION: STEM students must become politically engaged

Early estimates by the United States Election Project revealed that voter turnout in last Tuesday’s midterm elections was the highest ever in the past 50 years. Despite increased participation across all demographics, especially those under the age of 30, voting remains disproportionately low among one group: students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, according to a 2012 study from Tufts University.

For the sake of their own careers and the scientific advancement of the country, STEM students must actively participate in electing policy-makers who value the importance of their fields and voting for pro-STEM ballot measures.

In the current political climate that has been hostile toward graduate students and climate change, it is crucial that STEM students abandon political indifference in favor of voting, activism and social engagement.

According to a study by Tufts University, voter turnout among college students was consistently the lowest with students majoring in a STEM field in the 2010 and 2014 elections. The same study found that political engagement across a variety of tasks — including activism, donating to campaigns and attending political meetings — was lowest among this demographic.

This lack of involvement is largely due to political apathy, which has been fueled by the misconception that politics and STEM are mutually exclusive fields. In reality, scientific discourse is largely dictated by policy, and public perception of scientific issues can be easily manipulated by policy-makers.

When non-scientifically conscious politicians are elected, aspiring scientists, engineers and mathematicians are sometimes those who are hit the hardest by policies that do not value scientific rigor or research funding.

The magnitude of political impact on STEM students is exemplified by the experiences of USC alumnus Patrick Cho, who graduated in 2018 from the USC Department of Earth Sciences. Between his research and his experiences applying to graduate programs, Cho has seen a significant change in his academic life during the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. According to data from the United States Office of Management and Budget, the Environmental Protection Agency has experienced $809 million in funding cuts in the last two years.

These budget slashes have real-life consequences on students and professionals, and Cho has experienced these reverberations firsthand.

“There have been more funding cuts for not just people applying for PhDs and professors applying for funding, but also for masters students like me,” Cho said. “A lot of [principal investigators] interested in taking me in for a PhD program were hit with funding cuts, and were no longer able to take me in.”

Cho also cited the application experiences of his USC peers, all of whom were very competitive applicants but were not accepted into doctoral programs due to decreased funds.

“Either you had to bring in your own money, you had to already publish a paper, or you were lucky enough to find a lab that has the money,” he said.

Cho’s experience highlights the dangers of unchecked politics on careers in STEM, further reinforcing the inextricable relationship between public policy and STEM.

The predicament of these aspiring scientists is exacerbated by the decreased availability of financial aid for students pursuing careers in these fields.

“Columbia has a list of outside sources where we can apply for scholarships from,” Cho said. “A lot of these are environmental organizations, such as the EPA, but a lot of these websites are completely shut down now, and their environmental-based scholarships are gone.”

In addition to influencing who gets elected, STEM students also have the crucial responsibility of voting on state-level propositions. In the 2018 election, several states featured environmental regulation initiatives intended to mitigate climate change, such as the first-ever proposed fee on excess carbon emissions.

However, despite repeated warnings of impending climate disaster from scientists around the world and a plethora of evidence to back up their claims, the majority of these measures failed to pass. STEM majors are some of the most qualified voters to make decisions concerning these science-related propositions on the ballot, and they should use their expertise to push voting outcomes in the right direction.

Despite a lack of involvement from students, it is encouraging that voters elected nine new scientists to Congress in the midterm elections, many of whom said they were motivated to run for office by the current administration’s anti-climate change views and unsuccessful health care proposals. This surge signifies that science does, in fact, have a place in politics, and STEM students should know that they have a place, too.