Skip to main content

Scientists Make Better Leaders

Using ideas for the common good

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on June 24, 2015.

By Teri Odom

Pope Francis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have a lot in common. They are both international leaders. Their public temperaments are even and not marred by personal crisis. And they both share a unique leadership style, where their overarching mission is to carry out their work for the common good. Their goals and influence go beyond that of Catholic parishioners and German citizens.

In his recent encyclical "Laudato Si," Francis made the Christian case that we should be stewards of the earth.

"What kind of world," Francis asks, "do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? The question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal."

His exposition calls for change in "lifestyle, production, and consumption" as a means to care for "our common home."

Similarly, Merkel has arguably been the key leader that has held the European Union together as it has lurched from crisis to crisis, with threats of Britain leaving the EU to Greece on pace for defaulting on its loans. Her track record indicates that she has been interested in "good and amicable solutions" for countries to remain in the EU.

Their overarching message has been simple, and one of inclusion. By working together and by sharing the burdens of others -- whether people or countries -- we can collectively accomplish more than we can do by ourselves. They work for a greater good.

Both Francis and Merkel are as effective as they are because of their training as scientists. In fact, they were both trained as chemists.

As a Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University, my research focuses on nanoscience, with applications broadly related to optics and biomedicine. My teaching involves large freshman chemistry courses and freshman seminars.

One great privilege of being at a university is the opportunity to mentor students, from undergraduates to graduate students. Along with many others, I am concerned about the lack of student interest and enrollment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

As scientists, we have been urged to make our research more relevant and accessible to encourage younger students to consider careers in science. We strive to instill a sense of wonder in the natural world and to inspire possibilities about new devices such as driver-less cars and Apple watches. To be sure, there is a need for career scientists and engineers to maintain our standard of living and for the U.S. to continue leading in technological entrepreneurship.

However, I believe that training in science may actually see a better return on investment if students do not go into STEM fields -- but onto vocations that require the ability to analyze complex problems in complicated situations, and to draw the best conclusions with often incomplete information.

The scientific approach to problem solving has its roots in critical and analytical thinking, teamwork, and creativity. I am an advocate for training students so they can apply their scientific training to any academic major or career path.

In science, when we first learn something, we may not yet understand that there are often many different solutions that can produce that same "right" answer. The goal of science is not to be right but to make discoveries that push our understanding of how things work, which can be tested in multiple ways and be reproduced by others.

The goal is to reveal knowledge for the common good. And at its core, the scientific method is driven by bold ideas premised on hypotheses that may, in fact, end up being wrong. But then adjustments are made based on new data, and a more plausible hypothesis can be formed, then tested and then interpreted as best that we possibly can. Perseverance and long-term thinking are critical.

Imagine if those in local and global leadership were trained in this way. Those leaders trained in STEM disciplines would surely have a leg up on those who had little to no exposure to scientific thinking.

The world is a complex place. We need more science-trained leaders who will advocate for the common good in tense and fluid situations. We need leaders whose influence extends beyond a narrow group of followers. We need more leaders like Pope Francis and Angela Merkel, both who have leveraged their backgrounds in science to effect great change.

- Teri Odom is a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University.