Scientists’ political behaviors are not driven by individual-level government benefits

Baobao Zhang, Matto Mildenberger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Is it appropriate for scientists to engage in political advocacy? Some political critics of scientists argue that scientists have become partisan political actors with self-serving financial agendas. However, most scientists strongly reject this view. While social scientists have explored the effects of science politicization on public trust in science, little empirical work directly examines the drivers of scientists’ interest in and willingness to engage in political advocacy. Using a natural experiment involving the U.S. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF-GRF), we causally estimate for the first time whether scientists who have received federal science funding are more likely to engage in both science-related and non-science-related political behaviors. Comparing otherwise similar individuals who received or did not receive NSF support, we find that scientists’ preferences for political advocacy are not shaped by receiving government benefits. Government funding did not impact scientists’ support of the 2017 March for Science nor did it shape the likelihood that scientists donated to either Republican or Democratic political groups. Our results offer empirical evidence that scientists’ political behaviors are not motivated by self-serving financial agendas. They also highlight the limited capacity of even generous government support programs to increase civic participation by their beneficiaries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0230961
JournalPloS one
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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