Anthony Fowler came to political science by way of biology.
Fowler was drawn to biology in high school, when he visited the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and learned about how Nobel Prize-winning scientists Sydney Brenner and Bob Horvitz spent years studying all 1,031 cells of the male C. elegans roundworm. Fowler thought their job sounded too good to be true. As the son of two non-academics, he was amazed to learn that "one could make a career out of thinking, designing creative experiments, and working on hard scientific questions," he says.
Fowler studied biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he also took economics and politics classes that stirred his interest in the social sciences. Soon Fowler began exploring how he could use what he had already learned about the scientific process to help answer big political questions.
Now, as an assistant professor in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, Fowler designs smart experiments that are upending many assumptions about how elections and political representation work. In one compelling study, Fowler found that get-out-the-vote drives might actually be bad for democracy in one respect because they increase unequal representation at the voting booth: These drives mobilize the sort of citizens who are already well represented in the electorate—wealthy, well-educated, older, white, churchgoing folks—and fail to reach out to underrepresented populations.
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In another study, Fowler discovered that, contrary to popular belief, most incumbents don't win repeated elections just because our political system favors incumbents. According to Fowler's empirical tests, about three-fourths of incumbents' electoral margins are attributable to the same reasons they were initially elected: They're exceptionally strong candidates.
Of all his accomplishments, Fowler says he's most proud of his research papers. "In every [paper], I have tried to let the data speak for itself without massaging it to get a preferred answer," he says. The Quarterly Journal of Political Science has honored Fowler's many contributions to the field by naming him the youngest inductee to its "Referee Hall of Fame."
Fowler hasn't completely abandoned his interest in biology. If he could have lunch with anyone, he'd still pick Charles Darwin, "possibly the greatest empirical scientist in human history," he says. Even so, Fowler doesn't expect to switch disciplines again. "In 10 years, I hope to be doing essentially the same thing I'm doing now, but better," he says.
And in 50 years? Fowler, who dreamed of playing on the PGA tour as a kid and is now an accomplished golfer, says: "If all goes well, I'll be playing golf near the ocean with my wife. And if they'll let me, I'll continue going into the office and working on research projects."
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