US scientists prepare for election battle as tactics questioned

Critics question whether 314 Action movement should back academics in runs against fellow Democrats

October 6, 2020
Tens of thousands participate in the March for Science in Chicago, United States
Source: Getty

A nationwide campaign to elect scientists to political office in the US is accumulating early victories but risking blowback over its overall tactics and rationale.

The effort, known as 314 Action, is attracting more funding, honing its methods of identifying academics and scientists best suited for politics, seeing more of its choices succeed at top levels, and counting real-world gains from its 2018 winners.

Leading hopes for next month’s general election include Nancy Goroff, a professor of chemistry at New York’s Stony Brook University, and Cameron Webb, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, both of whom won tough Democratic party primaries in races for Congress.

And a former Georgetown University nursing lecturer, Lauren Underwood – who beat a Republican incumbent in 2018 as part of 314 Action’s initial class of candidates – is already gaining prominence in Congress as a co-creator of the Black Maternal Health Caucus.

The early organising work by Ms Underwood – the youngest black woman ever elected to the House of Representatives – “really speaks to why we benefit by having these diverse backgrounds and diverse life experiences in elected office”, said 314 Action’s founder, Shaughnessy Naughton.

Yet the overall effort is colliding ever more with the rough-and-tumble side of politics, raising questions of how far scientists should go to ensure that their unusual backgrounds populate the hallways of power.

Ms Naughton pushed 314 Action forward as part of a broad wave of resistance by scientists and their supporters after Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016. Their uprisings included the March for Science in April 2017, which attracted more than 1 million people in 600 cities worldwide.

This year 314 Action heard from thousands of willing candidates with scientific backgrounds both inside and outside of academia, and it endorsed more than 100 of them for races at various levels of government. Two dozen of them have current or former academic affiliations.

Its slate is Democratic, reflecting the broad tendency among modern Republicans to challenge scientific input into policy decisions. In a stance that’s starting to raise anxieties, however, 314 Action has repeatedly chosen to back its candidates in primary races against fellow Democrats.

One of the more contentious examples involved Pritesh Gandhi, an assistant professor of population health at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr Gandhi battled Mike Siegel in this year’s Democratic race for the right to challenge incumbent Republican representative Michael McCaul. As part of that, 314 Action helped attack Mr Siegel, an attorney and former schoolteacher who narrowly lost to Mr McCaul in 2018.

Mr Siegel won this year’s primary over Dr Gandhi, and his allies faulted 314 Action for wasting resources against another Democrat who shares many of Dr Gandhi's own policy positions.

Ms Naughton, with plans to distribute more than $10 million (£8 million) among candidates nationwide this year, offered no apologies.

“Our mission is to recruit, train and elect scientists and other STEM leaders to public office,” Ms Naughton said. In addition, she said, candidates backed by 314 Action were chosen through an extensive process assessing qualifications that include “a professional campaign structure” and “realistic campaign goals”.

That approach has meant both fighting other Democrats, and leaving some potentially formidable academic scientists behind.

Natalia Linos, executive director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, decided to run for Congress this year from Massachusetts after the coronavirus pandemic helped reinforce to her the dangers of a government insufficiently respectful of scientific advice.

“I wasn’t going to run,” Dr Linos said. But, she said, “it just felt that Congress was completely failing us in very, very substantive ways around the Covid response.”

But by the time the pandemic drove her to join the race, several other Democrats were already running, some raising as much as $1 million. Dr Linos said 314 Action never endorsed her, partly because it discounted her team of academic allies as not sufficiently professional, and partly because it considered another candidate, a Wall Street regulator with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, to also have a sufficient scientific background.

Dr Linos finished fourth of seven. The experience left her wishing that 314 Action had backed her, and locals accusing her and other candidates of splitting the support of progressive voters, thereby helping the most conservative of the Democrats win.

David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, said 314 Action might reconsider the overall wisdom of its tactics.

There was value in having scientists serve in Congress and at other levels of government, Dr Hopkins said. But partisan lines in the US are so rigid these days that advocates of scientific expertise might be better served if they focused on electoral viability over professional background, he said.

“Your cause is going to be advanced by maximising the number of seats the Democrats win,” Dr Hopkins said of scientists. “Not by caring too much about who’s in those seats.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Tactics to elect more US scientists questioned

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