US scientists take on Trump at the ballot box

Academics standing for election aim to stand up for evidence-based policymaking

July 3, 2017
US Capitol

Patrick Madden has taught and conducted research in computer science for nearly 20 years at Binghamton University, State University of New York. Were the political situation any different in Washington, he said he would be happy to continue doing just that. Instead, he’s running for US Congress in New York’s 22nd District.

“The last few years, the political debate has been separated from reality where politicians can say nearly anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or false. People don’t even bat an eye,” he said. “I’m going to do my best to haul the discussion back towards reality.”

Professor Madden is just one of a handful of scientists jumping into unfamiliar territory by launching campaigns for elected office. Organisations working with those candidates hope to field a small wave of scientist candidates across the country in response to an administration and Congress that they say have disregarded science to an unprecedented degree.

Scientists, academics and medical professionals have been wary of President Trump since his campaign was still a White House long shot and he was calling global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government. But since his election victory, his approach to science has continued to alarm scientists and others concerned with evidence-based policy making – from key cabinet appointments to muzzling of scientists in some federal agencies and huge cuts to research funding in the White House budget. For many, the dangerous decision-making culminated in Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw the US from the Paris climate accords.

Frustrations with the administration helped to spur one of the largest ever protests in support of science – the March for Science in April. That event helped get many campus-based researchers and students of science out of the classroom and into the streets. It also connected many with tools and training to better communicate the value of science to the general public.

Even before the march, however, some organisers were working to find candidates with science backgrounds to run for office. Perhaps the most prominent of those groups is 314 Action, a non-profit organisation that splits its resources between electoral politics and pro-science advocacy.

“The joke that I tell is we’re like Emily’s List for nerds,” said Ted Bordelon, the national spokesman for 314, referring to the political action committee that supports pro-choice Democratic female candidates.

Mr Bordelon said that 314 recruits and trains candidates with any kind of background in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics field, from a bachelor of science to a PhD. The group has had about 6,000 individuals participate in candidate training across the country through online webinars and in-person events.

Professor Madden is among the candidates working with 314. Others are running for everything from school boards to Congress.

In California’s 48th Congressional District, stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead announced plans this summer to run as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher, a noted sceptic of the scientific consensus on climate change. Volcanologist Jess Phoenix is running against Republican Steve Knight in California’s 25th District.

And Lamar Smith, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has drawn an opponent in Texas’s 21st District seeking to make hay of Smith’s anti-science views. While not a scientist himself, Democrat Derrick Crowe has worked as an organiser on climate change in Texas and described himself to Mother Jones as an “unabashed nerd and unapologetic advocate for science and reason.”

Mr Smith, meanwhile, has made enemies of prominent scientists such as Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. Smith responded to a paper on climate change from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by issuing a subpoena to the director of the agency. Mr Smith and Mr Rohrabacher are two of the incumbents being targeted by 314 in the next congressional campaign cycle.

Jason Westin, a Houston oncologist who leads a team of cancer researchers at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, said that he had not planned to run for office before last November’s election. But Dr Westin, who worked on healthcare policy in the Senate before going to medical school, said that he’s seen traditional respect for science come under attack by the current administration. He’s one of several Democrats running to challenge Republican Representative John Culberson in Texas’s Seventh Congressional District, one of two seats in the state that Democrats plan to target next year.

“We need people who understand science, need people who understand the consequences of disrespect for science to stop complaining and do something,” Westin said.

As chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, Culberson has frequently overridden the judgment of Nasa leadership. He has also criticised the Environmental Protection Agency and cast doubt on the science of climate change – two issues where Dr Westin said he would seek to draw a contrast with the incumbent in his campaign.

He also said that the proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health in the White House budget would have a huge effect on the district.

“If we don’t get grants to labs, those jobs are gone,” he said. “These are not academic points that don't have any real-life practicality. These are things that have a real impact on the local economy and are key for vibrant societies.”

Rush Holt, the president and CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that he gets phone calls every year from scientists considering a run for office. But Dr Holt, who taught physics before serving in the State Department and then Congress, said that he’s received more of those calls this year than any other.

“They have the usual concern – can a scientist do it? And of course the answer is yes, no better or worse than anyone else can,” he said. “Which is to say it’s hard work for anybody and the odds are against you any time you try to break into politics. But it’s something I encourage scientists to do.”

Holt said that scientists have traditionally stayed out of politics, partly because they do not want to be seen as partisan. But increasingly their input has been ignored by lawmakers, he said.

“We’d be glad to see more scientists in office if that means science and scientific evidence are better integrated into legislation and policymaking,” Holt said. “Sometimes it seems that the only way that that happens is by having trained scientists and engineers and friends of science in the policymaking process.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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