Professor Smith Goes to Washington
In response to the new president’s stances on a range of issues, more scientists are preparing to run for political office.
Updated on June 4, 2018
For American science, the next four years look to be challenging. The newly inaugurated President Trump, and many of his Cabinet picks, have repeatedly cast doubt upon the reality of human-made climate change, questioned the repeatedly proven safety of vaccines. Since the inauguration, the administration has already frozen grants and contracts by the Environmental Protection Agency and gagged researchers at the US Department of Agriculture. Many scientists are asking themselves: What can I do?
And the answer from a newly formed group called 314 Action is: Get elected.
The organization, named after the first three digits of pi, is a political action committee that was created to support scientists in running for office. It’s the science version of Emily’s List, which focuses on pro-choice female candidates, or VoteVets, which backs war veterans. “A lot of scientists traditionally feel that science is above politics but we’re seeing that politics is not above getting involved in science,” says founder Shaughnessy Naughton. “We’re losing, and the only way to stop that is to get more people with scientific backgrounds at the table.”
Naughton, a chemist by training and a former breast cancer researcher, ran for Congress herself in 2014 and 2016, but lost both times in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primaries. She puts those losses down to her inexperience with politics and her outsider status, which locked her out of traditional donor circles. In creating 314 Action, she hopes to provide other scientists with the money and mentorship that would have helped her. “Partly, we’re making the case for why they should run—and Donald Trump is really helping us with that,” she says. “Then, we’re showing them how to run, and introducing them to our donor network.”
Early signs are promising. In just two weeks, more than 400 people have signed up to the recruitment form on the organization’s site. They include Jacquelyn Gill from the University of Maine, who studies how prehistoric climate change shaped life on the planet. “If you’d told me a year ago that I would consider running for office, I would have laughed,” she says. “I always fantasized about serving an administration in an advisory capacity, but we now have explicitly anti-science people in office and in the Cabinet. Waiting passively for people to tap me for my expertise won’t be enough.”
Since the election, many scientists have made forays into politics, from signing open letters to marching in open protest. “I think most scientists view their work as pure and noble, and politics as a dirty game. It’s almost like selling out or going to the dark side,” says Frances Colón, who until recently was Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State. But, since Trump’s victory, “many more scientists are realizing why their voices are needed. I’ve had numerous coffees with people who are considering ways to run.”
Even if only a few are successful, they would significantly bolster the limited numbers of Congressional representatives with scientific backgrounds. A few have undergraduate degrees in science, including Seth Moulton (D-MA; physics), Jacky Rosen (D-NV; psychology), and Louise Slaughter (D-NY; microbiology).* Others have doctoral degrees: mathematician Jerry McNerney (D-CA), psychologist Timothy Murphy (R-PA), and physicist Bill Foster (D-Il), who once said that he “inherited the family's recessive gene for adult-onset political activism.”
“I think government works better when we have people with lots of professional backgrounds,” says Kate Knuth, who trained in environmental science and served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives between 2006 and 2012. “Scientists bring a unique perspective in how they look at data and think about problems. They’re trained to value evidence, and to change their minds in the face of evidence. Right now, in a lot of our governance, we have people who just say this is the way it is, in the face of huge evidence to the contrary. That makes it hard to make good policy.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that scientists are so poorly represented in government. Younger researchers—perhaps the demographic most eager to leave the ivory tower for the halls of congress—also face the steepest costs for abandoning academia. Scientific careers are built on continuity and perseverance: Years as a graduate student give way to years in postdoctoral positions, which bleed into professorships. If you step away, it can be hard to step back.
“My role models did good science, rose up the ranks, and then went to serve our country,” says Gill, referring to people like Jane Lubchenco, who was Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under Barack Obama. “In an ideal world, I’d do this from the comfort of being a full professor. And yet, it’s not something I feel can wait. What I really want to know is: Can I do this without abandoning my career in science?”
Even if scientists do decide to run, they face an intense culture-shock. “In science, your colleagues want to know you have expertise and approach problems through legitimate methods,” says Knuth. “In politics, people first want to know that you care about them and their problems before they care about whether or not you have realistic answers. Those are very different values.”
“They seem to be some of the least likely people to be thinking about running for office,” adds Joe Trippi, a political strategist and campaign manager. “They haven’t been spending the last 16 years planning their run for Congress. You have to help them understand how you run a campaign, get seed money, find a campaign manager, put a team together.”
That’s where 314 Action comes in. With over 80,000 donors and mentors including Trippi and climate scientist Michael Mann, Naughton hopes that it will help scientists to make good on any newfound political ambitions. To start, they are scheduling a webinar for March 14th—Pi Day, naturally—to go over the basics of successful campaigning. Following that, they’ll focus on boosting particular strong candidates.
“In my interactions with them, I’ve had my eyes opened,” says Gill. “There’s all this insider knowledge. And to be told that if you decide to run, you’d have support and financial backing, is tremendously empowering.”
For now, 314 Action will only back Democratic candidates. I wonder if that risks turning science into yet another partisan issue, but Naughton argues that it is already on that road. “When we’re talking about climate change, there’s a clear distinction between the two parties,” she says. Knuth agrees. “It’s hard to say if it would politicize science even more than it already has been,” she says. And at the very least, if 314 Action succeeds, it would expose congressional representatives from both parties to a scientific mindset.
Knuth also argues that this shouldn’t just be about shoving science into government, as if the former will save the latter. It works in reverse too. “When I ran, I spent two to four hours a day, five to six days a week, knocking on doors and listening to people,” she says. “I never felt like I knew more about how people were thinking about the problems in their community, what they wanted from government, and their hopes and dreams for the future. Is that scientific information? No. Is it vetted through peer review? No. But it was invaluable. Scientists need to learn and appreciate the value of other ways of knowing about how the world works.”
“If you believe that the scientific method alone is going to solve the world’s problems, I don’t think you’re going to be a good politician,” she adds. “A politician’s job is to understand how the world works and then make hard decisions about how we should move forward together. Evidence can make those decisions better and it helps us to understand the consequences of different decisions. But it doesn’t tell us what the right decision is.”
* This article originally stated that Jacky Rosen has an undergraduate degree in computer science; her degree is actually in psychology, and she later built a career as a computer programmer. We regret the error.