Beyond stoking outrage, Trump may have motivated STEM professionals in a different way. “For better or worse, Trump has changed the perceived necessities about running for office,” says the political consultant Kelly Gibson. “You don’t need to be elected at local or state levels, or even ‘understand’ how politics works, to be elected. It opened things up for people in education, the arts, and the sciences. That’s why there’s been this surge in nontraditional political candidates.”
In total, 314 Action estimates that around 60 people with STEM backgrounds are running in federal elections, while another 250 or so are competing at the state level. But these mostly inexperienced candidates are also facing a historic volume of Democratic challengers. The NASA rocket scientist Tracy van Houten ran in California’s 34th district, but in a special election held last April, she placed 9th among 19 Democratic candidates. The evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen is running as an independent for a Californian Senate seat, but he is one of 23 candidates challenging incumbent Dianne Feinstein.
Others have already dropped out. Patrick Madden, a computer scientist, launched a brief campaign in New York’s 22nd district, which fielded no Democratic candidates in 2014 and only one in 2016. “I thought we didn’t have a deep bench in the district and the Dems didn’t have a game plan together,” he says. But when Anthony Brindisi, an experienced politician, stepped into the ring, Madden withdrew. “I saw no rational universe where I could beat him in a primary without running a nasty negative campaign, and I didn’t want to do that,” he says.
Many STEM professionals who get into politics with the noble goal of resisting a perceived assault on science can end up struggling with the reality of campaigning—spending up to six or seven hours on the phone in a single day, trying to raise money. Scientists know how to apply for research grants, but they’re not typically connected to the networks of donors and philanthropists who fund political campaigns. Nor are they used to courting such people. “It’s not a normal process for a scientist to call someone else up and ask them for $2,700,” says Achim Bergmann, a political strategist who is advising several of 314's candidates.
“A lot of people think that they just have to say they’re running for office and then they’re running,” says Joe Trippi, a political strategist who advises 314 Action. “It really requires a lot of work.” That’s partly why, of the several hundred candidates whom 314 Action is advising, the organization has only formally endorsed a dozen. “It comes down to whether they’re running a professional campaign,” says Trippi. “Are they doing the mechanics that are needed to win?”
It is striking that few of the endorsees at the federal level are academic scientists, and most have plenty of experience outside the ivory tower. Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician, and Jason Westin, an oncologist, are both practicing doctors. Others have business experience, such as the technology entrepreneur Suneel Gupta. Several are already experienced politicians: Aruna Miller, an engineer, is a Maryland State delegate and is running for the House of Representatives, while the computer programmer Jacky Rosen is looking to trade her seat in the House for one in the Senate.