Last November was a pivotal moment for the Democrats, who scored a surprisingly large slew of electoral victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere. But it was also somewhat of a victory for science, as at least 17 candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) also won. Ralph Northam, who became Virginia’s governor, is a pediatric neurologist. Cheryl Turpin and Hala Ayala, who were both elected to the Virginia State House of Delegates, are respectively a science teacher and a cybersecurity expert. The so-called blue wave was also, at least partly, a nerdy one.
Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemist by training and a former breast-cancer researcher, wants a similar wave to crest in this year’s midterms. A year ago, Naughton founded 314 Action—a political-action committee that supports scientists running for office by helping them to find staff, plan campaigns, and connect with potential donors.
When I first wrote about 314 Action in January 2017, more than 400 people had filled out their recruitment form. At the time Naughton predicted that they’d attract a thousand potential candidates. “In fact, we had over 7,000,” she now tells me. There was a spike in interest after Trump’s inauguration, and another when Trump decided to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. “There’s been one thing after another with this administration that’s engaged our community,” Naughton says.
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.
For some, science forms just one part of their identity—and their campaign. Chrissy Houlahan, who is running in Pennsylvania’s Sixth District, has a background in engineering, and once worked as a chemistry teacher. She’s also an Air Force veteran, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and a mother to a queer daughter—all of which informed her decision to run for office. “Not only are there very few STEM professionals in Congress, but there are few women, and few veterans,” she says. “All of those things are needed to broaden the diversity of Congress.”
Houlahan says that her engineering background has been both a boon and a drawback in her nascent political career. “I’m an analytical person and I spent January to March learning everything I needed to build this campaign,” she says. “But it’s hard to transition from the person who measures things and works out the plan to the person being the voice and face of the organization. I think a lot of STEM people are introverts and it can be hard to talk about yourself and ask people for things.”
The cold, caveat-filled, jargon-heavy lingo of scientific discourse can also ring hollow in a voter’s ears—something that Hans Keirstead, a stem-cell biologist from the University of California at Irvine, learned the hard way in the early stages of his campaign. “When I first started speaking publicly in politics, I made the huge error of listing facts,” he says. “When I jumped off stage, people said: ‘Wow, you’re knowledgeable, but I’m not convinced you can fight the fight.’ They need to see fervent passion. Look at President Trump: not elegant, not deep, but a bulldog. And he got elected. You need to get into specifics, but only transiently on the way to a whole lot of passion.”
Keirstead is perhaps one of the strongest contenders among 314 Action’s freshman class; earlier this week, he won a formal endorsement from the California Democratic Party. Aside from his academic career, he has also founded four companies, developed stem-cell-based treatments for cancer and spinal-cord injuries that are now in clinical trials, and advised on laws that boosted stem-cell research in California.
Jargon aside, Keirstead feels that scientists’ training makes them ideally suited to politics. “At its worst, politics is about putting partisanship in front of issues,” he tells me. “But a scientist is trained to put issues in front of everything. If you were to develop a treatment for cancer before me, I’d be buying the champagne.”
Wait, really? I suggest to him that I’ve known many scientists who are as motivated by all-too-human frailties like ego, or the desire for power and money as the next person. Keirstead acknowledges that there’s “certainly room for massive egos,” but he asserts that ultimately, it’s the goal that matters. “An individual who’s working on greenhouse gases and Arctic temperatures might be a glory seeker, but they know that the environment is more important than them or their job,” he says.
He also notes that scientists get intense training in the art of problem-solving. “We tackle complex problems in exceedingly complex environments, with poorly salaried staff, a highly administrative structure, a dearth of federal funding, and international competition of thousands of extremely skilled individuals,” he says. “Those are transferable skills to Congress.”
And evidence shows that public trust in scientists is very high. For example, surveys from the Pew Research Center show 76 percent of Americans saying that they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in scientists to act in the best interests of the public—a proportion that has remained stable for decades.
By contrast, just 27 percent feel the same way about elected officials. It remains to be seen how they’ll feel about scientists who become elected officials.
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