Scientists Who Have Had Enough

Professors and others with science backgrounds are running for Congress, trying to reverse Trump and Republican leaders’ policies.

June 30, 2017
 
Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden has taught and conducted research in computer science for close to 20 years at Binghamton University of the 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 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.”

Madden is just one of a handful of scientists jumping into unfamiliar territory by launching campaigns for elected office. Organizations working with those candidates hope to field a small wave of scientist candidates across the country in response to an administration and Congress 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 U.S. from the Paris climate accords.

Frustrations with the administration helped 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 about the value of science to the general public.

Even before the march, though, some organizers were working to find candidates with science backgrounds to run for office. Perhaps the most prominent of those groups is 314 Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group 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 women candidates.

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

Madden is among the candidates working with 314. Others are running for everything from school board 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 skeptic 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 organizer on climate change in Texas and described himself to Mother Jones as an “unabashed nerd and unapologetic advocate for science and reason.”

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

Kevork Abazajian, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, said jumping into politics comes more naturally to candidates from the legal profession and other fields. Candidates from STEM backgrounds often haven’t been involved in politics since they were in college or don’t find it easy to step away from the lab for a months-long campaign, he said.

“It doesn’t make them unqualified to be political candidates or political representatives. They just have to learn how it works because they’re not as involved in it,” said Abazajian, 314’s volunteer state coordinator in California.

In that role, he has frequent discussions with individuals considering runs for office about how to set up a campaign, raise funds, manage staff and communicate with the media. Abazajian said each candidate the group supports will run on a message tailored to their district -- they won’t have a set of common talking points on national policy issues. But those candidates will presumably push for more federal support of research funding and regulations based on recommendations of scientific experts over industry. But he said electing more scientists would shift the temperament and policy making in Congress.

“They are middle-of-the-road. They are not ideological,” he said. “They go where the data takes them.”

The group has endorsed Keirstead and this week will issue an endorsement of Democrat Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran with a master of science in technology and policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Houlahan is running against Republican Representative Ryan Costello in Pennsylvania’s Sixth District.

It would probably be fair to expect that successful candidates with science backgrounds would back more federal funding of scientific research -- an issue frequently cited by attendees at the March for Science in April. And university groups have been vocal critics of the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban, a policy that adversely affected many researchers, academics and students with ties to the countries involved.

Madden, the Binghamton professor, describes himself as a left-leaning, progressive Democrat and said he supports increasing the minimum wage, investing in universities and reducing the cost of college for students. He also opposes the White House travel ban. Although his district leans GOP, he said he could attract enough support from voters of both parties to defeat incumbent Representative Claudia Tenney, a Republican and Trump ally.

Tenney last year was one of 20 Republicans to join the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which was set up to explore policy responses to the impacts of climate change. But this year she said Trump “showed leadership” by withdrawing from the Paris accord.

Jason Westin, a Houston oncologist who leads a team of cancer researchers at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, said he had not planned to run for office before last November’s election. But Westin, who worked on health-care policy in the Senate before going to medical school, said 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 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’s also criticized the Environmental Protection Agency and cast doubt on the science of climate change -- two issues where Westin said he would seek to draw a contrast with the incumbent in his campaign.

He also said the proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health in the White House budget would have an outsize 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."

While 314, an early supporter of the March for Science, is only supporting Democratic candidates, the march has remained nonpartisan. Caroline Weinberg, a co-chair of the march, said the organization won't be involved in activity connected to specific candidates or potential candidates for office.

"The March for Science brought together an incredible community of organizers who are interested in ensuring that science and the scientific community plays a more active role in public policy. In the two months since the march, we’ve been working with these hundreds of satellite-event organizers to shape our priorities as we move forward as an organization," Weinberg said in an email. "We’re still having specific discussions about the role we’ll play in 2018. But regardless of the election season, the March for Science will continue to be active in speaking up when science is threatened or ignored by policy makers at all levels of government and in encouraging people to advocate for science and evidence-based policy."

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

“They have the usual concern -- can a scientist do it? And of the 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 to do it 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 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 policy making,” 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 policy-making process.”

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