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With Trump in charge, scientists say it’s time they got serious about politics

If German Chancellor Angela Merkel, shown here with President Donald Trump, were an American politician, she’d be a rarity: a trained scientist – she’s a chemist – who’s risen to the height of the political world. Scientists in the United States are organizing to have more of their number elected to political offices, long dominated by lawyers and businesspeople.
If German Chancellor Angela Merkel, shown here with President Donald Trump, were an American politician, she’d be a rarity: a trained scientist – she’s a chemist – who’s risen to the height of the political world. Scientists in the United States are organizing to have more of their number elected to political offices, long dominated by lawyers and businesspeople. AP

Erin Macdonald has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, loves “Star Trek” and is education manager for World Space Week. She’s also contemplating winning a seat in the Colorado state Legislature.

Macdonald wants to connect science and politics in the public eye, and running for office had been in the back of her mind for a few years. But the 2016 presidential election made her “personally passionate.”

“What set the alarm bells off for people (in the science community) was how little the public trusts science,” Macdonald said. “I was talking to one of my friends at the women’s march, and she said, ‘I’m amazed at people carrying around signs that say ‘Science is real.’ ”

Seeing fellow academics struggle to get research grants and to pay off loans on low salaries and hearing of the Trump administration’s plans to defund agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency made Macdonald think about running for the legislature.

Macdonald is not sure when she will file officially as a candidate – “if an opportunity to run for office comes, I’m going to jump on that” – but since Trump’s inauguration she’s stepped up her activism, becoming the Colorado state coordinator for 314 Action, a nonprofit named after the first three numbers in pi that recruits scientists to run for office and provides them with training on speechwriting, campaign fundraising and networking.

“Traditionally scientists have looked at politics as dirty, and science as pure,” said 314 Action founder Shaughnessy Naughton. “The thought was, ‘I don’t want to get involved with that.’ But we’ve seen that politicians are unafraid to meddle in science, and the only effective way to push back against that is having more scientists at the table.”

Naughton, who began her career as a chemist, ran for Congress in 2014 and 2016. She lost both times, and she realized how difficult it was to break into the political world without a law degree; 137 members of the House of Representatives are lawyers, compared with just nine who are trained as scientists or engineers (another 11 are physicians, according to the Congressional Research Service).

“I wanted to take that experience and help others with scientific backgrounds,” Naughton said. She received support from the science community during both her runs, which she used to help start 314 Action in 2016. With a membership list now of more than 100,000, the group depends on small donations for its finances.

Since 314 Action’s launch, the group has received expressions of interest in running for office from more than 3,000 science and math professionals, and several hundred signed up for STEM the Divide, the nonprofit’s all-day web training session, which was held March 14 – 314, Pi Day. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Melissa Varga, a science policy specialist who’s successfully guided first-time candidates to win elections, focused on the grass-roots aspect of any campaign movement and the importance of person-to-person interaction.

“Start locally and move your way up,” she told participants.

Leading a seminar on campaign finance law, Brad Deutsch, who was Bernie Sanders’ lawyer during the Vermont independent senator’s 2016 presidential campaign, emphasized organizing funds through setting up a bank account, following Federal Election Commission protocol and knowing from whom candidates can and cannot receive donations.

Other topics included recruiting volunteers, campaign message development and digital fundraising, and participants were encouraged to ask questions throughout the webinar.

Hannah Risheq, 25, who’s seeking a Virginia House seat next November, worried about constituents dismissing her candidacy and research experience because of her age. Varga told her to “focus on the aspects of science serving the public.”

For physicist Elaine DiMasi, the webinar was a window into the world of political campaigning. She has served as a scientist at Brookhaven Lab in Upton, New York, for 21 years, but for years the political realm had drawn her mind to a possible career switch, and now her head is turned to the 2018 midterm elections.

“If there are 435 people in the House, that’s where to put physicists like me,” DiMasi said. “They have the law degree; I have the science degree. Now let’s tackle the challenge of balancing climate change with energy security.”

DiMasi wants to reduce the hyper-partisanship she feels has prevented Congress from making good, timely decisions because it is missing scientists who are trained to search for the right answer, for what the data say, regardless of the answer the scientist may want.

“We bring our ability to solve problems, study the data, and we have learned the scientific method, and the scientific method is the best training humanity has for escaping your own biases,” she said.

Scientific researcher Jamie Tijerina also tuned in to the webinar. The Los Angeles resident works in a cytometry lab, was elected to her neighborhood governance council and is exploring options for higher political office. Tijerina wasn’t fazed by the move into elective politics, despite skepticism around mixing science with politics.

“To say someone can’t be engaged in their community simply because they are scientists is absurd,” she said. “You can’t politicize something that isn’t political.”

Tijerina thinks the major sense of urgency from the scientific community sprang from the Trump administration but that scientific perspective has been lacking in Congress for a while.

Naughton said the movement didn’t start with Trump.

“Politicians of all stripes like to selectively use the facts,” she said. “We have politicians who refuse to look at the facts, and deny established ones like climate change. We can’t control what they say, so we have to change who’s elected.”

Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at Center for Science in the Public Interest, says legislation on climate and nutrition science, the latter of which his organization focuses on, requires an appreciation of how scientific evidence gets weighed and the value it brings to the table when debating policy.

“What makes for an effective legislative body is to have different voices, to have different viewpoints represented, especially given the issues that governments are dealing with these days, where often science is part of the issue,” O’Hara said.

O’Hara has been engaged in science-based policy in some form or another for more than 20 years. As former chief spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration and a former associate director for the EPA, O’Hara acknowledged that members of Congress usually have expert staffs to provide analysis and education on issues. But having people in government with experience in scientific research or clinical work “brings a perspective, and understanding that is valuable,” he said.

The definition of who fits into the “science” category is broad – research, biotechnology, engineering, mathematics and computer science just scratch the surface of the community – and science-related projects and collaborations often cross national boundaries. Naughton and Macdonald say policies like Trump’s reinstated ban on travel to the U.S. from some majority-Muslim nations send a poor message to the rest of the world. Macdonald called cuts to immigration and stricter visa qualifications a “huge brain drain.”

“It’s something that’s usually overlooked. We can talk about NASA or EPA funding that directly affects myself and my peers, and when people think about (policies regarding) science that’s where they go, not realizing that policies like immigration have a huge impact,” Macdonald said. “There aren’t any borders in science.”

Echoing Macdonald’s sentiment, Rush Holt, a physicist and former Democratic House member from New Jersey, told the Los Angeles Times, “In my relatively long career I have not seen this level of concern about science. This immigration ban has serious humanitarian issues, but I bet it never occurred to them that it also has scientific implications.”

His organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote a letter to Trump in reaction to the travel ban, saying, “The executive order will discourage many of the best and brightest international students, scholars, engineers and scientists from studying and working, attending academic and scientific conferences or seeking to build new businesses in the United States.”

“It has the scientific community concerned because science doesn’t have national boundaries,” Naughton said. “The American people benefit by having scientists collaborate across the world.”

Naughton admitted that while the science community has criticized politicians as distorting facts, scientists often expect the facts to speak for themselves. She said Holt liked to point out that “sometimes the facts need help.”

“The beneficiaries of science aren’t scientists. They are all of us,” Naughton said. “Scientists have a hard time conveying that, and that’s something we’re going to cover at the training – the communication.”

Science also crosses political boundaries. “We don’t need to know your political preferences to do research with you,” Macdonald said.

Over 60 percent of Americans agree that government investment is essential for scientific progress, according to Pew Research. Part of the federal government’s responsibility is to fund scientific projects, “whether (lawmakers) understand them or not,” Naughton said. She emphasized that having more scientists at the table is critical for helping politicians with little scientific background understand the importance of basic research projects for cures and technological advancements.

“If someone tells me I shouldn’t be involved in politics because I’m a scientist, I would tell them until I get equal rights, equal pay and equal representation, I’m going to run,” Macdonald said.