The day after U.S. President Donald J. Trump was inaugurated in 2017, millions of people in Washington, D.C., and across the country gathered for the Women’s March to advocate for social change. Additional marches and protests followed, responding to the president’s statements and policy proposals on immigration, race, gun control, and other issues.
Prominent among these demonstrations was the March for Science. First held on April 22, 2017—Earth Day—scientists and science supporters united in their refusal to sit quietly as the Trump administration stanched public access to data, denied that humans are driving climate change, proposed cutting research funding, and left key science positions vacant. To those who participated in March for Science events in 2017 and 2018, Trump administration actions demonstrate cavalier disdain for evidence-based policy-making.
Outrage against the administration also sparked a wave of first-time candidates, many of them Democrats, for elected positions ranging from local town councils to Congress. Among such candidates is Julia Biggins, who is running for Congress in Virginia. Biggins objects to a broad range of social policies endorsed by Trump. But as the head of in vivo research to combat viral and bacterial pathogens at Integrated BioTherapeutics, she levels her most pointed critiques at the administration’s science actions. “One of the first things we saw the Trump administration do,” she says, “was to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture from sharing data with the public, which any scientist will tell you is a big red flag.”
Likewise, Eric Ding, an epidemiologist, health care advocate, and former faculty at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says science policy propelled him into a congressional run in Pennsylvania. “There is a backlash against science in the Trump agenda,” he says. “There are conspiracy theories and science nihilism that you see in the EPA and Centers for Disease Control, where you can’t even say the words ‘evidence-based’ anymore.”
Randy Wadkins, a University of Mississippi chemistry professor and cancer researcher running for Congress in Mississippi, is especially disturbed by the number of science-centered congressional and administrative posts held by people who are dismissive of climate change science and widely viewed as unqualified. For examples, Wadkins points to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who has chaired the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology since 2013 and is not seeking reelection this year, and Scott Pruitt, who leads EPA under Trump. Both men are attorneys without science backgrounds. “And look at Jim Bridenstine,” a former Navy pilot who took the helm at NASA in April, Wadkins says. “The beat goes on.”
Meanwhile, 16 months into his term, Trump has yet to nominate a White House science adviser.
Motivated by reasons such as those above, sixty-some researchers and technologists are vying for federal office this year, along with hundreds more seeking local positions, according to 314 Action, a group that advocates to elect candidates from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
The scientist candidates joined waves of women, African Americans, gun control advocates, and others as part of an apparent political awakening sparked by opposition to Trump administration policies—an awakening that might put Democrats back in control of the House of Representatives. What may unify the various groups of protest candidates into something as monolithic as the 2010 Tea Party is the essential element of the scientists’ motivation: a desire to make governing decisions on the basis of facts. Across the board, hard numbers illustrate discrimination, abuse, and inequity. And those numbers, according to the candidates, are willfully being ignored by Republicans in Congress and the White House.
This may be a watershed event for scientists, who generally have shunned public office, says Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Illinois Democrat Bill Foster, a physicist, is currently the only Ph.D. scientist serving in the House of Representatives. “More and more scientists are understanding that if they want to see policies developed from the standpoint of understanding the facts and what’s real, they are going to have to do it themselves” rather than continue to avoid the political arena, says Holt, another physicist who represented New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District from 1999 to 2015.
Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science & Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group, attests to such a realization. “Like many scientists, I went into science because I believed in the truth and the power of knowledge,” Goldman says. “Seeing decision-makers that have knowledge at their fingertips but are not necessarily using it to improve the world, to govern, really bothers scientists.”
Politicians playing fast and loose with facts is nothing new. But Goldman, Holt, and others say Trump’s brazenness is extreme. “I think the Trump era is the gateway drug to political engagement for scientists,” Goldman says. “We have worked with scientists for many years on political engagement, but this is a whole new ball game.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a scientific advocacy group, cataloged a storm of data redactions and other actions perceived as demonstrating antiscience bias during President Trump’s first six months in office.
The challenge for scientists in politics may be more fundamental than a cultural distaste for “dirty” politics and breaking in from the outside.
Consider that the two STEM-trained presidents of the past 100 years were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, both engineers viewed as rather cool and scientific in their approach to politics. Both were also one-term presidents who were easily beaten by charismatic candidates who were in tune with a disaffected electorate and were given to taking risks—attributes roughly describing Trump, who defeated data-focused and comparatively aloof Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Then there is the public’s view of science, which took a serious negative turn in the mid-20th century, marked by president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s televised farewell address in 1960. Famous for its warning of a military-industrial complex, the president’s speech more broadly addressed a worrisome triad of government, industry, and science—a technocracy that sparked a powerful counterculture movement that started in the early 1960s.
Science skepticism has since politicized, mingling with populism and a strong evangelical Christian strain in public affairs. The mixture has proved antagonistic to science on issues such as evolution and climate change. Perpetuating the problem is an education system that typically presents science not as inherent to everyday activities but as something done by students who will pursue science as a career, Holt says. And there is also what Holt calls an “insidious misconception” that scientists are smarter than the general public—but smarter in a way that is irrelevant to ordinary life.
In reaction, some scientists view the general public as the opposition and think of finding middle ground as too much of a compromise, says Steve Fuller, an American sociologist specializing in science and society at the University of Warwick. This attitude was evident at the March for Science in signs such as “Science > Your opinion” and “Make America smart again.” But “in a democracy, science is not greater than opinion,” Fuller says.
What scientists might see as rejection has less to do with people disregarding scientific facts than with disagreement about what actions to take in response to the facts, Fuller says. A 2017 poll by Pew Research Center supports this idea, indicating that 67% of the public views science as “mostly positive” and 27% as “equally positive and negative,” with only 4% viewing it as “mostly negative.”
Consequently, for scientists to succeed in American politics, they must focus less on being right or wrong and more on how to influence people. “You have to imagine that people are persuadable,” Fuller says.
Biggins, the congressional candidate running in Virginia, agrees. “We can’t say, ‘These are the facts—take them or leave them,’ ” she says. “We have to say, ‘These are the facts, and this is how they pertain to you.’ ”
Elements of persuasion
Congressional candidates who spoke with C&EN, all of whom are running as Democrats, recognize the need for persuasion. Their approaches, however, vary according to their their constituencies. Some candidates, such as Brian Forde and Hans Keirstead, are running for Congress in districts where colleges and universities mint scientists and engineers.
Forde’s district, California’s 45th, is one of the most highly educated in the country and includes the University of California, Irvine. An information technology specialist with a degree in sociology, Forde served as a senior technology adviser to the Obama administration from 2011 to 2015 and subsequently led digital currency research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. Forde’s association with the blockchain technology behind digital currency has attracted funding for his campaign and spurred Bloomberg to dub him “The Crypto Candidate for Congress.”
“A lot of the economy here is driven by technology and science companies,” including Activision, Lynsys, and Vizio, Forde says about his district. “People here put a high emphasis on education, and particularly STEM education,” he says. For Forde, persuading voters to take science into consideration is not a time-consuming activity on the campaign trail.
Keirstead, a serial biotech entrepreneur who is currently the CEO of Aivita Biomedical, is very direct in pitching his science bona fidesto California’s 48th District, which is adjacent to Forde’s. A pop-up video on his website earlier this month showed him in his lab saying, “I’m Hans Keirstead, a neuroscientist and medical researcher. Would you like to hear my radical idea? Use science and facts to fix our broken health care system.”
Like Keirstead, Lauren Underwood, a candidate to represent Illinois’s 14th District, emphasizes her practical experience in health care as an entrée to communicating science related to policy issues. Underwood is a nurse who worked as a policy coordinator in the Department of Health & Human Services during the Obama administration. She decided to run for office, she says, when the Republican incumbent, Randy Hultgren, reneged on a promise he made not to vote for a reform to the Affordable Care Act that would eliminate coverage for preexisting conditions.
Heath care concerns cut across Underwood’s district, which is located outside Chicago and is half suburban, half rural. She says she views running for office as “an opportunity to help people lead the healthiest, safest, most well life possible.” She approaches policy decisions using the scientific method—developing a hypothesis and then finding evidence to prove or disprove it, she says.
That said, instinct trumps analysis on the campaign trail, she claims. “Running is the thing I have done that has been the least data informed,” Underwood says. While data indicated that a Democrat need show up in only three or four population centers to win the election, Underwood felt she needed to spread out. “I found that we were most successful when we showed up in every community,” she says. The only woman, the only person of color, and the only science professional in the primary race, Underwood vanquished six opponents and now faces Hultgren in November.
In contrast to those seeking election in more educated regions, many of Wadkins’s potential constituents in Mississippi’s First District do not even have high school diplomas. Wadkins recalls once discussing climate change with an evangelical minister who accepted the scientific evidence Wadkins cited but contended that scaling back emissions was unnecessary because God would take care of the problem. It’s a common view in the district, which is where Wadkins grew up.
Wadkins says his best tactic for getting people to think about the role of science in government is to lead with his work in cancer research, because health care issues are extremely important to rural residents in his district.
Wadkins learned about health care policy while working for Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in 2015–16 during a AAAS fellowship sponsored by the Biophysical Society. “When I got there, they saw ‘biochemist’ and said, ‘Bio? As in biology? OK, then you have the health care portfolio,’ ” Wadkins says. If this was a misdirection, it was fortuitous in that it exposed him to the policy dimensions of his field. “There is a whole lot of difference between protein structure and Medicare billing codes,” Wadkins says.
His time in Washington also revealed the vital importance of a science-knowledgeable congressional staff, Wadkins adds, noting that his background in cancer research put the fear of God in pharmaceutical industry lobbyists peddling “baloney” on Capitol Hill.
Epidemiologist Ding also hails from the district in which he launched his campaign, Pennsylvania’s 10th. But he grew up there after emigrating with his family from Shanghai when he was five years old, making him a demographic outlier. “It is not like Philly and Pittsburgh,” Ding says of his district. “It’s an older retiree district with a small minority population.”
Ding sees mistrust of cultural elites in his area of Pennsylvania, but he says his full background matters to voters. “We were a successful immigrant family, and people appreciate the American dream story,” he says. His campaign’s motto: “Let’s restore the promise of the American Dream for all.”
As with Wadkins’s cancer research, Ding’s most recent work, in the areas of nutrition and food policy, is an entrée to discussing science, he says. Ding also positions his scientist credentials as a much-needed backing for a congressperson. “People want to avoid hyperpolarization,” Ding says. “I say, ‘Look, I’m a scientist. I do not submit to hyperpartisan extremism. I use science as a moderating tool.’ ”
Elaine Luria, a retired Navy nuclear engineer running in Virginia’s Second District, also emphasizes a practical connection between her technical training and scientific know-how and the concerns of her constituents. Her district is a microcosm of the country in that it includes rural, urban, and suburban areas with communities ranging from very poor to very wealthy, she says. It also includes the entire coastline of the state.
Consequently, Luria discusses science with voters through climate change, which could have severe environmental and economic effects on the region, especially if the Navy is forced to relocate operations from Norfolk and elsewhere as a result of sea-level rise. She chuckles at the notion that as a nuclear engineer, she is taking the Jimmy Carter route to Washington. A naval ship is “a small floating city” that requires everyone to work together to run well, she says. It’s “about machinery and equipment, and it’s data driven, but it’s really about people.”
Odds of success
Underwood and Wadkins, who ran unopposed as a Democrat, have already won their primaries and are going to the general election on Nov. 6. Underwood is lagging Hultgren—41% to 45% in a recent poll published by McHenry County Blog, although the poll also showed that 52% of those “very excited” to vote will cast a ballot for Underwood.
Wadkins is pitted against incumbent Republican Trent Kelly, whose funds dwarf Wadkins’s by a factor of five and counting. The race is rated “safely Republican” by Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan online political encyclopedia. Nevertheless, Wadkins, who held a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., last month, soldiers on.
Others still must clear primary hurdles next month. Biggins, running in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, faces a crowded field of Democrats vying to take on Barbara Comstock, who chairs the Research & Technology Subcommittee of the House science committee. Biggins placed fourth in a March poll conducted by Blue Virginia, an online news site focused on Democratic politics in Virginia. Regardless of who wins the primary on June 12, the November race is considered a toss-up.
The Blue Virginia poll showed Luria edging out her closest competitor 45% to 41% for the Democratic spot on her district’s ballot.
In California, Keirstead has considerably more cash on hand then other scientists running for office and has garnered the state Democratic Party’s endorsement. He tied for first among Democrats in his primary in a May poll taken by Tulchin Research. If Keirstead wins the June 5 primary to make the November ballot, he will face a tight run challenging Republican Dana Rohrabacher, a 15-term veteran who reportedly has his eye on chairing the House science committee.
Forde is also running in a tough primary in California against a Democratic competitor in a bid to unseat Republican Mimi Walters.
Meanwhile, Ding’s campaign has already ended. In Pennsylvania primaries held on May 15, Ding garnered 18% of the vote to finish third in a field of four. The winner, George Scott, is a Lutheran pastor with a military intelligence background.
Other first-time runs by scientists will also likely end after more primaries in June. Then there are the November contests that will decide who will fill the seats in Congress. Democrats remain optimistic about their prospects for taking back control of the House of Representatives, and the science community is equally optimistic about putting in more scientists.
Whether or not this works out, candidates and their supporters agree that what happens after the election will gauge the significance of this year’s science uprising. The key will be the extent to which scientists accept Holt’s contention that they have a responsibility to serve in government: Will this year’s wave of candidates be an inflection point marking more scientists serving in public office in the long term?
Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists thinks the answer is yes. Trump aside, “there is a longer-term trend of younger scientists being more interested in how their science affects the world and being much more interested in public engagement, policy work, and science communications,” she says.
And they may be surprised at how welcome a presence they would be in Washington. Forde once mused that if he prevails in his race, he would find himself a not particularly powerful freshman in Congress. But he was corrected by a former senator. Behind the noisy deal-makers and power brokers in Congress are the quiet experts, the former senator said. “You don’t know how powerful you would be.”.