"When the man who’s going to lead this country claims climate change is a hoax, we need people willing to stand up for the facts."
Congressman Bill Foster is also a physicist. Image: Tom Williams/Associated Press
As progressives lament the impending inauguration of an administration that rejects the idea of human-caused climate change, a newly launched group says we should stop holding our breath waiting for politicians to embrace science. Instead, scientists should become politicians themselves.
The group—named 314 Action after the first three digits of the number pi—has a mission to encourage politically engaged scientists to run for office at all levels of government, to connect them with traditional sources of campaign funding, and to get as many scientists elected during the 2018 campaign cycle as possible. The hope is that with more politician scientists speaking sense on issues such as climate change, they will serve as a counterbalance to the anti-science policies that have arisen mainly on the right.
"Running for Congress in 2014 as a chemist and a breast cancer researcher, I felt like I was locked out of a lot of the traditional networks of Democratic donors," Shaughnessy Naughton, the board president of 314 Action, told me. "It's a hinderance for people coming from nontraditional political backgrounds."
Shaughnessy ran for Congress in Pennsylvania again in 2016, but lost in the Democratic primary. She says she can use the experience from her losses to help scientists have stronger representation on a local, state, and national level.
"We have school boards that are determining the curriculum for our children and having people with a pro-science agenda at the table is very important," she said. "We're looking at the federal level, which is very important, but we're also looking a few steps prior to that so we can build a pipeline to have more scientists at all levels of government."
"When the man who's going to lead this country claims climate change is a hoax, we need people willing to stand up for the facts"
Political observers have long wondered why there aren't more scientists who turn into successful politicians. The New York Times suggested in 2012 that it's in part because "Americans have long privately dismissed scientists and mathematicians as impractical and elitist," while scientists themselves have said that it's often difficult to take time away from the lab bench to run for office. Many scientists have also felt that science should remain above politics, an attitude that is quickly changing with the election of Trump and conservative politicians around the world.
"The goal is not to politicize science, but to get scientists involved in politics," Shaughnessy said. "When the man who's going to lead this country claims climate change is a hoax, we need people willing to stand up for the facts."
Currently, there are just a few Congressional representatives with backgrounds in science and math, including Democrats Bill Foster, who is a physicist; Jerry McNerney, a mathematician; Louise Slaughter, who has an undergraduate degree in microbiology; Seth Moulton, who has a Bachelor's in physics; and Jacky Rosen, who is a computer scientist. There are also several doctors in Congress, many of whom are Republicans. 314 Action will start by supporting only Democrats, because Shaughnessy said there is "a pretty clear distinction between where the party platforms are on issues like climate change."
314 Action grew out of a PAC that supported many of those candidates, and will be looking to its 75,000 donors to help identify scientists who might be cut out for the world of politics. Its board of directors has scientists, including world-renowned climate researcher Michael E. Mann, as well as political veterans, such as Joe Trippi, who ran the Howard Dean presidential campaign and regularly consults on campaigns at all levels of government. On March 14, it'll hold a webinar for scientists to talk them through basic campaign structure, communications and messaging strategies, and money-raising processes.
Trippi told me he hopes 314 Action will be similar to other organizations that help increase the representation of veterans, women, and minorities in politics.
"What we're finding is there's a feeling among scientists that they've got to do something now"
"I haven't met a lot of scientists that have harbored personal ambitions to run for office, which is something we saw with a lot of Iraq veterans initially," he said. "But you see organizations recruiting and finding vets who are interested, and you're seeing a lot of success there. I think that can be replicated."
The time may be right to make this push, as many scientists feel like a Trump administration could put the work of government scientists at risk, and marginalize the work of climate and environmental scientists. If scientists don't speak up for themselves politically, who will?
"What we're finding is there's a feeling among scientists that they've got to do something now," Trippi said. "I think there's a real sense of alarm that says it's going to have to take political leadership to make the case for science, we can't just make it from the lab."
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