Science

A series tracking five scientists who are running for office.

A new take on political science: Training researchers to run for office

 (Ted Bordelon / 314 Action)
(Ted Bordelon / 314 Action)

They have built careers isolating cells, designing integrated circuits and mastering computer languages. Now they are knocking on doors, being interviewed on TV and asking perfect strangers to give them money.

Across the country, scientists — card-carrying members of an elite that prizes expertise — are exiting their ivory towers to enter the political fray. There’s the cancer researcher from Mississippi, the integrated circuit designer from New York, the physician from Utah and the stem cell biologist from Southern California, among dozens of others.

It’s a move that appears to defy the first principle of their profession: logic. Unlike a law degree, a Ph.D. does not provide a well-worn path to politics. And while 79% of Americans believe that science has made life easier, their esteem for the scientific enterprise has been on a steady decline, according to the Pew Research Center.

But even amidst signs that science is losing its power to persuade, a new crop of office-seekers is anything but discouraged. In districts blue and red, working scientists are putting two hypotheses to the test.

First: Their facility with facts and data will make them better policymakers than the politicians currently in office.

Second: Their profession’s reputation for pragmatism and problem-solving will mobilize and unify voters around them.

“Our skill set works: We analyze complex information and make it understandable to people,” said Dr. Kathie Allen, a family physician who is running for the Utah congressional seat soon to be vacated by Republican firebrand Jason E. Chaffetz.

“People are really tired of falsehoods,” she added. With careers grounded in facts and evidence, she said, scientists offer a compelling alternative for voters fed up with career politicians.

Our skill set works: We analyze complex information and make it understandable to people.

Dr. Kathie Allen, family physician
Dr. Kathie Allen (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

That may sound like the wishful thinking of a political newbie, but some longtime campaign strategists agree.

Joe Trippi, who has worked with Ted Kennedy, John Edwards, Jerry Brown and Howard Dean, said scientists were a double threat in the current political moment.

For voters dismayed by the Trump administration’s attacks on climate science and proposals to slash federal funding for biomedical research, a scientist-turned-office-seeker offers a direct antidote to the status quo. And for voters craving an alternative to politics as usual, these unconventional candidates feed into a compelling “insurgent” narrative.

If you’re a scientist, “your background is perfect for the time we’re in,” Trippi said.

The ranks of scientists, engineers and medical professionals in Congress has grown from 24 two decades ago to 33 today. But those members are still dwarfed by people with backgrounds in law or business, who fill roughly three-quarters of the 535 seats in the House and Senate, according to the Congressional Research Service.

There’s no official tally of how many scientists have run for office. But anecdotal evidence for a surge in candidates is widespread.

Rush Holt, a plasma physicist who served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before retiring in 2014, has seen it firsthand. People who were once wary of political participation have been pushed off the sidelines and into the public square by a sense that “science is too relevant and important to be downgraded or ignored,” he said.

Over the years, Holt has counseled a thin trickle of scientists pondering a run for public office. Now, he said, it’s a stampede.

“I’m getting more interest — by far — than I’ve gotten in previous election cycles,” said Holt, who is now president of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. He calls it “a remarkable moment.” 

Like Allen and Holt, many of the scientists eyeing a run for office are Democrats, keen to challenge a president who has questioned the value of vaccines and dismissed global warming as a Chinese hoax. Whether they come from chemistry labs or radio astronomy observatories, they can channel the frustration and anger that prompted more than 1 million people to March for Science this spring.

But they’re quick to point out they’re not ideologues.

Is there a better way to create policy? You take large amounts of information and distill it, and come up with a conclusion. It has nothing to do with partisanship.

Patricia Zornio, biomedical researcher at Stanford University
Patricia Zornio (John Maushammer)

“Is there a better way to create policy?” asked Patricia Zornio, a biomedical researcher at Stanford University who is contemplating a 2020 challenge to Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican. “You take large amounts of information and distill it, and come up with a conclusion. It has nothing to do with partisanship.”

If that faith in science sounds like it could easily veer toward sanctimonious bromides, the would-be candidates have been warned.

“We are so naive as scientists,” said South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, who also happens to be an expert on the evolution of animal communication on the faculty of Florida International University. “We think the truth carries and that science always matters.” The corrective, he told a group of prospective candidates recently, is to find a “coach that knows more about the business than you do.”

Since shortly after the inauguration of President Trump, training sessions and webinars have cropped up to coach Democratic office-seekers with a scientific bent. Among the most visible have been sessions organized by 314 Action (314 refers to the value of pi).

So far, the group has had inquiries from roughly 6,000 scientists and science advocates, from all 50 states. Close to 100 of them gathered in Washington, D.C., two days before the March for Science for the biggest training event to date.

There, would-be candidates learned how to craft a message (“make science local”), recruit and organize an army of volunteers (“present it as an opportunity”) and canvas voters (“bring dog biscuits!”). They learned what to wear, how to sit for a TV interview, and how to hit up potential donors.

Among the scientist dos: Introduce yourself as a “different kind of politician.” Mine data to find and target your district’s voters. Change things up if your message isn’t working. (“You’re an experimentalist!” Stoddard reminded them.)

Scientist don’ts included reading your curriculum vitae, using PowerPoint slides and appending footnotes to position papers. (“Footnotes!” cried political communications specialist Chris Jahnke, who has coached Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. “God bless you, please don’t!”)

Do scientists have an advantage in the current political environment, with the Democratic Party awash in volunteers eager to run against the GOP?

“Absolutely,” Democratic campaign strategist Martha McKenna told a 314 Action session. Voters think “politicians talk and nothing gets done,” she said. “As scientists, you find solutions.”

We’re not full of crap....  If we were a pack of liars, the jig would be up.

Patrick Madden, professor of computer science at Binghamton University
Patrick Madden (Laura Lee Intscher)

It’s a message that resonates with Patrick Madden, a professor of computer science at Binghamton University in New York. In May, he announced a bid to challenge Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) in New York’s 22nd Congressional District.

Madden holds up his cellphone, a device more powerful than the computer that sent men to the moon. His work on integrated circuits has helped make such devices faster, better and more fun to own.

“We’re not full of crap,” he said. “Things like this got better because we make stuff that’s real. If we were a pack of liars, the jig would be up.”

Madden calls himself “a firm believer in the scientific method, the engineering mind-set.”

“These principles of being honest, being truthful and looking for solutions: it’s a radical idea,” he said. “But I think we ought to try it.”

Q&A: 'It’s important to have scientific voices heard at all levels of government'

Shaughnessy Naughton speaks to scientists, engineers, doctors and others with technical backgrounds who are contemplating a run for political office. (314 Action)
Shaughnessy Naughton speaks to scientists, engineers, doctors and others with technical backgrounds who are contemplating a run for political office. (314 Action)

Few people understand the challenges scientists face when they run for office as well as Shaughnessy Naughton. She has done it herself not once but twice.

In 2014 and again in 2016, Naughton campaigned for a congressional seat in eastern Pennsylvania, touting her experience as a researcher who helped develop drugs for breast cancer and infectious diseases. Although she had to set that career aside to help out her family’s struggling publishing business, she continued to make the case that her scientific background would be an asset in Washington.

Neither of Naughton’s campaigns got very far; she lost both times in the Democratic primary. But she found that scientists rallied behind her candidacy. So she switched gears and founded 314 Action to help elect candidates with backgrounds in science, engineering, technology and math.

The Times caught up with Naughton during a recent visit to Orange County to talk about the growing interest in mixing science with politics.

What is the 314 Action’s mission?

To elect more people with scientific and technical backgrounds to public office at all levels of government.

Why is that important?

Right now there really is a dearth of people with scientific and technical backgrounds at all levels of government. We see that reflected in priorities in legislation and the failure to act on climate change. That would change if we had more technically minded people in office.

Randy Wadkins

Randy Wadkins, a cancer drug researcher spurred to action by Trump's science skepticism

This is what now passes for a typical day in the life of Randy Wadkins, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Ole Miss:

In his biochem lab, he was overseeing work to boost the anti-tumor action of a class of cancer drugs called camptothecins. In his office, he was preparing a paper for publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

And, as a declared candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, he was getting ready for an evening chat with the Democratic Executive Committee of Alcorn County in northeastern Mississippi.

For Wadkins, the idea of running for office first took hold during the bruising presidential campaign.

Cancer researcher Randy Wadkins stands in front of the U.S. Capitol, where he hopes to represent a district in northern Mississippi. (Gifford Wong)
Cancer researcher Randy Wadkins stands in front of the U.S. Capitol, where he hopes to represent a district in northern Mississippi. (Gifford Wong)

First, he had grown uneasy with what he viewed as a drumbeat of anti-scientific rhetoric from candidate Donald Trump. After the election, Wadkins was appalled that President-elect Trump questioned the value and safety of vaccines, which Wadkins calls “the peak of biomedical knowledge.”

Then in March, the Trump administration unveiled a 2018 federal budget proposal that sought to slash federal funding for research on biomedicine, climate and the environment.

That, Wadkins said, “was the final straw.”

The Trump funding plan “would essentially destroy science and engineering as we know it,” he said. But that wasn’t all. With cuts to education, small business development and Meals on Wheels, the spending blueprint “would completely tank the Mississippi economy.”

Wadkins waited on the sidelines for someone to step forward and challenge Republican Rep. Trent Kelly, who won Mississippi’s 1st District seat in a 2015 special election. As it became clear no one would, the career scientist took stock of his assets.

Wadkins conducting an experiment. (Courtesy of Randy Wadkins)
Wadkins conducting an experiment. (Courtesy of Randy Wadkins)

Mississippi born and bred, he had spent his youth helping in his dad’s grocery store and fishing with stink-bait (“They smell it and they come-a-swimmin’,” he said), attributes that prove he’s anything but a carpet-bagger. As a tenured scientist with a record of solving complex problems, he had the brainpower to tackle the job. By focusing on cancer research, he had demonstrated a commitment to improving people’s lives. Plus, he had just spent a year immersing himself in healthcare policy as a science and technology congressional fellow in the Washington office of Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).

Finally, Wadkins decided he was angry enough to put his academic career on hold and make a go of public office.

On April 18, at a town meeting in Oxford, Miss., Wadkins joined a group of some 200 citizens awaiting an appearance by Rep. Kelly. After it became apparent that the congressman was a no-show, Wadkins seized the opportunity to announce that he was making a bid for the seat.

“It’s a very strange thing to utter the words, ‘I’m running for Congress,’” Wadkins said. “If you pause and think about it, it’s a very terrifying thing. But I think about what Bruce Springsteen said when he was asked how he put himself out there every night. He said, ‘Your desperation has to be greater than your fear.’ And that’s where I am: My desperation is greater than my fear.”

Patricia Zornio

Patricia Zornio, a biomedical researcher from a family of Trump supporters, hopes to stand up for science in the Senate

Raised in conservative, rural New Hampshire, Patricia Zornio was the first in her family to study for an advanced degree, pursuing clinical neuropsychology and exploring novel therapeutics for severe mental illness. Now, she’s a researcher and project manager at Stanford University, where she has become an expert on rare and undiagnosed diseases.

But politics have always tugged at her.

With the same methodical approach she used to build a career as a translational scientist, Zornio is laying the groundwork for a Senate run in 2020.

The seat she is eyeing now belongs to Sen. Cory Gardner, a first-term Republican from Colorado. Though Zornio works for Stanford, she is a resident of Boulder, and she has spent the past year crisscrossing Colorado to participate in town halls and speak to any group that invites her.

Zornio hasn’t begun raising money or building a campaign organization. For now, she’s testing the waters, to see “if people are interested in potentially voting for a progressive female scientist from a rural background.”

So far, she thinks, the signs are good.

“I haven’t had any trouble filling a room,” said Zornio, who goes by Trish.

 (John Maushammer)
(John Maushammer)

Zornio’s science, as well as her politics, is a departure from that of the family she grew up in: All, she thinks, voted for Donald Trump in November’s election. Zornio said her father’s initial reaction to her plans — stony silence — has just begun to yield to acceptance.

In the view of family members, “science has taken things,” such as pulp and paper mills, which they believe were driven out of business by environmental regulation. They do not seem to grasp science’s connection to lucrative high-tech jobs, clean water and good medical care, she said.

But that experience has helped prepare her to talk about science and its role in making policy as she travels across Colorado collecting names of would-be donors and campaign volunteers.

“You’ve got to humanize it,” she said. “My father and I are still learning how to talk politics.” 

Colorado is a state that voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in each of the last three elections; Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory was close to 5 percentage points. But it is still considered a purple state with strong conservative pockets.

In recent years, out-of-state money has played a prominent role in bankrolling conservative politicians. To challenge Gardner, Zornio would probably have to raise funds and woo supporters from across the country.

A classical pianist who identifies herself as an “official band geek,” Zornio helps organizes jazz, classical and musical theater performances all over Colorado. That experience is probably good practice for a political run, she said. Already, a planned musical event in Boulder in late June is looking more and more like a protest, she added.

 (Courtesy of Patricia Zornio)
(Courtesy of Patricia Zornio)

On the issues, Zornio brings a background in healthcare and environmental sustainability to a run against Gardner. Over the next few years, she plans to ground herself in finance and economic issues in the same way she has always built expertise: as if she’s getting a Ph.D.

Zornio, who is single, said she has worked her “whole life to get to Stanford,” and she’s keenly aware that a political campaign would mean giving up a flourishing career in science.

But her career has also connected her to lots of patients facing death, and they have taught her an important lesson: “People really tend to regret the things they didn’t try.”

Phil Janowicz

Phil Janowicz, a chemistry professor-turned-candidate who says he has 'Solutions for Congress'

Phil Janowicz might have been your favorite chemistry teacher in college. His youthful enthusiasm, sense of humor and willingness to chat are all as clear as the safety glasses on his nose.

But this former Cal State Fullerton chemistry professor is now looking to form a different kind of bond — with the Orange County voters he hopes to represent in Washington, D.C.

The 33-year-old Janowicz is going after a big target: Republican Congressman Ed Royce of Fullerton, who was first elected to represent California’s 39th District in 1992 and is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Janowicz, a Democrat, announced his candidacy in April at an amphitheater in the heart the university’s campus. His chemistry background (and love of puns) are evident in his campaign slogan: “Solutions for Congress.”

Janowicz is greeted by his mother, Kathy Traverse. (Christina House / For the Times)
Janowicz is greeted by his mother, Kathy Traverse. (Christina House / For the Times)
Supporters including Janowicz's wife, Angie Janowicz, center; his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Dahl, left; and friend Mindy Chang. None
Supporters including Janowicz's wife, Angie Janowicz, center; his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Dahl, left; and friend Mindy Chang.

It was something he had been mulling for a long time, and the turning point came on Nov. 8, 2016. Janowicz and his wife were watching the election returns together. Angela Janowicz, an English teacher, was wearing her “Nasty woman” T-shirt, and the two were geared up for a Hillary Clinton victory.

But as it became clear that Donald Trump had won, Angela turned to Phil and told him he should go for it.

“Be the change you want to see in the world,” she said. “It’ll be our next adventure.”

To ready himself for a run, Janowicz reluctantly left his tenured teaching position at Cal State Fullerton. Jumping in head first was the only proper way to take on a challenge like this, he said.

“There were so many things I wanted to do to help in this community,” he said. “Teaching chemistry only went so far.”

But Janowicz said he would continue to think like a scientist — a habit that will protect him from succumbing to ideological rigidity.

“My mind can be changed by data,” he said. “Science will work, whether we believe in it or not.”

Minutes after he declared his candidacy, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a statement that mocked his academic background: “Liberal professor Janowicz may hypothesize he has a snowball’s chance challenging Royce, but in the real world, he’ll find Royce’s support runs deep and wide in Orange County.”

Janowicz, who studied cognitive psychology at MIT before earning a doctorate in chemistry at University of Illinois, was quick to pick up on the Republican committee's code for “elitist.” He had his comeback ready.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a professor,” Janowicz said. “It’s teaching the next generation how to be good, functioning members of society and get good jobs to support their families.”

 (Matthew Gush / Courtesy of Phil Janowicz)
(Matthew Gush / Courtesy of Phil Janowicz)

By early June, Janowicz had hired a campaign manager, a communications consultant, a fundraising specialist and a firm to keep his electoral paperwork in order.

Janowicz has been critical of Royce’s positions on healthcare, education and the environment. He says at least 1 in 5 students in the Cal State system struggles with food or shelter insecurity, and many are afraid their parents could be apprehended by immigration officials if they show up for graduation.

“I’m so inspired that they’re working so hard,” he said. “We need a system that works as hard for them.”

Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden, a computer scientist who hopes to bring an 'engineering mind-set' to Washington

With his chunky black-framed glasses, close-cropped hair and graying beard, Binghamton University computer scientist Patrick Madden gives off a Jeff Goldblum vibe. He designs mobile apps for fun, and teaches a graduate seminar in computer science theory.

“I love my job, the students I teach,” Madden said. “I’ve got a pretty good life.”

All was going well, he said, until the election of Donald Trump. That event has pushed him off the sidelines and into politics.

In May, he announced his bid to challenge Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney, a freshman who swept into office on Trump’s coattails.

Rep. Tenney’s seat is one of 59 the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted for turnover in 2018. And it’s one of 10 Republican House seats to which the National Republican Congressional Committee has announced it will devote additional fundraising and organizational assistance.

In short, it’s a battleground seat.

Madden said he’s never considered himself “hyperpartisan,” but as the details of the Trump administration’s policy agenda emerged, he decided he could not “sit and watch while we spiral down the drain.”

 (Laura Lee Intscher)
(Laura Lee Intscher)

Madden expected his wife, Laura Lee Intscher, to try to talk him out of running. Instead, she told him he “absolutely had to do it.” His daughters, ages 14 and 17, are less enthusiastic, but have grudgingly climbed on board.

“They understand that sometimes you have to do the right thing, and that’s not the same as the easy thing,” Madden said. At the same time, he hopes he can shield his girls from the spotlight: He doesn’t want his choice to make their lives “excessively weird.”

Madden has had some early success raising campaign funds on the Crowdpac website and attracting the notice of political professionals. National media strategist Joe Trippi has signed on to help his campaign, and he’s hired a finance director, a team to pull together mailers and campaign literature, and a company to oversee his paperwork and payroll.

Madden is a believer in the “engineering mind-set” that dissects the problems, assesses the options and works toward a solution. He compares that with the training lawyers bring to public office: “to argue a position.”

This contrast, he said, sets him up as the kind of get-it-done candidate voters want in New York’s upstate 22nd District, which lies between Albany and Syracuse.

Madden with would-be constituents at Pride Palooza in Binghamton, N.Y. (Laura Lee Intscher)
Madden with would-be constituents at Pride Palooza in Binghamton, N.Y. (Laura Lee Intscher)

“I’ve never met a lawyer who said, ‘Hey, you made a good point, I’m going to change my mind.’ It’s just not what they’re trained to do,” Madden said. “I have been wrong before and it’s not about me winning and someone else losing. It’s about getting to the right answer.”

There are other ways Madden thinks his science and engineering experience has equipped him well for public office.

“I’m sure the first attack will be that I’m a liberal professor who does nothing,” he said. “But I’ll have plenty of people from the chip industry who will vouch for me that I solve problems. It’s not hot air. This is my community: We look at real-world problems and come up with solutions. Then, they get manufactured and sold.”

One possible indication Madden is being taken seriously as a candidate? In recent days, he’s gotten a spate of warnings that someone is trying to crack his password. Perhaps Moscow is already on to him.

Kathie Allen

Kathie Allen, a family physician who says she has 'strong medicine' for Congress

Family physician Kathie Allen was laying careful plans for a run against U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz when the Utah Republican announced in late April he would retire from Congress in 2018.

Since then, Allen, a Democrat, has had to put her campaign into warp drive. The district, which includes Provo and Orem, is “deep red,” she said — one of the most conservative in the nation. But as a family physician, she thinks voters will trust her, especially as she denounces the GOP’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“I have 30 years of demonstrating actions to improve people’s quality of life,” Allen said.

There are other ways her medical background may translate into success in the political arena, she believes. Primary care physicians “develop a keen sense of compassion,” she said. "We stop judging and we just try to find solutions. We don’t know how much is genetic, or environmental. You just deal with it and don’t blame the patient, because he’s sick.”

Indeed, her campaign slogan touts her medical background: “Strong Medicine for the 3rd Congressional District.”

 (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Although this is Allen’s first time as a candidate, it’s not her first foray into politics. Before enrolling at Loma Linda Medical School in 1980, she served as a congressional aide to Rep. Shirley Pettis (R-Calif.). Then she worked as a housing and community development coordinator in San Bernardino County.

The campaign is time-consuming, but Allen still sees patients two days a week. Building a political operation from the ground up — and on such short notice — while caring for patients “is like an internship in medicine,” she said: It’s both exhausting and exhilarating.

At her side, and behind the wheel on most whistle stops, is her husband, Craig Fineshriber, a retired percussionist for the Utah Symphony. Once Chaffetz announced his intention to quit Congress, Fineshriber told Allen, “Let’s do this thing.” Since then, he’s been an advisor, chauffeur and right-hand man for the campaign, said Allen’s campaign manager, Emily Bingham.

Allen speaks to activists at the Utah Trump Tax March in Salt Lake City on April 15. (Kathryn Allen campaign)
Allen speaks to activists at the Utah Trump Tax March in Salt Lake City on April 15. (Kathryn Allen campaign)

In April, she joined in the March for Science in Washington. She said she is perplexed by what she sees as the Trump administration’s hostility to science — and to facts.

“This is an administration that would never put a man on the moon or cure diseases. They just reject data,” Allen said. “At the March for Science, we were all scratching our heads and thinking, how do they think America ever got to be the power it is, esteemed by the world?"

Stem cell scientist to become the latest Democrat trying to topple Dana Rohrabacher in O.C. House race

Former UC Irvine professor and stem cell scientist Hans Keirstead is announcing his candidacy for the 48th Congressional District. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Former UC Irvine professor and stem cell scientist Hans Keirstead is announcing his candidacy for the 48th Congressional District. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

An internationally known stem cell scientist and entrepreneur will join the ranks of candidates trying to unseat Republican incumbents in contested House races next year when he announces Thursday his challenge of 18-term Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

Hans Keirstead, a 50-year-old Democrat from Laguna Beach, said Wednesday that he will run in the 48th Congressional District, one of more than half a dozen in California that have been targeted by Democrats seeking to harness sentiment against President Trump in their fight for a House majority.

Keirstead’s candidacy has been sought by some national Democratic figures, who see his science and business background as a good fit for the district. It runs along the Orange County coastline from Laguna Beach to Seal Beach, and includes some nearby inland cities.

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