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.”

Latest updates

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°