Scientists hit the campaign trail

Chemical & Engineering News
Rick Mullin
May 24, 2018

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.


Credit: Biggins for Virginia
Biggins, an infectious disease researcher, attended the second March for Science on April 14.

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.

Credit: C&EN
C&EN caught up with chemist and congressional candidate Randy Wadkins at a fundraiser in Washington, D.C. Watch this video to learn more about his run.

Science rising

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.”

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