WASHINGTON: Erin Macdonald has a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, loves Star Trek, and is education manager for World Space Week. She is also working toward her candidacy for state legislature.
Macdonald wants to connect science and politics in the public eye, and running for office had been on the back of her mind for a few years until the 2016 presidential election, when she became “personally passionate.”
“What set the alarm bells off for people [in the science community] was how little the public trusts science,” Macdonald said. “I was talking to one of my friends at the Women’s March, and she said, ‘I’m amazed at people carrying around signs that say ‘Science is Real.’”
Seeing fellow postdocs struggle to get research grants, pay off loans and low salaries in their fields, the Trump administration’s plans to defund agencies like NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency and what she saw as a disconnect between the public and science, made Macdonald want to run for state legislature. Macdonald is not sure when she will begin officially filing as a candidate, but “if an opportunity to run for office comes, I’m going to jump on that.” She’ll want to focus on housing and education.
Since Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, the postdoc became a Colorado state coordinator for 314 Action, a nonprofit named after the first three numbers in pi, that recruits and provides resources to scientists running for office, with training on speech writing, campaign fundraising and networking.
“Traditionally scientists have looked at politics as dirty, and science as pure,” 314 Action founder Shaughnessy Naughton said. “The thought was, ‘I don’t want to get involved with that.’ But we’ve seen that politicians are unafraid to meddle in science, and the only effective way to push back against that is having more scientists at the table.”
Naughton, who began her career as a chemist, ran for Congress in 2014 and 2016. She lost both times, and she realized how difficult it was to break in to the political world without a law degree.
“I wanted to take that experience and help others with scientific backgrounds,” Naughton said. Naughton received support from the science community during both her runs, which she used to help start 314 Action in 2016. The nonprofit was created to help scientists run for office at all levels, from the school board to the Senate.
Over 3,000 STEM professionals have expressed interest in running for office to 314 Action since its 2016 launch, and several hundred signed up for STEM the Divide, the nonprofit’s all-day training session that was rescheduled for next month in Washington because of snow, but was still held as a webinar.
On Tuesday, which was Pi Day, 314 Action hosted a webinar on the requirements for a successful campaign. Melissa Varga, a science policy specialist who has during her career successfully guided first time candidates to win elections, focused on the grassroots aspect of any campaign movement and the importance of person-to-person interaction.
“Start locally and move your way up,” she told listeners.
Leading a seminar on campaign finance law, Brad Deutsch, who was Sen. Bernie Sanders’ lawyer during his presidential campaign, emphasized organizing funds through setting up a bank account, following Federal Election Commission protocol and knowing from whom candidates can and cannot receive donations.
Other topics included recruiting volunteers, campaign message development and digital fundraising, and participants were encouraged to ask questions throughout the webinar.
Hannah Risheq, a 25-year-old candidate for Virginia House District 67 in the 2017 election, asked, “How do young millennial scientists have people take them ‘seriously?’” She was worried about constituents dismissing her candidacy and research experience because of her age. Varga told her to “focus on the aspects of science serving the public.”
For physicist Elaine DiMasi, the webinar was a window into the world of political campaigning. She has served a scientist at Brookhaven Lab in Upton, N.Y. for 21 years, but for years the political realm drew her mind to a possible career switch, and now her head is turned to the 2018 midterms.
“I’m seriously considering it,” DiMasi said. “I want to be part of the legislature because it’s a team effort. If there are 435 people in the House, that’s where to put physicists like me. They have the law degree; I have the science degree. Now let’s tackle the challenge of balancing climate change with energy security.”
DiMasi wants to reduce the hyper-partisanship she feels has prevented Congress from making good, timely decisions, because they are missing scientists who are trained to search for the right answer, for what the data say, regardless of the answer the scientist may want.
“We bring our ability to solve problems, study the data, and we have learned the scientific method, and the scientific method is the best training humanity has for escaping your own biases,” she said.
Scientific researcher Jamie Tijerina was also tuned in to the webinar. The Los Angeles native works in a cytometry lab. She is an elected official on her neighborhood council and currently exploring more options for political office. Tijerina wasn’t fazed by switching fields, despite skepticism around mixing science with politics and becoming more active by participating in events like the March for Science.
“To say someone can’t be engaged in their community simply because they are scientists is absurd,” she said. “You can’t politicize something that isn’t political.”
Tijerina believes the major sense of urgency from the scientific community sprung up from the Trump administration but that scientific perspective has been lacking in Congress for a while.
Naughton said the movement didn’t start with Trump.
“Politicians of all stripes like to selectively use the facts,” she said. “We have politicians who refuse to look at the facts and deny established ones like climate change. We can’t control what they say, so we have to change who’s elected.”
Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that legislation on climate and nutrition science, the latter of which his organization focuses on, require an appreciation of how scientific evidence gets weighed and the value it brings to the table when debating policy.
“What makes for an effective legislative body is to have different voices, to have different viewpoints represented, especially given the issues that governments are dealing with these days, where often science is part of the issue,” O’Hara said.
O’Hara has been engaged in science-based policy in some form or another for over 20 years. As former chief spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration and a former associate director for the EPA, O’Hara acknowledged that Congress members usually have an expert staff to provide analysis and education on issues. But having people in government with experience in scientific research or clinical work “bring a perspective and understanding that is valuable,” he said.
The definition of who fits into the “science” category is broad – research, biotechnology, engineering, mathematics and computer science just scratch the surface of the community – and science-related projects and collaborations often cross national boundaries. Naughton and Macdonald say policies like President Trump’s reinstated travel ban send a poor message to the rest of the world. Macdonald called cuts to immigration and stricter visa qualifications a “huge brain drain.”
“It’s something that’s usually overlooked. We can talk about NASA or EPA funding that directly affects myself and my peers, and when people think about [policies regarding] science that’s where they go, not realizing that policies like immigration have a huge impact,” Macdonald said. “There aren’t any borders in science.”
Echoing Macdonald’s sentiment, Rush Holt, a physicist and former U.S. representative (D-NJ), told the Los Angeles Times, “In my relatively long career I have not seen this level of concern about science. This immigration ban has serious humanitarian issues, but I bet it never occurred to them that it also has scientific implications.”
His organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote a letter to Trump in reaction to the travel ban, stating “The Executive Order will discourage many of the best and brightest international students, scholars, engineers and scientists from studying and working, attending academic and scientific conferences, or seeking to build new businesses in the United States.”
“It has the scientific community concerned because science doesn’t have national boundaries,” Naughton said. “The American people benefit by having scientists collaborate across the world.”
Naughton admitted that while the science community has criticized politicians for distorting facts, scientists often expect the facts to speak for themselves. She said Rush Holt likes to point out that “‘sometimes the facts need help.’”
“The beneficiaries of science aren’t scientists. They are all of us,” Naughton said. “Scientists have a hard time conveying that, and that’s something we’re going to cover at the training – the communication.”
Science also crosses political boundaries. “We don’t need to know your political preferences to do research with you,” Macdonald said.
Over 60 percent of Americans agree that government investment is essential for scientific progress, according to Pew Research. Part of the federal government’s responsibility is to fund scientific projects, “whether [lawmakers] understand them or not,” Naughton said. She emphasized that having more scientists at the table is critical for helping politicians with little scientific background understand the importance of basic research projects for cures and technological advancements.
“If someone tells me I shouldn’t be involved in politics because I’m a scientist, I would tell them until I get equal rights, equal pay, and equal representation, I’m going to run,” Macdonald said.