Scientists Are Running For Congress Because “The Future Hangs In The Balance”

By: Robin Andrews/IFL Science Every social struggle has a tipping point. Progress is normally made at a snail’s pace, but with certain movements – same-sex marriage, racial equality, for example – when push comes to shove, nationwide change can suddenly snap into place.

Fast-forward to 2017. The Trump administration is in power and “Alternative Facts,” climate change denial, and anti-scientific policies are the norm. Scientists have had enough, and in an unprecedented display of solidarity, have decided to run for office on a pro-science platform.

Is this the next tipping point in American society? The group coordinating this effort, 314 Action, thinks it could be.

These rebellious individuals aren’t just running on good speeches, marches, and hope. They have a genuinely good chance at changing the trajectory of the United States – and its founders sat down with IFLScience to talk about how they plan to do so.

“The future really hangs in the balance. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true,” Ted Bordelon, 314 Action’s director of communications, tells us. “When you have an administration this openly hostile to scientific facts, you need to stand up to it – and who better to stand up to it than scientists?”

Congress needs more scientists. Black Russian Studio/Shutterstock

The scientific uprising began in earnest sometime between Trump’s election in November and his inauguration in January of this year. Almost immediately after taking the oath of office, the President’s anti-scientific rhetoric was transformed into devastating action.

Federal scientists were hit with a communications blackout, effectively censoring them. Soon afterward, a proposed 2018 budget threatened them with draconian, historic funding cuts. Climate change denial was once again in vogue.

Inspired by the Women’s March – the largest demonstration in US history – rogue scientists took their protestations from Twitter to the streets during the Global March For Science.

The Resistance – as anti-Trump Americans are often referred to – is a diverse cornucopia of American citizens; it includes people from almost every single demographic. Academics and scientists, however, appear to be one of a few groups that have a practical modus operandi, a plan of action that will force a change in the corridors of power.

In terms of the Resistance, then, this makes 314 Action the tip of the proverbial spear.

“The goal is to bring about change – real change,” Bordelon says.

The group was launched just this past January. Its aim is to get as many scientists as possible elected to Congress in the 2018 midterms while displacing as many anti-science lawmakers as possible. School boards, local councils, and committees are also in their crosshairs.

“We exist not just because there’s been an assault on science,” Joshua Morrow, 314 Action’s executive director, and a veteran political campaign manager, tells IFLScience. “There’s been an assault on facts.”

In the last few months, the President has placed climate change deniers like Rick Perry and Scott Pruitt in charge of the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), respectively – groups they’ve long threatened to destroy. America is poised to leave the Paris agreement.

“The attacks on science certainly didn’t start with Trump, but he has been a powerful catalyst,” Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemical scientist and entrepreneur, and 314’s founder, tells IFLScience.

Emboldened by their dominance of Congress, House Republicans began to author bills that would shutter the ED and the EPA once and for all. The catastrophic GOP-authored American Health Care Act (AHCA) has just made it through the House, which if enacted into law by the Senate would strip healthcare away from tens of millions of Americans.

To add insult to injury, Trump still hasn’t appointed a scientific advisor. If anyone is ever appointed to this role, it would be perhaps the most Sisyphean task in human history.

Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist running for Congress. Jess Phoenix for Congress 2018

In the midst of this all, 314 Action grew from strength to strength beyond the founders’ wildest dreams.

“The one good thing about this election is that it has awoken a sleeping giant,” Naughton says.

“5,000 STEM professionals have reached out to us to specifically run for office. That’s huge,” Bordelon adds. “When we launched 314 back in January with a skeleton crew, we hoped to get 1,000 people by April. This blew our expectations out of the water.”

The group’s name was co-opted from numerical Pi, a curious number that appears all around us in nature and our everyday lives.

“Like Pi, science is all around us,” the group’s mission statement reads. Now that thousands of scientists across the US have joined their movement, this sentiment is particularly apt.

Asked about the caliber of the scientists actually running for Congress, Naughton quickly responds: “They’re awesome!”

This isn’t difficult to agree with. You’ve got California’s Jess Phoenix, an appropriately named, globe-trotting, thrill-seeking volcanologist who comes from a family of FBI agents; then there’s New York’s Patrick Madden, a pioneering computer scientist with a mastery of mathematical wizardry; or how about Texas’ Jason Westin, an award-winning cancer and stem cell researcher?

Public enemy number one? jctabb/Shutterstock

They’re nothing less than real life superheroes, and 314 wants to showcase them to the voting public. Morrow stressed to us, however, that the last thing they want to do is take a scientist and make him or her “look like a typical Washington D.C. politician.”

“We want their authenticity to remain intact.”

Run and advised by a mixture of academics, including Michael “Hockey Stick” Mann, this is no mere protest group. Former political operators have joined the cause, whose mission is to train up willing scientists to become savvy, charismatic leaders-in-waiting.

The behavior of anti-scientific politicians, particularly when it comes to abusing and warping scientific information, is “insane,” according to Naughton. “They’ve been encouraged by the Trump election to do and say more ridiculous things. We cannot accept this any longer.”

A lot of concern over the March For Science was that it was getting too political, and that science should be non-partisan. 314 would argue that the times are changing and that the direct threat to both science and science communication from the Trump administration is too extreme to just sit by and let it happen.

“Science is pure, and politics is dirty. That’s been the mantra for ages,” Naughton tells us. “But what politicians have shown us – the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in particular – is that they are unafraid to meddle in science.”

This particularly influential Committee is currently dominated by GOP politicians, many of which are heavily funded by fossil fuel industries. As you might expect, these lawmakers like the idea that climate change is a hoax. They often tweet Breitbart articles to back up their assertions.

Jason Westin, a cancer researcher running for Congress, along with his family. Westin for Congress

They often hold meetings where three or four climate deniers ramble on about this great conspiracy by NASA et al., before getting their single, token respectable researcher to actually tell them the truth of the matter – which they then ignore, of course.

“The GOP has done a fantastic job of conflating scientific consensus with propaganda from the fossil fuel industry,” Naughton explains. “If you look at who primarily funds the GOP, it’s not hard to understand why this happens.”

Morrow tells us that they’ve highlighted three particularly offensive members of the science committee – Knight, Lamar and Rohrabacher.

None of these three GOP lawmakers are scientists, by the way – not by a long shot. “Rohrabacher, the number three on that committee, once said that climate change was started by dinosaur farts,” Morrow notes, not incorrectly.

“Our goal is to target these members and get them off the Committee. We’re focusing a lot of energy and time on these three districts.”

In military nomenclature, this is known as a decapitation strike – an effort to take out the leadership of the enemy in one single hit. If the Committee does slip out of control of the GOP, this would be an enormous win for scientists and pro-scientific politicians across America.

314 think that scientists are the ideal candidates to run for office regardless of why they’ve chosen to do so.

“Scientists are used to collaborating. They don’t argue with facts – they stand with facts, unlike lawyers, who are trained to just argue their point of view,” Morrow tells us.

“This is why nothing is getting done in Washington,” he adds. “We need more diverse backgrounds getting involved in the process.”

Patrick Madden, a computer scientist running for Congress. Madden for Congress

Congress is anything but diverse. There are many ways in which this is true, but just take a look at their professional backgrounds. Most of them are lawyers, and at present, there is just one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist, and one engineer representing the country at the Capitol. Scientists are massively underrepresented.

Notably, all of the candidates working with 314 are affiliated with the generally pro-science Democratic Party. Wondering if there have been any Republicans signing up, we’re told that there “have been a few,” but Morrow clarifies that at present, they won’t support any GOP candidates.

“Until the GOP agenda moderates itself, there is no way we can support any candidates at the moment. If there was a really good one we would consider it, but it terms of the organization’s support, it’s just Democrats for the time being.”

314 aren’t blinded by delusions of grandeur. They’re aware that in terms of funding and running for office, they are up against powerful forces that will cling on to power at any cost.

“Climate scientists have to get their research funded and published and have it peer-reviewed. They’re held accountable,” Naughton notes. “If a scientist lies, they won’t get funding anymore. Politicians, though, can write op-eds, go on Fox News, and that’s it. How do you fight that?”

“It’s also a huge personal risk to take on,” Morrow adds. “Other careers are more forgiving for the time taken off, but when you have spent a decade or more building your own lab, it’s a lot harder to move away from that.”

“An academic without tenure, if they step away from that, they lose their position. It’s an incredible sacrifice to make.”

Rather movingly, Naughton explains how she saw early signs of the scientific uprising beginning long before 314 started making headlines.

“A few months ago, in my county, the high school students organized a March for Science. A few months before that, the school board curriculum met to discuss to take climate change out of the curriculum as it was ‘making children depressed.’”

“The solution, according to the school board, was to stop telling them about it.”

In response to this, the students of the schools protested. They waited outside meetings and made their voices heard, loud and clear. “The board eventually stepped back from the idea,” Naughton says.

So there is a good reason to hope that change is coming. Congressional Republicans, unnerved by Trump’s highly erratic fumbling and the cohesiveness of the opposition, are beginning to sweat. Congress even managed to recently defy the President’s wishes and actually increased, rather than cut, federal science funding. The American public is also increasingly siding with scientists. 314’s opponents, however, won’t go down without a fight.

“It’s naïve to think we’re not standing on a precipice here,” Bordelon adds. “But scientists are finally stepping up to the plate.”

“Enough is enough.”

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