If there was ever a year for scientists to run for office, this was it.
Across the country, hundreds of candidates with academic or professional experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have left their businesses and laboratories to compete in state legislative contests, congressional elections and even governor’s races. These scientists-turned-politicians constitute the largest wave of such candidates in modern U.S. history, according to 314 Action, an advocacy group that works to elect STEM professionals to public office.
Like the similar surge of women running for office this year, many of these first-time candidates entered the political arena in response to Trump’s election, frustrated with the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and energized by the inaugural Marches for Sciences held on Earth Day in April 2017.
“Attacks on science didn’t start with the Trump administration,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, a former congressional candidate who founded 314 Action — named for the first three digits of pi — in 2014. “But they’ve taken what felt like a war on science and turned it into a war on facts, and that has been a catalyst for getting scientists involved.”
Over the course of the election cycle, more than 150 candidates with STEM credentials announced campaigns for Congress across the country, according to VoteSTEM, another organization that advocates for scientists to run for office. Eleven of those candidates were in Texas.
Ultimately, only two of the congressional hopefuls in Texas, both of them Democrats, survived the primaries — Joseph Kopser, an engineer running in District 21, which covers a portion of Austin, and Rick Kennedy, a computer scientist competing in District 17 in Central Texas. But around the state, candidates like [Allison] Sawyer [in HD134] remain in contention for a range of local positions, including seats in the state Legislature and on the State Board of Education.
And although many of these candidates face long odds in November, the current political environment, in which officials invoke “alternative facts” to justify inaccurate claims, could prove favorable to politicians schooled in the scientific method, said Colin Strother, a longtime Democratic strategist in Texas.
Candidates who favor “making data-driven decisions based on evidence and facts” will have a good chance in the upcoming elections, Strother said. “That worldview is a winner.”
Other Texas candidates with STEM backgrounds express similar frustrations at the status of scientific discourse in national politics. Carla Morton, a neuropsychologist running for the State Board of Education as a Democrat, said she remembers feeling dismayed when Trump posited a connection between vaccines and autism, a dubious claim backed by little scientific evidence. And Michelle Beckley, a Democrat with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences who is running for a state House seat in Carrollton, said she wishes politicians would act on data showing the prevalence of gun violence across the country.
Morton is running in SBOE11, where incumbent Pat Hardy went unopposed in 2012 (SBOE members have six-year terms), and which is a fairly red district. Beckley is running in HD65 against Rep. Ron Simmons; Donald Trump carried it with 48.1% of the vote in 2016, but it was more like a ten-point Republican district downballot. Kopser and Sawyer are more likely to win than either of them, but all four are underdogs. Still, they’re all worth watching, and to the extent they can make the debate about what is real versus what is some yahoo’s fever dreams, we’ll all be better off.