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Scientists consider running for office

April 22, 2017 at 3:42 PM EDT
As President Donald Trump’s administration proposes cuts to science programs across the country, some scientists and engineers are considering whether they should run for elected office. One of the biggest worries, some say, is whether revealing their partisan politics could jeopardize their science careers. The NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson reports.

By Megan Thompson and Mori Rothman

MEGAN THOMPSON: On Thursday morning, around 80 people filled a hall in Washington, D.C., for lessons in campaigning for local school board, state legislature, and even U.S. Congress.

PANELIST: When you’re running for office for the first time…

The agenda covered fundraising, messaging, and recruiting volunteers, with political veterans like Joe Trippi, a high-profile Democratic campaign consultant.

JOE TRIPPI: The hunger’s definitely there, the energy’s definitely there.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But this crowd wasn’t typical activists. They were scientists and engineers who say the trump administration and republican-led congress have a hostile attitude toward science, especially when it comes to addressing climate change.

SHAUGHNESSY NAUGHTON: We really need people with pro-science backgrounds to get involved.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The group that organized this session is 314 Action. That’s 3, 1, 4- as in the first three digits of the number Pi. For now, it’s supporting only behind Democrats. Shaughnessy Naughton is the founder.

SHAUGHNESSY NAUGHTON: I’m a chemist. I worked in breast cancer research and in drug discovery.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Naughton, who now runs her family’s printing business, also knows about running for office.

NAUGHTON CAMPAIGN AD: For years, I was a laboratory chemist developing drugs to fight deadly diseases. As a scientist, I know there’s more Washington can do to help families.

MEGAN THOMPSON: She’s run twice for Congress and lost, in 2014 and 2016, in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s 8th district, north of Philadelphia.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Why did you run for office?

SHAUGHNESSY NAUGHTON: Well, one of the reasons was I was really concerned about the anti-science rhetoric we hear out of so many politicians and the cuts to basic research funding that I think are putting us behind, as well as hurting us economically.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Naughton believes scientists like her can inject a fresh point of view into a Congress where a majority of members have backgrounds in law, politics or business.

SHAUGHNESSY NAUGHTON: They certainly bring something to governing, but I think that we would benefit by having more people with these diverse backgrounds. Scientists are taught to solve problems. And we certainly need more problem solving and less bickering. You know, taking a fact-based approach to decision making, looking at what’s presented and basing your decisions on that rather than some preconceived notion.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But so far, the group hasn’t found a Republican it can support.

MEGAN THOMPSON: You are, at this point, only supporting Democrats. Why is that?

SHAUGHNESSY NAUGHTON: Well, although we do want to see more Republicans act on combating climate change, currently the difference in the two parties’ platforms is hard to ignore. And so we did feel that we had to pick a team.

MEGAN THOMPSON: A role model for these politically-inclined scientists is Rush Holt, a physicist who represented his New Jersey district for 16 years in the House of Representatives. He’s now the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which has 110,000 members.

RUSH HOLT: They’re beginning to say, “Well, have we really entered an evidence-free era? A post-fact era? Why is so much policy made apparently on ideological assertion rather than scientifically validated evidence?”

MEGAN THOMPSON: Holt, who was one of just a handful of scientists on Capitol Hill, believes scientists can improve public policy, even on less obvious issues like national security and transportation. Or the rollout of paperless touchscreen voting machines after the election in 2000- many of which turned out to be unreliable.

RUSH HOLT: They never bothered to talk to the computer scientists. Who said, who quickly, after this bill was passed said, “Oh, wait a minute. These, this procedure for voting is, is unverifiable and un-auditable. Having a scientist in the office you might identify some technological aspects in the legislation that otherwise you’d miss.

MEGAN THOMPSON: One engineer hoping to head to Washington is Joseph Kopser. He’s a tech executive from Austin, Texas, who’s considering a run for congress. Kopser spent 20 years in the army after studying Aerospace Engineering at West Point.

JOSEPH KOPSER: As a kid, I was so inspired by NASA, and the idea of being in space was just fascinating.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Kopser is exploring a run against Texas Republican Lamar Smith, a 30-year incumbent who’s chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

LAMAR SMITH: Most climate science today appears to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions than on the scientific method.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Kopser says he’s motivated in part by Smith’s skeptical views of climate change science.

JOSEPH KOPSER: Lamar Smith is a nice gentlemen. He has a view toward science and technology that is not helpful in terms of where our economy is going. His views on climate change are not in step with where the body of the science is.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Smith also supported president trump’s recent executive order rolling back President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

JOSEPH KOPSER: The whole discussion of the Clean Power Plan and repealing so much of that work over the last eight years is not only not smart in terms of market forces and what’s happening and the actual trends in science and what’s happening in their energy industry.

Solar and wind are actually adding jobs to the economy faster than coal right now. But if we come out with a rhetoric that is anti-new technologies and favoring one industry, picking and choosing winners and losers then we’re gonna not only be investing in industries that are on the decline, but we also won’t be able to unleash the potential that wind and solar have.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Congressman Smith’s office did not respond to PBS NewsHour Weekend requests for an interview.

MEGAN THOMPSON: If Kopser runs and he wins the Democratic primary in this conservative district, he plans to stress his military and business experience. He created a transportation app that he sold to Daimler, which owns Mercedes Benz. Kopser will also focus on education and jobs.

JOSEPH KOPSER: If we don’t get science and technology policy right, what’s at stake is even more people falling out of the economy. So a good example of that looks at what’s gonna happen to society when autonomous vehicles, when machine learning, when advanced materials eat away at even more jobs? And if we continue this anti-science or anti-STEM rhetoric we’re just gonna leave people behind, it’s just gonna make it worse.

MEGAN THOMPSON: By running, would you risk sort of politicizing some of these issues more?

JOSEPH KOPSER: Yes, unfortunately. But that should not be a determinant that would keep you out of the race.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But some scientists say, maybe it should be.

ROB YOUNG: I think it is problematic when scientists are lumping together scientific issues with other points of advocacy that may be viewed as having a party affiliation or a particularly political bend.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Rob young is a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University in North Carolina who’s seen his own research politicized. When he co-wrote a 2010 report predicting a three-foot sea level rise along the Carolina coast due to climate change, developers were outraged. The state’s Republican-led legislature then passed a law barring agencies from making policies based on the findings.

ROB YOUNG: I absolutely agree that we need to be speaking out. I’m not advocating silence, but we need to do it in a way that’s strategic and that’s effective.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Young doesn’t like the idea of marching for science, and worries about scientists aligning with partisan efforts like 314 Action supporting only one party.

ROB YOUNG: It would baffle me why that would be the case. What you’re doing, once again, is playing into this narrative that scientists are liberal Democrats. And scientists are not just liberal Democrats.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Young thinks scientists should get involved locally, rather than engaging in national partisan politics, which he worries could jeopardize valuable work being done by career scientists inside federal agencies.

ROB YOUNG: And we also need to remember that the federal government is full of dedicated scientists and engineers who will be spending the next few months bringing their political appointees up to speed on what it is that their agencies do and why science matters within those science and regulatory agencies. And we need to give those people our support, and we need to give them the space to work.

MEGAN THOMPSON: 314 Action founder Shaughnessy Naughton understands these concerns, but she says to elevate science’s place in government, politics can’t be avoided.

SHAUGHNESSY NAUGHTON: What we don’t want to see is science under attack from politicians, and I think the way we combat that is to get more people with science a seat at the table.