US Scientists, Please Run for Office. The Planet Needs You
The new GOP regime looks to be catastrophic for science: The first Trump budget proposed slashing funding on everything from ocean research to satellites. And work on climate science? “We consider that to be a waste of your money,” Trump’s budget director said. Science is under attack; there’s no other way to put it. Apart from marching in the streets and waving signs, what can scientists do?
Run for office. The country desperately needs more egghead lawmakers. Right now, Capitol Hill has almost none. The House and Senate are acrawl with lawyers, bankers, and businesspeople but somehow manage to repel people trained in the process of gathering data and testing hypotheses in order to better understand reality.
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Yet, my God—aren’t those precisely the skills you want in today’s post-fact Washington? Particularly given how many critical policy questions pivot on gnarly scientific questions. And I don’t mean only things like atmospheric science or energy—you want scientists grinding on the nonobvious issues too, like crime and agriculture and mine safety. Or how about plain old voting? As Rush Holt, a physicist who served for 16 years in the House of Representatives, points out, in 2002 Congress doled out billions for dodgy, hackable touchscreen voting machines, without first checking with computer scientists who’d have instantly warned them away.
I often assume that many right-wing congressfolk are hostile to science, and some are. But the bigger problem is that lawmakers are intimidated by it. “No member of Congress knows every area, so we want them to be quick learners,” Holt says. They’ll read up on foreign affairs and economics. “But when it comes to science, they say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’” If some elected representatives will always be scared of microscopes, they need colleagues who aren’t.
Right now, Capitol Hill is—to borrow a term from agriculture, that oldest form of science—a monocrop. The profusion of lawyers in the House and Senate is understandable: We are a nation of laws. But that legalistic heritage has cultural side effects. Lawyers are trained to be adversarial and to massage facts, if need be, to help their client. “Lawyers argue their case; scientists follow the facts,” says Josh Morrow, executive director of 314, a group pushing scientists to run for office.
We need more politicos who think differently from lawyers and CEOs. (Forget scientists for a minute: How about more artists, health care aides, and elementary school teachers in Congress too?) For all the hand-wringing over the “replication crisis,” scientists really do have an ethical and professional North Star—the scientific method. I’d love to see that culture grafted onto the Hill’s default heuristic of negotiation and argument.
And hey, I dare to hope. In the past, scientists shied away from public office for a bunch of reasons. They’re not plugged into money networks; their reliance on nuance makes them uncomfortable with party politics. They do not talk in sound bites. But Trumpism has so unsettled scientists that they’re throwing their safety glasses into the ring. At least seven have already launched state or federal campaigns. Holt, who still keeps up with politics, has heard from a dozen more.
“I’m thinking about my daughter growing up in a world without clean water or clean air,” says Molly Sheehan, a University of Pennsylvania biophysicist who’s running for the House. If Trump’s administration isn’t going to consult with scientists, scientists will have to muscle their way in. As the old Washington koan goes, if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu. “We need a seat,” Sheehan says. Preferably one that’s the right height for a good microscope.