“There's nothing in our Constitution that says we can only be governed by attorneys,” founder Shaughnessy Naughton said. “Especially now, we need people with scientific backgrounds that are used to looking at the facts and forming an opinion based on the facts.”
The project is partially motivated by worry over the election of Donald Trump, she said, noting that the president-elect and some of his Cabinet picks dispute the scientific consensus on climate change, vaccines and other issues.
Indeed, the past several months have seen an uptick in political engagement among the scientific community: Thousands of researchers have signed an open letter urging Trump to “respect scientific integrity,” and hundreds attended a “stand up for science” rally at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, one of the largest scientific conferences in the country.
Naughton said she hopes that boosting the number of scientists in public office would help combat what she sees as “anti-science” rhetoric in politics. But as a chemist and cancer researcher turned small-business owner who has twice run for Congress and lost (both times to Democratic primary opponents), Naughton knows how hard it is for someone with a background in a classroom or a lab to navigate the political fray.
In the 2014 primary race in Pennsylvania, she found herself up against a candidate backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I was locked out of a lot of traditional Democratic donors,” Naughton said. “We need to have an organization that people can reach out to say, 'I want to run, can you help me?' as well as having a strong base of people who care about these issues and to have them organizing their contributions that way.”
STEM the Divide will offer training for first-time candidates and connect them with experts who can help organize their campaigns, as well as organize a network of donors from which the group can raise funds on the candidates' behalf.
Some of the donors already in line are people who contributed to Naughton's congressional campaigns. Other connections will come from advisers, such as Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann and Democratic political consultant Joe Trippi.
“Most scientists mistakenly believe that they can’t do it,” said Rush Holt, a physicist who represented a central New Jersey congressional district for 16 years. Holt is not involved in the new initiative, but, as chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he said he supports efforts to elect more scientists.
Holt left the House in 2015. Among the 435 members of the new 115th Congress, there are just a handful with what Naughton's group considers a STEM background, meaning a bachelor's degree or more in science, technology, engineering or math. Only two — particle physicist Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and engineer Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) — have PhDs in the sciences. This session will also include 14 physicians, minus Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) if he is confirmed as the next secretary of Health and Human Services Department.
Holt said that many in the sciences are wary of involving themselves in politics lest their work be seen as political.
“You don’t want the collection and analysis of evidence to be distorted by political ideology or wish thinking,” he said. “But that does not mean that scientists cannot and should not … be involved in politics as citizens. A scientist can keep integrity in the scientific process and still be involved in politics and contribute to policymaking.”
Others have explained the relative dearth of STEM-educated politicians as a consequence of scientists' lack of political savvy (“most scientists aren't particularly good schmoozers,” the American Physical Society's Michael Lubell told the Wall Street Journal) or Americans' anti-intellectualism (“Americans have long privately dismissed scientists and mathematicians as impractical and elitist,” Temple University mathematician John Allen Paulos wrote for the New York Times).
But Trippi, who served as presidential campaign manager for Democrat Howard Dean (who had his own medical practice before running for early office), said that some scientists just need a little nudge.
“It's fascinating because every time I talk to a scientist … they all have this same idealism that you find in a lot of people who run in politics, of wanting to change things, make things better,” he said.
Trippi and Naughton have had one success already: In 2015, 314 Action helped elect Princeton physicist Andrew Zwicker to the New Jersey State Assembly. Zwicker was the first Democrat to win his legislative district in its 40-year history.
STEM the Divide is little more than a page on the group's website titled “Want to run?” Yet Trippi said more than 60 people have expressed interest. By March 14 (Pi day), when the group plans to hold its first information session, he thinks they may have upward of 1,000 participants.
In the coming months, the organization will pick and focus on a few candidates and campaigns, Naughton said. It plans to have several running for state and national seats by 2018, and she said it's possible there might be a candidate to promote this fall, as well. At least initially, the project will only support Democrats because the party supports action on man-made climate change.
“The two-party platforms are drastically different on that issue,” Naughton said. “We felt we had to pick a team.”
When asked whether this raised a risk of politicizing science — framing scientific questions as ideological issues rather than matters of fact — Naughton argued that that ship has already sailed.
“People might think that science is above politics, as it should be, but increasingly we see that politics is not above bringing itself into science,” she said. “At a certain point, there's diminishing returns to not getting involved.”