The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

2018 is the year of scientists running for Congress

Joseph Kopser, a candidate for Texas’s 21st District seat, speaks at a forum focused on environmental issues at Scholz Garten in Austin. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

AUSTIN — The candidate forum at Scholz Garten, a stone’s throw from the Texas State Capitol, was organized by, a liberal group focused on climate change. So there was little doubt what answer the moderator was seeking when he asked about support for “a complete nationwide fracking ban.”

Eight of the nine Democrats present, running for open seats in Central Texas congressional districts 10, 17, 21, 25 and 35, provided it: Of course, they support a full ban on fracking. The lone Republican said as much, too.

But not Joseph Kopser. “No, I am not,” he said to boos. “To call for a ban on fracking is just to invite coal back.”

An aerospace engineer trained at the U.S. Military Academy, Kopser promises on his website not to pander to any special interest but to base his public positions on two things: constituent “input and verified scientific data.” Part of a nationwide wave of scientifically trained people running for office at every level of government this year, Kopser said he was motivated to run because he sees science being devalued in society — particularly by the Trump administration.

“I absolutely feel that science is under attack,” Kopser said. “It’s the opposite of when John F. Kennedy said he wanted to get us to the moon in less than 10 years. The way Trump is going, in 10 years, he’ll have us back in caves.”

The rising activism among scientists is a turnaround for a group that has traditionally seen politics as “grimy and grubby,” said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Many of these candidates have been recruited by 314 Action, a political action committee founded in 2016 to support policymakers who have scientific or technical backgrounds.

Named for the first three digits of pi, 314 Action describes itself as the vanguard of “the pro-science resistance.” The group’s founder, Shaughnessy Naughton, said 7,000 people have responded to the group’s call to run for office. The group has also assembled a network of about 400,000 donors eager to support candidates who back science-based policies.

While a few scientist-candidates are running as independents, most are Democrats making their first foray into party politics. (More than 80 percent of scientists in a 2014 Pew survey identified as Democrats or Democrat-leaning.) 314 Action is working with 30 congressional candidates across the country and expects to formally endorse about half that number. They include stem-cell researcher Hans Keirstead, who is running to challenge Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.); Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician who came to the United States as a child refugee from Vietnam; and Chrissy Houlahan, a Stanford University-trained engineer who is running in suburban Philadelphia.

314 Action has not endorsed any GOP candidates. When asked whether her organization would consider backing a Republican who supported evidence-based policy, Naughton joked, “Bring me the unicorn.”

In fact, a few exist: Samuel Temple, a statistician for AT&T, is running in the crowded Republican primary for the same open seat as Kopser. Temple earned a master’s degree in statistics, is the author of several peer-reviewed papers on anxiety disorders and showed up at Scholz’s for the forum in Austin, where he identified himself as the “last moderate Republican.”

Given the opportunity, “you will find plenty of doctors and scientists who will vote Republican,” Temple said.

Texas’s 21st District seat is filled by House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R), who is retiring after three decades in Washington.

As he drove between events in San Antonio and Austin one day last month, Kopser said Smith has been “losing touch with science and facts.” For example, Kopser said, Smith has railed against a “climate-change religion” and issued subpoenas for researchers’ emails and data.

Kopser, who describes the dangers of climate change as a “threat multiplier” on his site, advocates for additional government support for clean energy. His position on fracking, however, is evolving based on recent research linking wastewater disposal wells to man-made earthquakes, especially in neighboring Oklahoma.

“I am very open to the idea of shutting down fracking wastewater disposal sites that are found to be causing the geological instability leading to these micro-earthquakes in North Texas and Oklahoma,” he said.

Kopser, 47, is a father of three and lives in Austin, where he is the president of the advisory firm Grayline. He served a 14-month tour of duty in Iraq, after which he worked at the Pentagon’s Future Combat program.

While in Washington, Kopser became frustrated by a late commuter bus. As he watched cars zip in and out of the Pentagon complex, their empty seats beckoned. “The engineer in me said, ‘There’s got to be a fix. There’s got to be a better solution.’ ”

So Kopser came up with an algorithm. His goal, he said, was to blend data from taxis, rides-for-hire, buses, bikes and other forms of transportation public and private into an optimal route. A friend persuaded him to turn the optimization algorithm into a company, RideScout. President Barack Obama learned how to use the company’s travel app when he visited a District tech incubator in 2014. Shortly afterward, RideScout sold to a subsidiary of Daimler.

Scientists are scarce in Congress. Only one member has a doctoral degree in a physical science — Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), a former high-energy physicist at Fermilab. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) worked as an engineer and has a PhD in mathematics. A few others have undergraduate science degrees, including Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who studied microbiology and has a master's degree in public health. Fourteen members of Congress are physicians, 12 of whom are Republicans. Seven have social science PhDs. An equal number are radio talk-show hosts. There are 200-plus lawyers.

Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist running for local office in California, is part of a growing movement of scientists turned politicians hoping to combat the Trump administration. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

In the back of Scholz Garten, three graduate students at a table — geoscientists at the University of Texas at Austin and local organizers for 314 Action — watched as Kopser spoke. The moderator had asked for the “one most important thing our government can do to combat climate change,” and other candidates identified bans on coal or legislation to overturn Citizens United. Except, again, for Kopser.

“My number one goal would be for the government to provide the research and development necessary for battery technology” for solar and wind power, Kopser said. Batteries seemed to score points with the geoscientists, who nodded in agreement.

Like most science-oriented candidates, Kopser faces long odds. Though he was recently endorsed by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), he must defeat three opponents on Tuesday for a chance to challenge the Republican nominee in the November general election. If Kopser survives the primary, against opponents who argue that he is too moderate to appeal to the more progressive Austin Democrats, he must prevail in a district that went for Trump in 2016 by a 10-point margin.

Kopser ducked out of the forum before it ended, heading to a rally with Moulton. Texas’s 21st District covers 5,920 square miles, an area larger than Connecticut. Kopser stopped for a 10-minute lunch of a pizza slice and a beer at Whole Foods.

“The trail is long. Brutal, at times,” Kopser said at the day’s final rally. He ended with a plea for donations: “I need you to dig deep for democracy.”

This article has been updated.

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