WASHINGTON, D.C.—The first time Philip Stoddard, a professor of biology at Florida International University, ran for mayor of South Miami, he admits he had no idea what he was doing.
“My neighbors tricked me into it,” Stoddard, a thin man with graying hair and a matter-of-fact way of speaking, told Gizmodo. “I was invited over to someone’s house to find out who the candidate would be, to run against the ten year incumbent. And I discovered it was me.”
“I had no idea how to run a campaign,” he added.
But Stoddard soon learned that what he lacked in political experience he made up for in other ways. He studied hard and was quick to master new skills. Years of teaching college kids helped him to break down complex topics for lay audiences, and build stories out of disparate information. Most of all, he impressed would-be voters with his dogged, almost naive, commitment to facts.
“I told people, look, I’m not giving up my career as a scientist. If I don’t maintain a reputation for honesty, I’ll have no career.”
Stoddard’s message clicked. He won his first mayoral election in 2010, and has won three re-elections since. Yesterday, in a packed lecture hall at American University’s law school, Stoddard, along with several other scientists-turned-politicians, took the floor to offer fresh-off-the-lab-bench political candidates nuggets of wisdom. Other panelists at the candidate training event, which was organized by the nonprofit 314 Action, included Nadeem Mazen, a city councilman in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a degree in engineering from MIT, and Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemist who ran for Congress twice in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, but lost both times in the primary election.
“We have a serious lack of people at all levels of government with a scientific background,” Naughton, who founded 314 Action last summer to help scientists launch political campaigns, told the audience. “Thankfully, running for office is a lot easier than getting your PhD,” she added, drawing laughter from the room.
Three months into Trump’s presidency, under an administration with little regard for scientists and even less for their conclusions, the American scientific community is in the midst of a political re-awakening. Thousands of scientists are standing up for evidence-based reasoning, by organizing protests, signing open letters to the White House, engaging in guerrilla data archiving events, and preparing to march on Washington this weekend, or to join one of the March for Science’s roughly 500 satellite events around the world.
More and more scientists are also launching campaigns for political office, from local city council seats and mayoral elections to congressional seats in the House and Senate. 314 Action’s recent candidate training event included panel discussions offering advice to first-time candidates, training sessions on how to craft a message and build a volunteer network, and fundraising strategies.
Despite the widespread conviction that science faces an existential threat under Trump, the event struck an optimistic tone overall. (Except, perhaps, for the keynote reception, in which former Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chair Sir Robert Watson reminded the audience that the Paris climate agreement is “totally and utterly inadequate,” and that really, human civilization is probably screwed.) One of ideas reiterated over and over by candidates and organizers alike was the unique skill set a scientist brings to the political table, whether she’s analyzing a dataset to understand demographic trends or using that famed objective reasoning to reach an evidence-based policy decision.
“One of the first things I say to people is that scientists must solve problems by knowing all of the information that’s possibly relevant,” Elaine DiMasi, a physicist at Brook Haven National Laboratory on Long Island who is considering a run for New York’s 1st district, told Gizmodo. “We will fail in our mission if we make an ideological decision to throw away half of what we know.”
Kathryn Allen, a physician running for Jason Chaffetz’s recently-opened House seat in Utah’s 3rd District, voiced a similar sentiment. “I think that people of science can help guide us back to a discussion of how to solve problems based on actual data instead of ideology,” she said. “I want to bring science back into the picture. I want reality to be fact-based instead of speculative.”
As an example of how technical skills can be brought to bear on policy, Stoddard shared a series of heat maps he had produced depicting tax yields on different parcels of land throughout South Miami—where revenue is generated, and where it goes. “As a zoologist, I know how important a good visualization is,” he said, noting the maps can be used to pinpoint exactly where to build, say, a transit station, and what to zone around it to maximize the city’s income while keeping residents happy. “This has been extraordinarily useful to the city.”
Dennis Dinge, an astrophysics PhD who is considering a run for New Mexico’s 1st district, also hopes to apply problem-solving skills to more down-to-Earth issues, like job growth. He’s a progressive who, like Bernie Sanders, thinks the cost of a college education is prohibitively high. But instead campaigning on the platform that college should be free for all, Dinge wants states to look at the data on what types of skilled workers are most needed where, and make specific majors tuition-free accordingly. A person unable to afford full-time tuition, or unable to go to college for free and miss out on years worth of income, might choose to get an education if a job was guaranteed at the end of the road.
Dinge admits that such a system would be an experiment. “That’s what scientists do,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what politicians are doing.”
There are plenty of reasons we don’t have more scientists occupying political office already—despite all the eager candidates who showed up for 314 Action’s training event, there remains just one science PhD in Congress. Some scientists aren’t comfortable in the public spotlight; others are simply too engrossed in their research to entertain a career switch. Some are concerned about diluting their credibility as scientists by jumping into the political fray.
But for many, the barrier is a simple lack of familiarity with how to run a campaign that requires tight messaging, intense fundraising, and thousands of eager volunteers, which is where organizations like 314 Action hope to make a difference. Naughton has been floored by the response she’s seen from the scientific community since Trump’s election—so far, roughly 5,000 scientists have reached out to 314 Action about launching a political campaign.
“The attacks on science didn’t start with Trump,” she said. “But it has been a catalyst for a lot of folks.”
Aside from holding training workshops, 314 Action is now offering direct assistance to scientists running for congressional seats. Notably, while public training sessions are open to folks of all political affiliations, the organization is only financially supporting Democratic candidates—at least for now.
“The obvious reason is if you look at the two party’s platforms, where the Republican party is on climate change is just unacceptable,” she said.
It’s possible this party preference will be loosened as the organization pivots toward more state and local elections, where it is often said that partisan gridlock is less intense. In Mazen’s view, “local and state level is where folks will make the most impact. That’s where we’ve seen success,” he said. Stoddard noted that one of his closest allies on tackling the impacts of climate change—which is already a huge issue for South Florida—has been the former Republican mayor of Coral Gables, Jim Cason.
But overall, party affiliation came up surprisingly little among the candidates I spoke with yesterday. Most of the scientists just wanted to talk about how they couldn’t wait to solve new problems. “Do experiments,” Stoddard urged a room full of bright-eyed candidates. “Use data. Remember that you’re a teacher already.”
Those words of encouragement were tempered by a warning from Sir Watson: “You have to be able to tell powerful individuals they are wrong.”