Will the Pandemic Propel STEM Experts to Political Power?

The White House rising out of a Petri dish.

(Original illustration by Ray Domzalski Jr)

If your car won't run, you head to a mechanic. If your faucet leaks, you contact a plumber. But what do you do if your politics are broken? You call a… lawyer.

"Scientists have been more engaged with politics over the past three years amid a consistent sidelining of science and expertise, and now the pandemic has crystalized things even more."

That's been the American way since the beginning. Thousands of members of the House and Senate have been attorneys, along with nearly two dozen U.S. presidents from John Adams to Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama. But a band of STEM professionals is changing the equation. They're hoping anger over the coronavirus pandemic will turn their expertise into a political superpower that propels more of them into office.

"This could be a turning point, part of an acceleration of something that's already happening," said Nancy Goroff, a New York chemistry professor who's running for a House seat in Long Island and will apparently be the first female scientist with a Ph.D. in Congress. "Scientists have been more engaged with politics over the past three years amid a consistent sidelining of science and expertise, and now the pandemic has crystalized things even more."

Professionals in the science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields don't have an easy task, however. To succeed, they must find ways to engage with voters instead of their usual target audiences — colleagues, patients and students. And they'll need to beat back a long-standing political tradition that has made federal and state politics a domain of attorneys and businesspeople, not nurses and biologists.

In the 2017-2018 Congress, more members of Congress said they'd worked as radio talk show hosts (seven) and as car dealership owners (six) than scientists (three — a physicist, a microbiologist, and a chemist), according to a 2018 report from the Congressional Research Service. There were more bankers (18) than physicians (14), more management consultants (18) than engineers (11), and more former judges (15) than dentists (4), nurses (2), veterinarians (3), pharmacists (1) and psychologists (3) combined.

In 2018, a "STEM wave" brought nine members with STEM backgrounds into office. But those with initials like PhD, MD and RN after their names are still far outnumbered by Esq. and MBA types.

Why the gap? Astrophysicist Rush Holt Jr., who served from 1999-2015 as a House representative from New Jersey, thinks he knows. "I have this very strong belief, based on 16 years in Congress and a long, intense public life, that the problem is not with science or the scientists," said. "It has to do with the fact that the public just doesn't pay attention to science. It never occurs to them that they have any role in the matter."

But Holt, former chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, believes change is on the way. "It's likely that the pandemic will affect people's attitudes," former congressman Holt said, "and lead them to think that they need more scientific thinking in policy-making and legislating." Holt's father was a U.S. senator from West Virginia, so he grew up with a political education. But how can scientists and medical professionals succeed if they have no background in the art of wooing voters?

That's where an organization called 314 Action comes in. Named after the first three digits of pi, 314 Action declares itself to be the "pro-science resistance" and says it's trained more than 1,400 scientists to run for public office.

In 2018, 9 out of 13 House and Senate candidates endorsed by the group won their races. In 2020, 314 Action is endorsing 12 candidates for the House (including an engineer), four for the Senate (including an astronaut) and one for governor (a mathematician in Kansas). It expects to spend $10 million-$20 million to support campaigns this year.

"Physicians, scientists and engineers are problem-solvers," said Shaughnessy Naughton, a Pennsylvania chemist who founded 314 Action after an unsuccessful bid for Congress. "They're willing to dive into issues, and their skills would benefit policy decisions that extend way beyond their scientific fields of expertise."

Like many political organizations, 314 Action focuses on teaching potential candidate how to make it in politics, aiming to help them drop habits that fail to bridge the gap between scientists and civilians. "Their first impulse is not to tell a story," public speaking coach Chris Jahnke told the public radio show "Marketplace" in 2018. "They would rather start with a stat." In a training session, Jahnke aimed to teach them to do both effectively.

"It just comes down to being able to speak about general principles in regular English, and to always have the science intertwined with basic human values," said Rep. Kim Schrier, a Washington state pediatrician who won election to Congress in 2018.

She believes her experience on the job has helped her make connections with voters. In a chat with parents about vaccines for their child, for example, she knows not to directly jump into an arcane discussion of case-control studies.

The best alternative, she said, is to "talk about how hard it is to be a parent making these decisions, feeling scared and worried. Then say that you've looked at the data and the research, and point out that pediatricians would never do anything to hurt children because we want to do everything that is good for them. When you speak heart to heart, it gets across the message and the credibility of medicine and science."

The pandemic "will hopefully awaken people and trigger a change that puts science, medicine and public health on a pedestal where science is revered and not dismissed as elitist."

Communication skills will be especially important if the pandemic spurs more Americans to focus on politics and the records of incumbents in regard to matters like public health and climate change. Thousands of candidates will have to address the nation's coronavirus response, and a survey commissioned by 314 Action suggests that voters may be receptive to those with STEM backgrounds. The poll, of 1,002 likely voters in early April 2020, found that 41%-46% of those surveyed said they'd be "much more favorable" toward candidates who were doctors, nurses, scientists and public health professionals. Those numbers were the highest in the survey compared to just 9% for lawyers.

The pandemic "will hopefully awaken people and trigger a change that puts science, medicine and public health on a pedestal where science is revered and not dismissed as elitist," Dr. Schrier said. "It will come from a recognition that what's going to get us out of this bind are scientists, vaccine development and the hard work of the people in public health on the ground."

[This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga is former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a non-profit association of freelance writers and non-fiction authors. He has been a freelance writer since 1999 and specializes in health/medicine, politics, books, and the odd and unusual. You can follow him at @rdotinga.
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On left, people excitedly line up for Salk's polio vaccine in 1957; on right, Joe Biden gets one of the COVID vaccines on December 21, 2020.

Wikimedia Commons and Biden's Twitter

On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.

The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.

Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.