Why Do We Need More Scientists In Congress?

Why Do We Need More Scientists In Congress?

By:  Science Friday

"This year’s midterm elections have seen an upswing in the number of scientists running for office. There are approximately 60 candidates with STEM backgrounds in the races for federal offices, and 200 for state positions, according to 314 Action, an advocacy organization that helps scientists run for office. But why would a scientist want to leave the lab for the Hill?

According to volcanologist and Congressional candidate Jess Phoenix, “Science by definition is political because the biggest funder of scientific research in our country is the government.”

And Aruna Miller, who is a Maryland State Delegate for District 15 and a former civil engineer for the Department of Transportation, says that “Your job as an engineer isn’t only your profession. It is to be a citizen of your country… You have to be engaged in our community.”

Phoenix and Miller chat with Ira about what unique perspective scientists can bring to the political process. Learn more about them below. 

 

Jess Phoenix (D)
California’s 25th Congressional District

Why is it important for scientists to run for office?
Phoenix: “I think the common misconception is that science isn’t political. But actually, science by definition is political because the biggest funder of scientific research in our country is the government. And when a government makes funding decisions, they are stating politically what their views on science are.

“Scientists can and did engage politically throughout our country’s history, and especially if you look at people like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, these are scientists and inventors. But then when Robert Oppenheimer spoke out about the dangers of nuclear technology, he was persecuted for that. Congress stripped him of his security clearance and he wasn’t able to do his work. I think that started our modern conception of scientists not being engaged politically because I think we were all terrified and wanting to keep our grant funding. Now, it’s absolutely essential that we have scientists engaged in the public arena, whether that’s shaping public policy or running for elected office, or just speaking out and communicating the value of our work.

“Every person depends on science, whether it’s the programming of traffic lights, or whether it’s the dispatch system that 911 uses to get people to your house when you have an emergency. So, I think that it’s pretty easy to make the case that scientists have a role to play in any sort of aspect of public policy.”

 

Aruna Miller (D)
Maryland’s 6th Congressional District

Why is it important for scientists to run for office?
Miller: “[People with STEM backgrounds] are taught to think a certain way—very analytically with evidence-based data. And this is how our decision-making process unfolds. After we look at all the data, we weigh it in, and say ‘Ok, this may be the best logical way to move forward.’ I think that’s a unique perspective that we bring to the table.

“And when policy is being presented, you have many special interest groups surrounding you. They have a single focus. One may be just the environment, somebody else may be just public school education, somebody else may be only healthcare—whatever the issue is, they’re single focus. You as a legislator have to have a more comprehensive view of what that policy is going to do to the general community at large, not just specific special interest groups. And I think that’s where being an engineer—the training that I’ve had—has really helped me to come up with better policy. I think it’s that logical, analytical thought process that leads to better policy.”

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