In early October, a United Nations report warned that humanity has just 12 years to mitigate climate change and save the planet. When, a few days later, “60 Minutes” reporter Lesley Stahl asked President Trump about his position on climate change and the scientists who describe the situation as “worse than ever,” he replied, “You’d have to show me the scientists, because they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.”
Do they ever.
Since 2017, the White House and a Republican-controlled legislative wing have taken shears to environmental protections, reduced the size of national parks, and attempted to militarize space. Such changes have inspired a new generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professionals to run for office, and they’re gunning for the midterms.
“There are more talk radio show hosts in Congress than there are chemists or physicists,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action. “I think part of what running as a scientist brings is an outsider status, but one that actually has credibility in a lot of issues that are important to Americans.”
314 Action describes itself as the pro-science resistance, and it is focused on “aggressively advocating for a pro-science agenda in Washington, D.C., and in local and state legislatures,” according to its website. It’s named for the first three numbers of pi. Since the group put out a call in January 2017 for scientists to run for office, 314 Action has heard from 7,000 scientists seeking help for their campaigns. The group has trained 1,400 of them, and also funds campaigns and puts together financial and communications strategies for inexperienced candidates.
Whether it’s health care, cybersecurity, nuclear weapons policy, or just evidence-based facts, Naughton thinks scientists are equipped to turn D.C. around.
That’s what Democratic candidate Sean Casten, a biochemist running for Illinois’ 6th Congressional District, thinks too. After all, he has a long history of pushing back against the powers that be.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying to do something about climate change,” Casten said. After graduating with a master’s degree in biochemical engineering, Casten started a long career in clean energy. In 2007 he founded Recycled Energy Development (RED), a company with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the recovery of otherwise wasted energy.
After he sold RED in September 2016, Casten wasn’t sure what he would do next. Then Trump happened.
“Everything is at risk,” he said. “The things we need to change [policy-wise] are not moving nearly quickly enough, and my representative [Republican Peter Roskam] is horrible,” Casten said. “He’d deny gravity if the Republican party told him to.”
Casten thinks policies that shift the U.S. away from its greenhouse gas–producing habits make economic sense in the long run, and he’s running on this platform. He thinks his vision appeals to voters who want someone to make decisions based on evidence, rather than party lines. When he mentions “fact-based decision making” in his speeches, it often receives loud applause, which he admits he finds jarring. “Coming out of a politician? That’s an applause line,” he said. “I think people are really yearning for people who will make decisions based on information and believe in such a thing as objective truth.”
“There are more talk radio show hosts in Congress than there are chemists or physicists.”
A little less than 1,000 miles away in South Carolina, Joe Cunningham, the Democratic nominee for the state’s 1st District, is neck and neck with his opponent, Katie Arrington, in a traditionally Republican area most recently held by retiring representative Mark Sanford.
This is the first time Cunningham is running for office, and he says partisan politics spurred him to seek election. He is using the local area-inspired slogan “low country over party.”
With his background in ocean engineering, Cunningham hopes to convince voters who live near the South Carolina coast that Trump’s lifting of the offshore drilling ban is an urgent problem. “Offshore drilling has become a flashpoint issue here,” Cunningham said. He has personally worked on the water, so he understands “things can go wrong out there, and even a small leak can just destroy our environment and ruin our economy down here.”
“That’s not a chance we can take,” he added. “And that’s the reason we have bipartisan support in our campaign.”
Cunningham likes to tell prospective voters that Trump isn’t on the ballot, but the environment is. “The things that make us special in the low country are on the ballot,” he said. “People realize that.”
Cunningham hopes to offer an alternative to the economic benefits promised by offshore drilling: solar panel manufacturing. “When I talk to manufacturers and installers of solar panels, they just want consistent access to the marketplace,” he said. “That means not disrupting their forecasting by imposing tariffs on aluminum or steel.”
The Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 6th District, Chrissy Houlahan, also wants to reinvent the way some things are done in her state. Houlahan is a military veteran and a former high school teacher, and holds a master’s in technology and policy from MIT. She wants to bring that expertise to Congress.
“As we evolve as an economy, I think we’re increasingly thinking about things that are technical in nature, like cybersecurity and biosecurity,” she said. Houlahan thinks there aren’t enough people at the table who have background and experience in those areas.
Houlahan is using her position as an entrepreneur to advocate for doing business entirely differently. As a founding chief operating officer of non-profit organization B Lab, she helped design the framework around benefit corporations. These emerging types of enterprises are legally required to consider the different impacts their businesses are making beyond profits. Companies can focus on environmental effects or improving labor conditions, for example. The concept has been passed by 37 states across the U.S., and she hopes to bring that mentality to Washington.
STEM professionals running for office in the midterms say they aren’t just worried about the science initiatives the U.S. is tearing down, but also what the administration is promoting in its place.
Most recently, a leaked memo revealed that the U.S. government is considering defining gender as a “based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” citing science as its reasoning.
Science advocates argue that the solution to this is straightforward: vote.
“You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is,” Houlahan said. “And show up to the polls.”