Special report
Amid Pandemic, Scientists Lean on Credentials in Political Races
Special report
Amid Pandemic, Scientists Lean on Credentials in Political Races

Amid Pandemic, Scientists Lean on Credentials in Political Races

Numerous candidates with STEM backgrounds are running for federal seats, and record numbers are competing in local races across the country.

Katarina Zimmer
Katarina Zimmer
Oct 9, 2020

ABOVE: DR. CAMERON WEBB FOR CONGRESS

Although Cameron Webb decided to run for political office long before the pandemic started, his campaign appears to be made for times like these. The 37-year-old physician announced his bid to represent Virginia’s 5th congressional district last August, and he says the main thing on his mind then was repairing the country’s broken healthcare system. While seeing patients with diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease as an internist at the University of Virginia’s Department of Medicine, he witnessed the structural problems that contributed to his patients’ conditions, factors such as food insecurity, income inequality, and poor access to healthcare.

“I see those systems, those policies, failing people and manifesting in poor health outcomes, and that makes me want to address the policies rather than just keep treating sick patients,” Webb tells The Scientist. He adds that he was also motivated by mounting threats to the Affordable Care Act by President Donald Trump’s administration. Webb had helped work on the implementation of Obamacare as a White House Fellow under President Barack Obama. (He was also a Fellow under Trump.)

In June of this year, amid a raging pandemic and nationwide protests over racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police, Webb won the Democratic nomination after receiving two-thirds of the vote in a crowded primary. While he continues to treat COVID-19 patients in the clinic, Webb is now running in a close race against Republican nominee Bob Good to win over the large district, which voted for Trump in 2016 with 58 percent of the votes, after twice voting for Obama. Good had a long career in finance before taking a position as an athletic director at the evangelical Christian Liberty University, a position he left to pursue politics. If Webb wins on November 3, he’ll become the first Black physician in Congress.

The attacks on science didn’t start with the Trump administration, but they turned what felt like an attack on science to an all-out war on reality.

—Shaughnessy Naughton, 314 Action

More than 30 candidates with science-related backgrounds—engineers, chemists, physicians, and astronauts—have landed on the ballot for House and Senate races, of which most are seeking reelection for seats they already hold. And an all-time high of more than 170 candidates are running in state and local races across the country. Most Democrats are supported by 314 Action, a nonprofit political action committee created in 2016 to boost the representation of fact- and science-driven decision-makers in Washington and beyond. 314 Action does not endorse Republican candidates for congressional races due to what the organization perceives as a conflict between the party’s policy positions and the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change and other issues, although Republican candidates are able to take part in 314 Action’s campaign preparation training.

Shaughnessy Naughton, the founder and president of the organization, says she believes that candidates’ scientific backgrounds give them an advantage this year in particular, as the pandemic has underscored the importance of following scientific principles as well as the potential consequences of ignoring expertise.

Many doctors “got into the race because of the healthcare issues, but then perhaps have earned themselves a little bit more focus and credibility because of everything that’s happened since,” notes Jacob Rubashkin, a reporter and analyst at Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of US elections. That said, “it’s hard to say what will or will not sway voters.”

Track the candidates with STEM backgrounds running for federal seats

While the overall numbers of scientists in the House and Senate remain small, 2018 saw an influx of lawmakers with STEM backgrounds. Of 20 candidates who ran for House seats that year—most of them Democrats supported by 314 Action—around half won their races. Two out of three Senate candidates won, according to a list compiled by The Scientist. Although it’s unclear if they succeeded because of their science backgrounds, Rubashkin notes, many of them did leverage their experiences to their advantage. For instance, Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D-IL), who is now representing Illinois’s 14th district, “was able to parlay her credibility as a nurse, as a public health expert, into trust from voters at a time when healthcare was the number one thing on their minds . . . and because of that, she was able to turn this Republican district blue,” Rubashkin says.

In Congress, such representatives have contributed to diversifying a political body that is largely dominated by lawyers and introduced legislation tackling medicine and environmental issues, although many of those bills have stalled in the Senate, The Scientist reported last year.

This year, 314 Action has endorsed 19 House candidates—14 of them, including Underwood, are running for reelection—and five who are targeting Senate seats, four of whom are newcomers. Among them is retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who aims to fill in the remainder of the term for the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Academic researchers are also on the ballot, including the former chair of Stony Brook University’s chemistry department, Nancy Goroff, who is challenging Republican incumbent Lee Zeldin (R-NY), a military veteran and lawyer, in a close race for a seat representing New York’s 1st Congressional district. Her campaign emphasizes her reliance on facts and data and stresses the importance of taking a fact-based approach in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Her campaign even features pictures of her in a lab coat examining brightly colored fluids. If she’s successful she’d become the first woman with a science PhD in Congress.

Naughton says that earlier in the year, candidates with STEM backgrounds competing for federal seats fared better in their primaries than in 2018. Naughton attributes this success largely to the pandemic, which has placed those with science backgrounds as assets and trusted voices in their communities, she says.

Rubashkin notes that Goroff’s campaign strategy of leaning on her identity as a scientist to appeal to voters is “a big part of why she won her contested primary, [albeit] very narrowly.” Webb, who also has a law degree, has raised his profile by the strength of his medical background, Rubashkin adds. But Webb’s success was also thanks to support from African American voters, who make up one-fifth of the district’s population. “I think that’s going to be a key ingredient for November,” Webb told the Associated Press after his primary victory in June.

Continued momentum from 2018, now possibly fueled by the pandemic

Although the number of candidates in the running for federal seats hasn’t changed much since 2018, there’s been a substantial increase in candidates with STEM backgrounds running for state legislative positions. Across the country, 314 Action counts 174, a more than sevenfold increase from the number of candidates the organization endorsed in 2018.

Naughton says the organization has also seen a surge in funding since the midterms: for that election cycle, the organization raised some $5.2 million to support its candidates, a figure that has grown to some $18 million for this year’s elections. Naughton says she sees this uptick in support for 314 Action as a reflection of a desire to counter an increasingly widespread antiscience sentiment in US politics over the past few years. “The attacks on science didn’t start with the Trump administration, but they turned what felt like an attack on science to an all-out war on reality,” Naughton says.

If you think about everything that has happened over the past seven months, it’s kind of insane when you break it down into its component parts.

—Jacob Rubashkin, Inside Elections

“I think something has happened in our politics that makes people question facts,” Webb adds. Data are often misconstrued to suit particular narratives not only when it comes to science-based issues such as climate change, but also on the state of the economy, he says. “I think the more we have credible and authentic leadership on issues, the more people are inclined to accept those facts as the foundation of a policy intervention.”

In an April online poll commissioned by 314 Action surveying 1,002 likely voters from across the country, 61 percent of respondents indicated that they think that US politicians lack the experience necessary to handle the pandemic. Furthermore, 88 percent agreed with the statement that Congress would benefit from more representatives with a science background. To Naughton, those results bode well for the success of candidates with STEM backgrounds on November 3. “I think that is what Americans are looking for in this election: someone who they can . . . base their conclusions and policies on the facts and evidence and to keep them safe.”

Webb says he thinks his experience in treating COVID-19 patients, while also meeting with business owners and seeing the economic toll, has given him a balanced perspective on the pandemic that he hopes will appeal to voters. “I have human faces and fears attached to my vision of what navigating this pandemic looks like,” he says, “and I think that that’s something that voters [want] to hear a really thoughtful approach [on].”

Rubashkin says he thinks it’s possible that the pandemic could influence the outcomes of the ongoing congressional races. But while COVID-19 is a key concern in voter’s minds, so are a host of other issues, and the country has become increasingly polarized over many of them. “If you think about everything that has happened over the past seven months, it’s kind of insane when you break it down into its component parts. Between the pandemic, the conversation over racial justice, unrest in the streets, impeachment, Supreme Court, the economy—there are a whole bunch of ingredients that are coming together here.”

Inside Elections projects that Democrats are likely to retain their majority in the House and may expand representation. For the Senate, it predicts a Democrat net gain of three to five seats, which would grant the party narrow control of the chamber. But with regard to individual races playing out in the states, “each of them with their own unique set of issues,” Rubashkin says—“it’s hard to know until votes are cast.”