Like many other scientists across the country, the results of the 2016 election were a wake-up call for Jasmine Clark, a microbiology lecturer at Atlanta’s Emory University. She first started with organizing a March for Science event in Atlanta, but she wanted to do more. When she found that her state representative up for election was running uncontested, she decided to run for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.
“In the democratic caucus in Georgia, there is no scientist at all,” Clark says. Having a research background will help her craft evidence-based policies to address issues that aren’t necessarily science-related, she says. “I think we need someone who can legislate outside of emotion and partisanship.”
In May, she won the election in the Democratic primary for her district, and will be up against incumbent Clay Cox (R) in the general election, a district in which Hillary Clinton edged out Donald Trump in 2016 by 0.5 percent.
Clark’s desire to apply her scientific background to state politics is echoed by a number of candidates across the country this year. The nonprofit 314 Action, which is working to bring more scientists into public office, estimates that there were around 250 candidates nationwide running for public office in their states at the start of 2018.
“We saw a huge spike in folks reaching out to us,” says Shaughnessy Naughton, who founded 314 Action. “In 2017, we heard from over 7,500 scientists that were interested in running for office at some level.”
The group has endorsed around 70 candidates for state office with science backgrounds, including pediatricians, veterinarians, conservation biologists, a geologist, an environmental engineer, and an astrophysicist.
Among them is Edie Hardcastle, a plant biologist at the University of Southern Indiana who advanced in her Democratic primary in May and is now seeking election to the Indiana State Senate to represent District 49. “One of the main reasons I decided to run is that I don’t feel we’re using facts to make decisions in government anymore,” she tells The Scientist.
But her transition to politics did not come without challenges, Hardcastle notes. “When you are relating to voters, they don’t necessarily want to know facts and figures about the issues you’re talking about,” she says. It’s a different style of communication, “and you’re telling it with a personal story instead of necessarily bombarding people with facts.”
Another challenge is what to do about her day job. If she wins, Hardcastle has made a deal with Emory to teach one of her classes online while the state legislature is in session.
All of the candidates in state races that 314 has endorsed are Democrats. In addition to standard party policies, these candidates often have in common a belief that their evidence-based decision-making skills and ability to interpret data will translate into well-informed lawmaking. Many of them explicitly advertize their “facts-based approach to policymaking” as distinct from their opponents.
For instance, Gabby Salinas, a research assistant at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy, is campaigning for a Tennessee Senate seat, with a competitive primary already behind her. A three-time cancer survivor, her core concern is healthcare. “When it comes to legislation around healthcare, around environment, . . . I think scientists are better positioned to understand the data that’s presented . . . much more than a lawyer or a businessperson would be.”
Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), wonders how much rational decision making scientists will actually do in practice. Like any other politician, scientists elected to office will have to consider what their constituents want and take party values into consideration. “I don’t see any reason for scientists to be inherently better or worse than the average decision maker,” she says. “But I think it’s exciting that we can find out how well scientists manage those different interests when they’re in office.”
Outside of running for office, there are other ways for scientists to become politically engaged. Goldman has seen a notable uptick in interest among scientists willing to partake in several projects at UCS, such as the “Science for Public Good” initiative, which offers grants to scientists undertaking outreach and science communication projects. Recently, UCS started a campaign called Science Rising, which aims to get scientists and science supporters out to the polls for midterms. “We’ve seen a ton of interest there, and scientists just being more engaged—talking to elected officials, holding events, doing voter education campaigns—there’s really been a tremendous level of engagement of scientists in politics that I’ve never seen before.”
Correction (October 24): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jasmine Clark is a professor at Emory University, where she is in fact a lecturer. The Scientist regrets the error.