On Aug. 29, the political action committee (PAC) 80-20 announced its endorsement of democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Making that announcement at the Universal City Hilton in California was not a usual political activist, but rather former University of California (UC) at Berkeley chancellor and current UC-wide University Professor and UC-Berkeley NEC Professor of Engineering Chang-Lin Tien. Tien was chairman of the PAC's endorsement committee. His committee vice chair was molecular biologist Kenneth Fong, founder and president of Clontech Laboratories Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif.

As a PAC, 80-20 exists almost entirely online and represents Asian Americans. "We have more than 350,000 E-mail members," Tien tells The Scientist. "We are probably one of the largest political action groups [that] entirely work on E-mail and the Web." (The organization has two full-time employees in California.)

What motivates a scientist to become visible in the political arena? Part...

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