Imagine Congress Filled with Scientists Instead of Lawyers

Why Science Matters

Science, politics
Photo credit:  Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Da Vinci's Anatomical Man (Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia) and US Capitol Rotunda (Airman Magazine / Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0).

The March for Science, scheduled to take place this Saturday, could be the beginning of a whole new class of politicians. In the view of many, politics has always been the purview of too many lawyers and too many businessmen. Now Trump’s war on science has brought out the scientific community in a way that may change our political landscape.

Shaughnessy Naughton is a chemist, cancer researcher, and the founder of 314 Action. In her conversation with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman, she talks about her efforts to recruit scientists to run for office.

Who better to counter the epidemic of fake news and alternative facts than data-driven scientists, using proven scientific methods to arrive at sound conclusions?

Naughton, herself a former congressional candidate, explains that all of a sudden scientists are realizing that they cannot just sit on the sidelines, or in their labs or ivory towers. She argues that running for office, both locally and nationally, may be required to keep science a vital part of our democracy.

314 Action, the organizer of this march, is a non-profit that has set as its mission to recruit and train scientists to run for public office.

Will all of this further politicize science? Will political action hurt the credibility of science?  Listen to this week’s podcast and decide for yourself.


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Full Text Transcript:

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.

 

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Historically, no matter how deep our political divide, there’ve always been some things we could agree on. Certainly if not policy, then at least a basic set of facts about science, or math, or medicine; empirical data that explains the world we live in, and debate it. But today, even that is threatened in ways not seen since some argued that the earth was flat. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said to one of his colleagues, that he was entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. That doesn’t seem to be true anymore, so what’s a scientist to do when their basic set of proven assumptions are attacked, challenged, or ignored in the face of overwhelming evidence? Be it climate change, vaccines, or data about our health, the answer may be running for office as the only alternative. We’re going to talk about that today with my guest, Shaughnessy Naughton. She is a chemist and cancer researcher, and the founder of the nationally recognized pro-science political action group, 3-1-4 Action. She is one of the organizers of this weekend’s upcoming March for Science in Washington that will assemble scientists from around the country to rally against the president’s war on science. It is my pleasure to welcome Shaughnessy Naughton to the program. Shaughnessy, thanks so much for joining us.

Shaughnessy Naughton: Yeah, thank you.

Jeff: First of all, tell us a little bit about 3 1 4 Action. What is it, and how did it come to be?

Shaughnessy: Well, I am as you said a chemist by training. I ran for US Congress myself, and one of the observations I had, there’s a real lack of people with scientific and technical background in Congress, but really at all levels of government. And I founded 314 Action to try to help increase those numbers.  And one of my other observations was, it can be very hard to break into politics when you don’t come from a traditional political background. And so with 314, one of the things is, to unite the scientific community and encourage more members to run and get elected to office.

Jeff: Is there danger inherent in this, that by getting more scientists involved in the political process, that it will further cause science to be polarized by politics and have exactly the opposite effect that you would like it to have?

Shaughnessy: Well, what I think is really dangerous is when we have a president that denies the importance of acting on climate change, and has cabinet picks that are openly hostile to their… to the departments that they’re set to run. I think it’s dangerous that we have politicians on the House Science Committee that are openly hostile to the scientific consensus. And I think the way we push back at that is to claim a seat at the table and get elected, because what we’re doing isn’t working.

Jeff: What does it mean when we have people that even are doctors inside the administration, people like Tom Price and Ben Carson, who are guilty of the same denials about some obvious facts of science? What do you make of that?

Shaughnessy: I guess that shows the democratization of ignorance. I’m not quite sure.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the nature of scientists in general, and the degree to which, I think, some people might assume that kind of the scientific temperament is antithetical for the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

Shaughnessy: Well, it is a rough-and-tumble world, and it is not for the thin-skinned. I do think scientists bring a unique and valuable skill set to governing and policymaking. One of the things that’s instilled in scientific training is a collaborative approach, and ability to interpret data and not be intimidated by it, as well as a fact-based approach to decision-making, which I think we could use a lot more of in government.

Jeff: Do you see this taking place, and scientists getting involved in politics, through the traditional party system, through the traditional party structure?

SHAUGHNESSY: Um, we are working with the national organization contributing them to our candidate. You know, a lot of the people that we have been contacted by… we’ve had over 5000 scientists this year put up their hands to say they are ready to run for public office. A lot of them have not operated within the party structure, and when you haven’t, it can be a very confusing task to navigate. And that’s part of what we’re trying to help with, you know, to make those connections, to educate them on the party structure that people might not otherwise know about.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the issues that you think are of paramount importance to scientists, whatever their specialty, whatever their area of expertise, to scientists that might get involved in the political process.

SHAUGHNESSY: Well, I think first and foremost that seeing policy based on sound science, and that isn’t always the case. It can be very frustrating to a lot of folks. I think this proposed budget by the Trump administration, the cuts to EPA, as well as the draconian cuts to the National Institute of Health budget; I have a lot of people terribly concerned. And when we’re talking about climate change, and the importance of acting on that, and the fact that it’s essentially being ignored by the administration, has people really concerned.

Jeff: Do you think about, or is there discussion, about the fact that by the time something like this could really be effective to be up and running, have some people elected, engage in the kind of training that you were talking about before, that the urgency of the need may pass at some point?

SHAUGHNESSY: Well, you know, when we’re talking about issues like climate change, that really requires… of course we do need to be acting immediately, but it requires long-term thinking. You know, its long-term thinking about our energy policy, as well as our environmental policy and national security. So, I think that there is always going to be a role for scientists being involved in electoral politics, and I think increasingly that scientists are recognizing that they need to go beyond just signing letters and signing petitions, and actually step up and get involved whether that is run for office themselves, or organize their community, or even just making science more visible and applicable in their communities. There is growing consensus that it is an important endeavor.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the job of raising money and how that might be approached by those in the scientific community who want to run for office.

SHAUGHNESSY: Sure, you know, we can all not be pleased with the role of money in politics, but we are not going to achieve that from outside of the system. And so currently, you know, this is the system we have to work within. And part of it to some degree makes sense. You can have the best candidate in the world, but if they don’t have the resources to communicate their message, people won’t know who they are and therefore won’t vote for them. So part of what we do when we’re working with new candidates is educate them on how, you know, how to put together a finance plan, and that starts with reaching out to friends and family, and colleagues, and fellow alum, to ask them for their support. But eventually you do need to be able to expand beyond those personal networks unless you’re able to write the check yourself. And that’s part of what we’ll be helping with 314 Action, is introducing these candidates to our greater network and asking them to support them.

Jeff: As we’re speaking right now, you’re on your way to Washington for the march this weekend. Tell us a little bit about that.

SHAUGHNESSY: Sure, well, we are very excited about the celebration of science, you know, that’s being held at the march. But prior to that, tomorrow we are holding a candidate training in Washington, DC, and this is to show people with scientific and technical backgrounds how to put together a campaign, and put together a communications team and finance plan, and organize their volunteers and get out the vote network. So, we think that is really important because we look at the march as a first step, but we need to harness that energy and take it back to our local communities, and put it to good use. And whether that’s run for office, or talking to your legislators and holding them accountable, making sure that they are supporting policies based on sound science, or organizing your local community. But what we think is really important, really important message that needs to be taken from the march that this is the start, not just a one-off event.

Jeff: What kind of feedback have you gotten from elected leaders to the idea of suddenly the pool getting larger with a whole new group of people that suddenly want to get into the game?

SHAUGHNESSY: They’ve been quite supportive, but I think one of the take-home messages from the 2016 election is that people voted for change, and what could embody that more than a freshman class full of scientists and engineers, real problem solvers.

Jeff: Is there a concern that by scientists that are doing, in many cases, very important work and research, that taking themselves away from that and getting involved in politics is detrimental to science?

SHAUGHNESSY: Well, you know, everybody has to make their own personal decisions on what career path they want to make. But I think there are multiple ways to make a contribution, and most people who go into the sciences have a career in research. That’s a strong motivation for them, is that, you know, “What good are they going to be able to do for society through their work?” And I think we can also do a lot of good by ensuring that we have a robust settling investment in science and research. One way for the next generation, one way to ensure that, is to get more people with the background elected to office.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about the reaction that you got initially from scientists when this was put out there, and how have they responded to the possibility of doing this?

SHAUGHNESSY: We’ve had a tremendous response. Since the beginning of the year we have had over 80 university chapters of 314 Action established. We now have over 35 states with state coordinators working to organize on a more local level. As well as I said, 5000 candidates who have reached up and said that they’re willing to take on this run for public office. So I think, you know, the attack on science didn’t start with the Trump administration, but they have been emboldened by them. And I think that has motivated scientists to go beyond the lab and actually get involved.

Jeff: And tell us where 314 Action as a name comes from.

SHAUGHNESSY: 3 1 4 are the first three numbers

of Pi, which is used throughout math and science.

Jeff: And of course we all know that from March 14, 3/14, which we all sort of celebrate, Pi Day.

SHAUGHNESSY: Correct.

Jeff: Tell us a little bit about what you expect, how many people you expect, at this march this weekend. And what you think the immediate accomplishment of it will be?

SHAUGHNESSY: Well, I don’t think we have hard numbers for the individual marches. But what I find very encouraging is that there are over 500 marches being held across the country, or across the world actually. Still I think that is making a steep…, and as you know, as scientists, and friends of science, that we hold this as a priority, and that we do expect our elected leaders to base policy on sound science. And so we hope that this is a start of a movement and that people take that energy and that excitement and go home and stay involved. You know, people don’t always understand the importance of calling their legislators and registering their opinions with them. Even the most hostile to science elected leader knows how to count. And they do count the calls that come into their offices. And so we really encourage people to stay involved, and most importantly, to make sure that they vote. And that means voting every year, not just on the midterm and presidential years.

Jeff: Has there been support from the international scientific community to get behind whatever they can do to help here?

SHAUGHNESSY: Interestingly, we have had some outreach from scientists across the globe. Because we are primarily focused on American politics at this point, we haven’t gone too far down that road, but that is something we can envision in the future once we come up for a little air.

Jeff: Shaughnessy, I want to thank you so much for spending time with us today. And before I let you go, I want to play a little clip from Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, and one of the most effective scientific communicators we have today. He participated in a program recently about these issues. And I want to end our conversation by playing this clip.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: How did America rise up from a backwoods country to be one of the greatest nations that the world has ever known? We pioneered industries. All this required the greatest innovations in science and technology in the world. And so science is a fundamental part of the country that we are. But in this the 21st century when it comes time to make decisions about science, it seems to me people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not, what is reliable, what is not reliable, what should you believe, what should you not believe. and when you have people who don’t know much about science, standing in denial of it and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.

Jeff: Shaughnessy Naughton, I thank you so much for spending some time with us today.

SHAUGHNESSY: Well, thank you very much.

Jeff: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from lab coats (Esther Dyson / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0) and Capitol logo (US Government / Wikimedia).

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