Last month, Randy Wadkins prepared for the spring semester at the University of Mississippi by reviewing his notes for the advanced chemistry course he has taught for many years. Then the professor of biochemistry, who grew up near the university’s Oxford campus and received his Ph.D. there, forced himself to step outside his comfort zone: He flew to Washington, D.C., where he asked strangers for money.
Wadkins is running for U.S. Congress, and his fundraiser took place in a neighborhood restaurant just a few kilometers from where he would like to be working come January 2019. Wadkins warmed up his small but enthusiastic audience with a story about picking peas as a child every Saturday on his grandparents’ farm to supplement his family’s meager pantry. It reflects his “I’m just an ordinary person like you” message to Democrats in Mississippi’s first congressional district, who on 5 June will choose a standard bearer to oppose the Republican incumbent in November.
The candidate voiced his anger about the state of U.S. politics with the young professionals, who shared his distaste for the policies of President Donald Trump and the Republican majority in Congress. A dysfunctional and hyperpartisan House of Representatives, he told them, might work better if more of its 435 members were scientists like himself. Then came his pitch: “I’m here to help make that happen, and the first step is by taking your money.”
Wadkins, who studies biomolecular structures to better understand cancer and how to treat it, is part of what some commentators are calling a historic groundswell of candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). At the federal level, at least 60 science candidates are bidding for seats in Congress, according to 314 Action, a D.C.- based nonprofit advocacy group formed 2 years ago to encourage scientists to engage in politics. The candidates—mostly firsttimers running for House seats—include a physicist who spent 2 decades at a prominent national laboratory, a clinical oncologist at a top-rated cancer center, a former chemistry professor at a 4-year state college, a geologist trying to document every aspect of a tiny piece of the Mojave Desert, and a postdoctoral bioengineering fellow. Some 200 people with STEM backgrounds are also running for state legislative seats, 314 Action estimates, with a similar number vying for school board and other local- and county-level positions.
Almost all are Democrats energized by what they regard as a rising antiscience sentiment pervading Washington, D.C. “I’m afraid we’re entering a dark era, with science, reason, and education under attack,” Wadkins told his supporters. “And I think members with scientific training can help prevent that.”
But first, science candidates must win their races. Most face long odds. For starters, voters may be impressed by a candidate’s scientific credentials, but such background is rarely a decisive factor when they go to the polls. In addition, most of this year’s STEM candidates are political novices who are starting out far behind their opponents when it comes to knowing how to run a professional campaign.
The demographics of the district can also be a huge barrier. Even a well-funded and well-run campaign probably won’t be enough for a first-time Democratic candidate to win in a traditionally Republican district.
Initially, the biggest challenge for most science candidates is raising money. Those running for a House seat should expect to spend at least $4 million in the general election, experts say, and that figure could be much higher in urban areas with costly media markets. A primary race traditionally costs much less, although this year some candidates have already raised more than $1 million with their primaries still months away.
But politicos say the usual rules might not apply this year. Democratic leaders are hoping for a wave election, one in which they can flip enough Republican seats to gain control of the House and, if things go especially well, the Senate. And scientific expertise may be more important than usual, muses Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a widely read election tip sheet run by Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
“Voters are often looking for something that they don’t have now,” says Kondik, who is based in Washington, D.C. “And to the extent that the Trump administration is seen as anti-intellectual, a candidate with a scientific or medical background may seem like an attractive alternative.”
The first big test for this cohort of science candidates comes on 6 March, when Texas holds the nation’s first primary elections. Several candidates are running to become Democratic nominees in that Lone Star state’s House districts. Primaries in other states stretch into September, and then there are only 2 months before the nationwide general election on 6 November.
Wadkins likes his chances in his Mississippi primary, where to date only one other person has thrown their hat into the ring. (The filing deadline is 1 March.) But Wadkins knows that even if he wins his party’s nomination, he’ll face a steep climb in trying to unseat Representative Trent Kelly (R). Trump won the district by 33 points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, and Kelly beat his Democratic challenger by an even bigger margin.
I’m afraid we’re entering a dark era, with science, reason, and education under attack.
For the moment, however, Wadkins is focused on getting his message out: Kelly has been all too willing to fall in line behind Trump and Republican leaders, and voters need someone who will fight for their interests. Doing so takes money—a precious commodity in his district.
“I’m a Democrat running in one of the poorest districts in the poorest state in the nation,” he says. So, Wadkins has cast a wider net, with a fundraiser last fall in Silicon Valley—organized by a colleague who spent a year at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California—as well as the January event in the nation’s capital.
Wadkins is no stranger to Washington, D.C. In 2015, he took a sabbatical year to work as a congressional science fellow for Representative Steve Cohen (D–TN) on health care issues. (The program is managed by AAAS, which publishes Science.)
Although there were no high rollers in the crowd, which included several other former fellows, Wadkins was pleased to net $3000. That amount, added to the $55,000 he’d raised by that point, has been enough to fuel a campaign that competes for attention with his academic duties. But it is an order of magnitude less than many other candidates around the country have amassed.
The lawyers, executives, and career politicians who typically seek federal office often enjoy long-cultivated and extensive networks of wealthy donors who fuel their campaigns. Scientists generally lack such networks. And once they reach out to their natural constituency, they quickly discover that the average scientist isn’t rich, isn’t used to contributing to a candidate, and isn’t politically active.
“Most academics don’t make a lot of money,” says Molly Sheehan, a bioengineering postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s running as a Democrat in the seventh congressional district of Pennsylvania, an open seat in suburban Philadelphia. “They also aren’t like lawyers, who view their political donations as a business expense and are willing to shell out $1000,” adds Sheehan, who as of 31 December 2017 had raised about $35,000 and loaned herself $170,000. “Academic scientists think that $100 is a big deal.”
Phil Janowicz, a former chemistry professor at California State University in Fullerton who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the 39th congressional district in southern California, typically spends mornings with political activists, in hopes of winning their backing. In the evenings and on weekends he’s knocking on doors and attending small gatherings to introduce himself to voters in a district that leans Republican, but went for Clinton in 2016. But the rest of his time is devoted to fundraising. “I wake up thinking about raising money, and I go to sleep thinking about raising money,” says Janowicz, who runs an education consulting business with his wife out of his home. “I will spend about 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, raising money.”
Those efforts had generated $160,000 by the end of December 2017, and Janowicz has loaned his campaign an equal amount. That has allowed him to hire a full-time campaign manager and even open a small office—a luxury for some candidates.
One science candidate who appears to have mastered the art of fundraising is Joseph Kopser, a 20-year Army veteran and entrepreneur with an engineering degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. He is running as a Democrat in Texas’s 21st congressional district, a Republican stronghold in the central part of the state.
Kopser had amassed $678,000 by the end of December 2017, far outpacing any of his three primary opponents. In fact, Kopser claims that his fundraising prowess pushed the Republican incumbent, Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House science committee, into deciding last fall not to seek a 17th term. (Smith’s official statement said simply that “this seems like a good time” to retire.)
The size of a candidate’s war chest is an imperfect metric of their viability, notes election pundit Kondik. That’s especially true for primary elections, he says, which attract voters who are likely to be paying attention already. Instead of expensive ads aimed at swaying undecided voters, primaries require an army of volunteers trying to boost turnout among those already on your side. Still, Kondik notes dryly, “Every candidate would rather have more money than less.”
Beyond money, candidates need a message that, ideally, both distinguishes them from their primary opponents and positions them for the general election. For those with science backgrounds, that message usually includes references to their training in analyzing large amounts of data, their adherence to evidence in weighing the issues, and their conviction that science and technology are essential to the country’s future.
“I’m a father of three, a cancer doctor, and an award-winning researcher from MD Anderson [Cancer Center], and I deal with facts every day in my job” is how Jason Westin recently introduced himself at a candidates’ forum on climate change in Houston, Texas. Westin, who until recently ran clinical trials testing treatments for lymphoma, is running in a crowded field for the Democratic nomination in a House district—the seventh—that includes Houston’s affluent west side. The winner will challenge the veteran Republican incumbent, John Culberson.
That potential matchup gives Westin another rhetorical target. “My first commercial describes how I will stand up to Trump and the Republican Congress against their attacks on science,” he says. “When I’m in Congress I’ll use facts and science to fight back for us.”
Such words are sure to resonate with the research community. But there is little evidence that a candidate’s views on science influence how people vote. Savvy candidates must find a way to apply their scientific knowledge to issues—the economy, health care, immigration, national security, and such social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage—that voters do care about, says political scientist Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Along the way, he adds, they need to avoid talking down to voters and coming across as know-it-alls.
Kopser, for one, appears to be taking such advice to heart. In remarks and campaign materials, he emphasizes his military and business experience and focuses on top-tier issues such as health care and jobs. Kopser, who founded and sold a transit company focused on optimizing urban commuting, also calls himself a “clean energy warrior” and highlights the need to address climate change. But the campaign is careful to talk about climate in ways it hopes will resonate with different blocs of voters, says Ian Rivera, Kopser’s campaign manager.
“When we’re in downtown Austin, we talk about rising sea levels … and other broad environmental impacts,” he explains—a topic important to urban, liberal audiences. With veterans, climate becomes “a question of national security. … We talk about how changing climate patterns dried up crops in eastern Syria,” helping fuel the rise of the Islamic State group. In rural Gillespie County, climate is “a pocketbook issue” because peach farmers there “are selling North Carolina peaches at their farmers’ markets because the [Texas] winter never got cold enough to kill the pests.”
Money does allow a candidate to use paid advertising to amplify key talking points. Westin, for example, is using excerpts from a short campaign video for 30-second ads on CNN. “It’s not possible to knock on 700,000 doors,” he explains. “And CNN is a rich target. Our polling shows that most voters don’t really know any of us.”
Candidates with fewer resources, however, are pursuing less expensive ways of getting out their message. Their efforts include large doses of door knocking and community events, and heavy use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
“I think I can reach people through social media,” says Jess Phoenix, a geologist running in a strong Democratic field for the chance to oust Republican Steve Knight from the 25th congressional district in California, which covers the northern suburbs of Los Angeles. Political groups gave her a lot of advice on how to structure her campaign, she says, but “it wasn’t working for me because it all relies on having an extensive donor network of rich people. … I want to have my campaign funded by regular people. If that means I have to do things on a shoestring budget, I will.”
Phoenix has already applied that barebones approach to a research project she and her husband launched 5 years ago. Dubbed Blueprint Earth, its goal is to catalog everything from soil microbes to clouds in a 1-square-kilometer patch of the Mojave Desert. But she acknowledges that running for Congress has required a whole new level of social media presence.
Patrick Madden, a professor of computer science at the State University of New York in Binghamton, thinks he has found a way to help Phoenix and other scientists amplify their reach on social media. Madden, a Democrat, found himself with some unexpected free time last fall after he dropped his bid to represent New York’s 22nd congressional district to make way for another candidate backed by the party. He’s used it to develop a website, activeresist.com, that allows science-based candidates to promote two or three news stories each day.
In essence, Madden says, his software is a twist on the same techniques that Russian operatives and others have used to spread fake news and try to influence elections through social media. But instead of bots pushing content into users’ newsfeeds, the retweets and likes will come from real people, including voters in their districts.
No matter how effective social media might be at reaching voters, it can’t replace the blood, sweat, tears, and face time that a candidate must put in. And for many science candidates, that has meant abandoning or dramatically reducing their professional activities to take up politics.
Last summer, for example, physicist Elaine DiMasi gave up a tenured position at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, to run in the first congressional district of New York on Long Island. (As a federal employee she couldn’t do both.) That was a gamble, as election handicappers say she is a long shot in her bid to win the Democratic nomination and take on two-term incumbent Representative Lee Zeldin (R).
DiMasi works on deciphering the structures of biological materials using Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source. It requires persistence and attention to detail, traits that have also proved useful as a candidate. “Politics is about showing up,” DiMasi says. “I would go into a room of influential people, and the first three times I showed up they didn’t care. But on the fourth time, they’d say, ‘Oh good, Elaine’s here.’ A scientist might well wonder: ‘What did I do differently?’ I simply offered myself.”
Such persistent networking is part of the interpersonal skills—she calls them the “politics part of a campaign”—that are separate from the nuts and bolts of running for office. And it doesn’t come naturally. “You can only learn it from experience,” she says.
In Texas, cancer researcher Westin hasn’t totally quit his state-funded job. Instead, he handed off his clinical trials to colleagues and reduced his clinical hours to 1 day a week. He did so, he says, to make sure that nobody could argue that “the state of Texas was paying me to run for office.” The schedule has left him 6 days a week to campaign.
On 6 March, Westin will find out whether that was enough. Regardless of whether he and others succeed, however, those who want the science community to become more active in politics see this year’s campaigns as a wonderful opportunity for scientists to apply their skills and experience in a new realm. “We’re part of a profound experiment,” DiMasi says, “and I love that.”