Laboratories of democracy


I became a scientist because I wanted to help the world. That sounds obnoxiously idealistic, which is why I try not to say it out loud. But it’s true. I knew, growing up, that the world had problems. I knew that scientists used knowledge to fix those problems. So, I thought, if I wanted to help the world, the first step was to become a scientist.

But once I had started down that path, I began to doubt where the power to help the world really lies. During grad school, while at a malaria research conference, I approached the keynote speaker to ask a few questions. I don’t remember who he was, but I do remember that he seemed to be the best-informed malaria researcher I had ever met. So I asked him, “If we could take one action right now to reduce malaria deaths, what would it be?”

Because I was a scientist-to-be interviewing a renowned scientist about science at a scientific symposium, I expected his answer to involve science. I thought he would recommend the discovery of an effective vaccine, or a novel insecticide, or even a futuristic mosquito-zapping laser. But his answer surprised me: To save the most lives from malaria, he said, the United States should lift its African cotton embargo.

I didn’t know much about agricultural policy—I still don’t—so I didn’t catch all the nuances of his explanation. But if I recall correctly, he argued that lifting some sort of restriction on importing African cotton would dramatically improve economic conditions for farmers there, thus enabling them to purchase antimalarial drugs and bed nets, which would have a far greater impact than any scientific advance.

Given these differences, maybe it’s not surprising that few scientists transition to politics. But well-suited or not, if we really want to “help the world,” maybe a few of us should trade our microscopes for megaphones.

The idea may sound improbable, especially when it sometimes seems that more politicians court voters by ridiculing science than by studying it. But as Americans start heading to the polls for congressional primaries, they’re finding a handful of legitimate scientists on the ballot.

I know this because I somehow ended up on the email list for a group called 314 Action, which I probably don’t need to tell you is named after the first three digits of pi. My first mass email from them in mid-February (with the sneaky subject line “need to talk for a minute adam”—damn their clever, clever clickbait tactics) described their mission to help scientists get elected to public office. “We recruit them, we train them,” the email boasted, “and in November, it’s my job to make sure they WIN.”

Then they asked for money. I guess scientists and politicians share some similarities after all.

More emails arrived daily, Gmail dutifully relegating them to the “Promotions” tab, but I kept reading them anyway. The messages argued for the need to put actual scientists—or, at least, anyone who bases decisions on science—in positions of political power. These include congressional seats, as well as plenty of smaller offices like state legislatures and school boards that can benefit from the involvement of someone who, unlike pi, is rational.

I don’t know much about politics, but I did just finish binge-watching all seven seasons of Parks and Recreation, so I pictured 314 Action as the activists who show up in Leslie Knope’s office and offer to oversee her campaign for city council. But I figured it couldn’t be that simple. So … if you’re a scientist and you want to run for office, you just enlist their help? What comes next? Making speeches? Kissing babies? Babies making speeches?

To find out, I called Shaughnessy Naughton, president and founder of 314 Action. Naughton has a degree in chemistry, and for years she cringed watching politicians freely give their opinions on a variety of issues—but dismiss questions about science with a brusque, “I don’t know, I’m not a scientist.” Wouldn’t it be great, she thought, if they were?

So Naughton decided to do something concrete: She ran for congress, twice, in Pennsylvania’s eighth district. She lost both times, but she enjoyed wider support than she’d anticipated. She went on to found 314 Action in 2016 to use what she’d learned to give other scientists “a peek behind the curtain” of politics.

Yes, she says, there are speeches (not typically made by babies). But first comes fundraising. “Although we may not like the fact that money has an influence on politics,” she says, “there is a reality that if you want people to vote for you, they have to know who you are.” That means calling in all possible financial favors, then using that money to hire consultants, pollsters, strategists, communications folks, and those who can seek endorsements from existing politicians. All of this needs to be done, she explains, “before you even think of putting together a web page.” Next comes the lengthy process of converting money into renown and converting renown into votes, all while continuously fundraising to support the entire enterprise.

To be honest, this sounds more than a little daunting. At the very least, it likely involves quitting one’s job for a year—which most employers, believe it or not, discourage. (Naughton was running her own business while she was campaigning, which offered the flexibility she needed.) But not all political offices are full-time gigs. Some, like school board positions, can be filled by community members with nonpolitical professions. And what better way to promote science than to directly influence how it’s taught?

It may not be the right path for everyone. It may not be the right path for me. But I hope like hell that a lot of scientists decide it’s the right path for them. Because as much as we may hate to admit it, this may be our best chance to have a significant impact on national affairs.

And by significant, I mean p < 0.05.

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