Election 2020

Scientists Storm the Gates of Capitol Hill in Midterm Election Bids

Skeptics of the Trump administration take part in the March For Science in Portland, Ore., on April 14, 2018. (Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP Images)

Jess Phoenix, a geologist and volcanologist running for California’s 25th Congressional District seat, believes climate change is “not science fiction, it’s science fact.” It’s also one of the tenets of the Democrat’s campaign to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Knight.

Phoenix is only one of more than a dozen scientists who have moved to the political arena specifically because of the climate change debate and more generally because of the election of President Trump, who famously tweeted in May 2013, “It’s freezing outside, where the hell is global warming?”

“I was moved to step out of my work boots and into the race for Congress because people like Donald Trump and my representative Steve Knight are threatening that future by destroying some of the most basic things we all agree are important,” Phoenix wrote on her website.

“Education, scientific research, disaster preparedness, critical parts of our communities like roads and bridges, national parks, and wildlife are all under assault,” Phoenix added. “Trump and Knight both deny the science of climate change, which impacts our economy, health and way of life.”

However, Knight, a member of the House Science Committee, was one of 46 House Republicans who joined Democrats to block a proposal to remove a requirement that the Department of Defense study how climate change impacted the nation’s security.

“Most people, and probably every scientist, would conclude based on that piece of evidence that he is not a climate change denier,” Matt Rexroad, a Knight campaign spokesman, told Mother Jones in an email.

But the argument over whether humans are responsible for climate change is only one reason that Phoenix and other scientists are moving into politics. The primary cause of their concern is Trump and what they see as his rejection of science.

314 Action, a political group dedicated to the “pro-science resistance,” is committed to “electing more STEM candidates to office, advocating for evidence-based policy solutions to issues like climate change, and fighting the Trump administration’s attacks on science.”

More than 100 people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) backgrounds signed up for an informational webinar on how to run for political office in January.

“The fact that we received this response without a paid media buy is evidence of how hungry the STEM community is for a dog in the fight,” said Ted Bordelon, communications director for 314 Action.

“In what has been deemed a post-truth world following the election of Donald Trump, it is incredibly heartening to see such a groundswell of support from the STEM community,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, the founder of 314 Action. “It is time the STEM community has a greater voice in the halls of power.”

University of Mississippi biochemistry professor Randy Watkins is another of the STEM candidates running for Congress as a Democrat.

“I’m afraid we’re entering a dark era, with science, reason, and education under attack,” Watkins said.

STEM candidates scored a double win in Texas’ 21st Congressional District Democratic primary March 6.

Joseph Kopser, an aerospace engineer and West Point graduate, finished second to Mary Wilson, a former mathematics professor, with 29 percent of the Dem vote, and advanced to the May 22 primary runoff.

“I absolutely feel that science is under attack,” Kopser said. “It’s the opposite of when John F. Kennedy said he wanted to get us to the moon in less than 10 years. The way Trump is going, in 10 years he’ll have us back in caves.”

Scientists hardly ever run for a political office. It’s much rarer to see a scientist win a national election. Could we see Kopser, Watkins or Phoenix declaring victory in November?

Why not? Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, told Science magazine that 2018 could be the year of the scientist on Capitol Hill.

“Voters are often looking for something that they don’t have now,” said Kondik. “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.”

But the scientists, engineers and mathematicians running against Trump’s position on climate change might have misjudged the people who will be voting in November.

A Gallup poll released in March showed that while 89 percent of Democrats believe global warming is caused by human activities – up from 87 percent a year ago – only 62 percent of independent voters and 35 percent of Republicans agree.

Adding to the STEM candidates’ potential frustrations when all the votes have been cast and counted, the Gallup poll showed 34 percent of independent voters and 69 percent of GOP voters believe the “seriousness of global warming is greatly exaggerated.”

The Gallup poll also showed scientists running for office won’t be able to change the minds of many voters.

“With Trump reversing many of his predecessors’ policies aimed at curbing global warming, Democrats are feeling a greater sense of urgency about the issue, while Republicans have either remained as skeptical as they had been in the past or have become more so,” the survey concluded.

Or put another way, it may be that most GOP and independent voters, in November, will agree with what Trump declared in January 2014.

“Give me clean, beautiful and healthy air,” Trump tweeted, “not the same old climate change (global warming) bullshit! I am tired of hearing this nonsense.”