Mixing science and politics to start a serious chain reaction

US scientists are realising they can no longer be passive on climate change and health

The United States still leads the world in science and technology innovation, even if its current leaders think Boyle's law is some obscure piece of legislation. The gap is closing, though, as China, governed by a former chemical engineer, continues support for policies to increase research funding and encourage the nation's innovative spirit. The scientific community in the US is finally realising it can no longer consider itself "above" politics, with Donald Trump's presidency being the paradoxical catalyst for this awakening.

The 116th US Congress includes 10 newly elected "scientists-turned-politicians". The nine freshmen house members and one senator hope to encourage a more fact-based approach to public policy in areas such as climate change, healthcare and nuclear disarmament. They have their work cut out.

Since taking office president Trump has scared the scientific community with a litany of policy shifts, reversals and outright contempt for any evidence-based research presented to his administration that happens to be in conflict with his agenda. Withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, inviting the anti-vaccination circus back into town, putting a climate change sceptic at the helm of the EPA. Shall I go on?

"Traditionally, among the scientific community, the attitude has been that science is above politics and that we shouldn't get involved. Clearly that is not working." So says Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action, an organisation aiming to convince more scientists, engineers, techies and medics into politics.


STEM professionals

314 Action, the name of which is a reference to the mathematical value of pi, provides training to STEM professionals interested in pursuing a career in politics. It matches scientists with elected officials sympathetic to their cause, assists in networking opportunities, and, most importantly, it provides campaign funding. In the lead-up to the midterm elections it paid up to six figures for TV commercial slots endorsing its manifesto and affiliated candidates. 314 Action endorsed 13 candidates for Congress at the time. Seven were successful.

Frequently referred to as “the pro-science resistance”, 314 Action makes no secret of it being a partisan organisation – a radical departure from the rather disingenuous belief held by the vast majority of pro-science political activists who might advocate for increased research funding, more emphasis on alternative energy sources or greater environmental protection, but in a neutral tone with no explicit political allegiance.

314 Action’s approach could be compared to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s militant take on atheism, frequently compared to the strategies used by fundamentalist Christians peddling Jesus. While unsavoury, it’s necessary and we should recognise that Dawkins, like 314 Action, is just saying what many of us are thinking.

Powerful supporters

The "pro-science resistance" already has some powerful supporters – both in politics and science – including Democratic political strategist Joe Trippi and climate scientist Michael Mann, both of whom are advisers and former board members.

To date, the most vocal response from science-minded progressives to the Trump presidency has been the March for Science, a protest that brought out hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of scientists, in April 2018, at rallies around the world. Like other such demonstrations, though, the March is non-partisan, and it conveniently avoids the specifics required by the body politic to pay attention.

“There are more reality-show people in Congress, including our president, than there are chemists and physicists,” Naughton said in a recent interview.

Since politicians must get their heads around a multiplicity of complex subjects such as climate change, healthcare provision, cybersecurity attacks etc, Naughton argues the US must add more scientists to the decision-making pot if it wants to remain competitive. “Scientists are essentially problem-solvers,” she said. “Who better than they to tackle these issues?

Still, the scientific community remain a tiny minority in political power. There were already a few in the House – a physicist, a microbiologist and a chemist – before the mid-terms, as well as several engineers and lawmakers with medical backgrounds. But not enough to effect major change were they to come together.

Low priority

Federal funding for scientific research, therefore, will remain low down the list of priorities for the remainder of this president’s term(s) in office. Oh yes, I started with China, didn’t I? Look to the biggest superpower east and you’ll discover a culture where politics and science need no coercion. Scientists and engineers enter politics as a matter of routine.

In 2018 the US still led the world in R&D expenditures at €432.5 billion – a 26 per cent share of the global total. Cool beans, but China, still referred to as a “developing” nation, accounted for 21 per cent (€355.8 billion) of the global total. Successive Chinese administrations have grown R&D spending rapidly since 2000, at an average of 18 per cent annually. Over the same timeframe US R&D spending grew by only 4 per cent. The data speaks for itself.