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As an Experiment, Let’s Put More Scientists in Congress

• December 20, 2013 • 5:17 PM

Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mesut Dogan/Shutterstock)

A new-ish political action committee wants to see professionals from science, technology, math, and engineering stop carping from the political sidelines and start running for elected office.

Usually when the term “incubator” is used in conjunction with science, it’s about taking a discovery or innovation and trying to find a commercial application or market for it. A new, or at least newly revived, incubator known as Franklin’s List is attempting to do something similar, not in commerce but politics.

The backers of Franklin’s List are trying to get science literacy back into American politics by recruiting, training, and sponsoring actual professionals from the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—to run for office. Franklin’s List is modeled on another political action committee, Emily’s List, which pushes to get Democratic women into office. The name Emily is an acronym for “early money is like yeast,” explained Franklin’s executive director, Shane Trimmer, and in the same way his list wants to “make the dough rise” for science candidates.

“Even on the Senate and House science committees, the vast majority don’t have that STEM background—but they’re making the decisions,” he said. While that fact could raise concerns by itself, the result is even more alarming—especially as funding for agencies like the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy becomes an ideological, instead of a scientific, exercise. Funding for basic research is often cut, scientists who speak out on issues like climate change can be punished, and tests scores suggest American youngsters aren’t doing nearly as well in STEM learning as young people in many other nations.

Senator Tom Coburn, meanwhile, this week released his most recent “wastebook” compendium of dumb government spending that again pokes fun at weird-sounding science projects—most of which are genuinely valuable. (Here’s what John Hart of Coburn’s office told LiveScience: “If a study that received funds would be seen by the average person as questionable or lower-priority it is considered for inclusion in Wastebook. If you don’t want your research to be questioned, don’t ask for federal funds.”)

Having actual scientists in office, at both the state and national level, could help rescue the sciences from the political ditch they’ve been driven into, Trimmer argues. And the effort might raise scientific literacy among the general public a notch in the process.

Trimmer noted that as a traditional, and not a “super,” PAC, Franklin’s List can work directly with candidates instead of staying the notional arm’s length away required of the (often well-funded) super PACs. “We want to directly strategize with these candidates, directly contribute to these campaigns.” Being a traditional PAC also limits how much an individual can contribute, too, so Trimmer said Franklin’s hoped-for donor base will be heavy on STEM professionals and science devotees and light on corporations and institutional interests.

Unlike Emily’s List, Trimmer said his PAC is not partisan—even though science is increasingly viewed through a partisan prism. The Republican Party in the last decade or so has been largely tarred as anti-science, in large part because some very anti-scientific stances—on issues ranging from climate change to stem cells to evolution—are covered with GOP fingerprints.

“Our long-term goal is to depoliticize science. It’s sad that there’s currently a party that’s seen as more scientifically friendly and one that’s less scientifically friendly,” he said.

He cited a recent failed feel-good bill to name a national science role model as an example.

“There was a bill that went through committee – to create a science laureate – a fairly innocuous bill to show support, to encourage children to pursue careers in the STEM field, and educate the general public about it. But even something that benign never even made it to the House floor because of outside pressures from the Republican Party element, fear that the laureate would be a spokesman for the policies of the president and administration, and one of those policies would be climate change.”

“It’s important for us to maintain that nonpartisan label to encourage that depoliticization. However, it will be more difficult for us to identify Republicans who would run for office [with the list’s imprimatur], although perhaps they could run on a scientific consensus ticket.”

For those who snort, the list’s own DNA has tinges of red in it. Franklin’s List—then dubbed Ben Franklin’s List—was founded by a Fermilab physicist and out-of-work congressman, Illinois Democrat Bill Foster, in 2011. (Here’s a New York Times article by Cornelia Dean outlining that moment.) At his side was a moderate Republican congressman (and physicist), Vern Ehlers of Michigan. When Foster ran for (and won) a new House seat created by redistricting, Ehlers, who was retiring after eight terms, helped as the list transitioned to Trimmer’s hands. Trimmer recounts stories of Ehlers working in his office with CSPAN humming in the background when he’d hear some particularly egregious bit of ascientific nonsense uttered on the floor, prompting the congressman to sprint to the chamber to correct the record.

With the 2014 election season already here, the embryonic Franklin’s List is unlikely to play a large role. It hasn’t raised lots of money, its board of director won’t be set until January, and it’s too late to recruit candidates. This season, Trimmer said, the list will mostly use its bully pulpit to endorse candidates, and support the few STEM-y incumbents and challengers already out there. It will also work to oust those incumbents with a demonstrated anti-science bias. Not until 2016 does Trimmer expect Franklin’s List will come into its own.

Being a card-carrying scientist isn’t sufficient in and of itself to win the list’s backing. Trimmer said the endorsement procedure is still fluid, but besides being trained in the STEM sciences questions of political viability and commitment to science will loom large. “It won’t just be me saying, ‘You, because you have a STEM background.’” Because there are few national level STEM figures willing at this point to subject themselves to the political process, Trimmer said the PAC will also be encouraging scientists to start their second careers at the local or state level.

There’s a need at that level, too. “In Texas, they want to put intelligent design into school textbooks, and in California there’s new rules on cap-and-trade. There’s very real science involved in decisions made at the state level as well.”

At the federal level, the most beleaguered academic area has been social science. But Trimmer is unsure—especially without a finalized board in place to nail down direction—whether Franklin’s List will extend its embrace to sociologists and geographers. “The National Academies include social sciences in STEM label. My background is actually in political science, but even so, I would personally be skeptical about promoting political scientists or economists, but with that said I can full see the board of the organization promoting psychologists or anthropologists.”

Regardless of whether Franklin’s List will support scientists of any stripe, the need for a formerly aloof industry to start representing its own best interests is increasingly clear. “They’re starting to wake up,” Trimmer said, “starting to see how these decisions made at high level are affecting them directly.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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