Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

capitol-building-dc

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

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.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.