Wednesday, February 14, 2018

US – Record Number of Scientists to run for Political Office

Donald Trump’s rejection of science and his administration’s plans to reverse environmental regulations is inspiring a record number of scientists to run for political office.

Although they generally see politics and science as separate fields and are normally happy to simply engage in arguments, while remaining focused on their research, scientists are stepping out of the lab and onto the campaign trail.

“I think that we’ve never, at least not in my lifetime, seen political rhetoric divide us so completely as a nation,” Grant Kier, a conservation scientist and geophysicist running for Montana’s statewide Congressional seat, told The Independent. “We have fundamental issues from healthcare, to natural resources, to energy production that are absolutely essential for the future of our state and our country, and we need sound science and evidence for how we approach those things. Not partisan rhetoric.”

Mr Kier says that he was inspired to run for office soon after incumbent Rep Greg Gianoforte took office last year. Montana saw massive wildfires during that time, and Mr Kier says his elected representative failed to understand the causes – drought, or early snow melt caused by warmer springs,  for example – behind those blazes, and their connection to climate change concerns.

“We saw some massive wildfires in Montana shortly after he was elected, and I think a lot of people were really troubled that he failed to understand what was causing those fires,” Mr Kier said.

All told, there are more than 60 candidates for federal office from science, technology, engineering, and math backgrounds running in 2018, according to the political action committee 314 Action, whose report was first noted by the Huffington Post. Another 200 are running for state legislature, and another 200 are running for local school boards on top of that.

“That’s tremendous, those numbers,” Shaughnessy Naughton, the co-founder and president of 314 Action, said. “We’ve never seen anything like that before. I think it’s a testament to the times that we’re living in.”

The increased engagement has the potential to significantly increase the number of politicians in Washington with a science background if just one is elected.

There is currently only one PhD physicist in Congress, alongside a single microbiologist, and a  single chemist. At the same time, there are more than 200 members of Congress with law backgrounds. A spokesman for 314 Action said that they had received more than 7,000 enquiries from potential candidates this year, and that they have trained nearly 1,500 of those candidates.

That all has followed Mr Trump ushering in a shocking reversal of environmental priorities when his administration took over the government early last year.

In the past year, the President has installed directors of agencies and departments who have made efforts to dismantle former President Barack Obama’s climate change policies. That includes efforts to open up fossil fuel drilling off all American coasts, to roll back greenhouse gas emission restrictions created by the Clean Power Plan, and to open up protected American lands for oil and gas drilling. That's all in addition to reports of chaos in government agencies that have been forced to take down mentions of climate change from their websites while facing threats of slashed research budgets.

At the same time, he has also pulled the United States out of the landmark Paris Climate Change agreement, relegating America’s role as an international leader on the issue.

That was all in spite of polls suggesting that a majority of Americans support staying in that international agreement, and that a majority of Americans say they approve of policies to address climate change.

Still, the effort to elect scientists into Congress and elsewhere is no easy undertaking.

That is because the spending environmental advocacy groups like 314 Action on federal elections is dwarfed by that of the fossil fuel and energy industries.

Environmental groups have so far contributed nearly $8m to 2018 campaigns and groups, according to data from the Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP). That’s compared nearly $23.6m spent by the oil and gas industry so far in the midterm cycle, according to CRP data. It's early in the election cycle, but the fossil fuel industry has outspent environmental groups by at least more than four-to-one in all of the most recent election cycles.

The billionaire Koch brothers, who are heavily vested in oil and gas interests, have already pledged to spend $400m this election year. Some of that money will help support incumbents these scientists are seeking to unseat – a difficult task for any first time candidate, much less an experienced one.

But, unseating those candidates who receive campaign cash from the fossil fuel industry could have an important impact on how that district votes, Ms Naughton said.

“We do need groups like ours, and environmental groups, that are willing to support candidates that aren’t going to beholden to these industries,” she continued. “Yes that’s about voting, and organising, but it’s also about hard dollars. Even the best candidates, if they don’t have the resources to communicate their message and communicate with voters nobody is going to know who they are.”

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