Alice Li/The Washington Post

Why These Five Scientists, Doctors And Engineers Entered The 2018 Political Fray


8 MAR 2018

Before the March for Science last year, Sylvester James Gates Jr., a Brown University physicist who was a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during the Obama administration, warned scientists that if they demonstrated in an anti-Donald Trump fashion, they risked alienating parts of the public.


At the 2017 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he told reporters, according to Bloomberg, "I don't want to see a march that sets science against the president."

But now he thinks scientists alarmed by the country's direction should speak out. Why the change of heart? A year ago, he explained, there was "no evidence available at the time" that the administration would be against science. Now scientists have what they always need: data.

As The Washington Post reported Sunday, a host of scientists, engineers, doctors and other STEM professionals are now running for political office.

These candidates argue that they have the training and skills needed at a time of increasingly complex challenges and growing polarization — the ability to identify a problem, analyze the data and come up with the best solution.

Rush Holt, a scientist turned policymaker, views scientific training as a boon in the Capitol. Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, worked as a plasma physicist and represented New Jersey as a Democrat in the House of Representatives for more than a decade.


"For any public question, thinking like a scientist is incredibly valuable," he said.

Scientists are trained to exclude "red herrings and irrelevant evidence" on the path to "the most definitive answer," he said.

Here are a few of this year's scientist candidates.

Jess Phoenix

Volcanologist Jess Phoenix is running as a Democrat in a primary to challenge Republican Steve Knight in California's 25th District.

"I'm personally sick of when congresspeople say 'I'm not a scientist, but …' Well, I say, you know what? I am a scientist," Phoenix said.

"That message is resonating with people because they're tired of people feigning ignorance and then making decisions that affect everybody."

The campaign trail has presented "a really steep learning curve," Phoenix acknowledged.

Instead of scaling volcanoes or leading research trips in the Mojave Desert, she spent the past year fundraising and attending candidate forums. Phoenix had raised more than $280,000 by Dec. 31, according to Federal Election Commission reports, the latest date for which data is available. Two of her chief opponents raised twice that amount.

Hans Keirstead

Many scientist-candidates are campaigning on outrage over the administration's environmental policies. Hans Keirstead is one of them. Keirstead, a stem-cell researcher who is chief executive of AiVita Biomedical,  is running to unseat Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) from the 48th District in Southern California.

Keirstead said he sees a "clear denigration of science and environmental concerns" by the White House.


He cited administration moves to weaken migratory-bird protections and to rescind a rule requiring the disclosure of which chemicals are used in fracking fluids.

"There's no reason we can't pursue technologies while considering environmental problems and attending to them," he said.

Jason Westin

Jason Westin, a cancer researcher and oncologist at Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center who wants to take on Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.), scored a huge social media win recently with a campaign video that emphasizes the damage caused by the disparagement of science. "I know a little something about cancer," he says in the video. "And let me tell you, there is a cancer eating away at America. That cancer is ignorance. Willful ignorance." The video, which ticks off a long list of what it describes as administration attacks on science, has been viewed more than a million times.

Westin said in an interview that the video is designed to highlight his background while addressing something "everybody feels anxious about — that facts have become controversial. They shouldn't be partisan."

Westin and Joseph Kopser, an aeronautical engineer running as a Democrat in Texas's 21st District, are competing in the Texas primary election on Tuesday.


Mai Khanh Tran

Mai Khanh Tran, a Southern California pediatrician who came to the United States in 1975 when she was 9, said she was never interested in politics. But Republican assaults on the Affordable Care Act, which could lead to rising numbers of uninsured people, changed her mind, she said.

"I decided we really need to have people who have an understanding of the impact of medicine and insurance on real life," she said.

After the Republican incumbent, Rep. Edward R. Royce, announced his retirement, his Orange County district was moved from "lean Republican" to "lean Democratic."

There are only 14 doctors in Congress, and health care is one of the most complex issues facing policymakers, she said. "Those of us who see these patients on a daily basis need to be at the table," Tran said.

Chrissy Houlahan

Chrissy Houlahan, a veteran, former sneaker executive and Stanford University-trained engineer, said she was "shocked and dismayed" when Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

Now she's campaigning for the chance to take on two-term Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who represents an affluent district in the Philadelphia suburbs. She said that Washington needs more scientists, people who are trained to solve problems using facts and data.

"I think that truth is an important thing," Houlahan said.

Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., predicted that Houlahan will probably win the Democratic primary in May. But Madonna said she will have a harder time unseating Costello, who won his last contest with 57 percent of the vote.

"He's a conservative but not a firebrand," Madonna said. Mitt Romney won the district by three points in the 2012 presidential election; Hillary Clinton won it by less than a percentage point in 2016.

Houlahan, who insists that Costello is too conservative for an increasingly purple electorate, said her background will help her make the right decisions on health care, education and how to prepare the workforce for a changing economy.

Her best hope, Madonna said, lies in high Democratic voter turnout. As for other scientists running for office, their key to success might include loosening up a bit on the campaign stump.

"There's always a certain amount of emotion involved in campaigns," Madonna said.

"And being too science-y and fact-based may not always work with the electorate. The big thing for them is to connect with voters."

Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report. This article has been updated.

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This article was originally published by The Washington Post.