Earther: America’s Government Scientists Are Eyeing a Future in Politics

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

By Maddie Stone

PHILADELPHIA—As the Trump administration continues to attack science, scientists continue to push back, whether by joining rallies and strikes or running for office. In the next election cycle, the ranks of those choosing the latter route may include more federal government scientists, a group that has traditionally preferred to remain out of the spotlight.

That, at least, is one takeaway from a training event held in Philadelphia last week by 314 Action, a political group that trains and recruits scientists running for office as Democrats. One of several trainings sessionsthe organization is hosting this year to inform and recruit potential candidatesfor the 2020 elections, its attendees included the usual mix of researchers, engineers, and doctors from academia, industry, and private sector. But a handful of scientists who hold or have held government positions also came out in what the organization suspects may be the start of a new trend.

“It’s definitely a trend we’re seeing more and more,” 314 Action Executive Director Josh Morrow told Earther. Asked why that might be the case, he had a simple answer: “They’re tired of being on the sidelines watching federal research budgets being decimated.”

Indeed, the Trump administration has now repeatedly proposed slashing federal research budgets from medicine to clean energy. It has also worked to sideline scientific expertise, most notably within the Environmental Protection Agency where expert advisory boards have been stocked with industry shills or eliminated, and where former chief Scott Pruitt set in motion an effort to restrict the scientific studies that can be used in decision making. Then there’s climate change, which Pruitt wasn’t a big believer in and which his successor, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, doesn’t seem too concerned about either.

And that’s just one agency. Elsewhere in the federal government, scientists are reporting a dip in the effectiveness of their divisions and that they’re seeing censorship of discussions on climate change, according to a 2018 survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists. All of this could help explain why some bureaucrats are now at least considering whether their technical expertise, deep understanding of federal budgets, and experience working at the science-policy nexus could be better used crafting policies rather than implementing them.

Those weighing such considerations include a Department of Energy policy expert who has worked on climate change initiatives, and an Environmental Protection Agency scientist, currently in the Office of Air and Radiation, who has previously worked on regulations pertaining to concentrated animal feeding operations and drinking water. Both of these scientists were at the recent 314 Action training session but requested anonymity because they haven’t formally announced a candidacy and were concerned that speaking on record about the possibility could jeopardize their jobs.

Others with prior government experience also attended, including Marian Keegan, who worked as a forester for the U.S. Forest Service in the 1990s before moving to the private sector. A progressive Democrat living in rural, northeast Pennsylvania, she’s gearing up to run for the state House of Representatives in 2020, in a district that’s gone Republican for a century. “It’s a voting pattern I’m going to have to break,” she said jokingly.

Keegan says she was motivated to run in part by the environmental rollbacks of the Trump administration and how they’re affecting rural America. “It concerns me that the gains we’ve made in protecting our environment are being eroded,” she said, adding that it takes “specific skills to live sustainably” in her heavily-forested district. Keegan plans to make protecting northeast Pennsylvania’s water quality—ever threatened by fracking—as well as forest management and property taxes central issues of her campaign, and she’s hoping her government experience bringing together stakeholders to solve contentious land issues will give her an edge.

Another scientist at the training, Harvard Medical SchoolPhD candidate Naren Tallapragada, is considering running for office in the future in part because of his experience working for the DOE on the Quadrennial Technology Review—a document that surveyed the department’s investments in energy technologies and set priorities for the coming years—in the summer of 2011. This, coupled with an internship on Capitol Hill with Virginia Senator Mark Warner during the same summer, taught Tallapragada that “politics is really important [and] it’s native to think that science trumps all politics.”

“The solution is not to despair, the solution is to try and get involved and do something about it yourself,” said Tallapragada.

Congressman Bill Foster, who was until this year the only science PhD in Congress, said that scientists withfederal government experience have important and unique perspectives to contribute to policymaking. “They come into politics with a much better knowledge of the federal budget procedures,” Foster told Earther. “This is the battle we cannot lose in science.”

Foster said the wave of candidates with a scientific background who won elections in 2018 has made him feel “less lonely.” And he would welcome more of them in the next election cycle, whether those scientists are from academia, industry, or government. At the same time, Foster worries about the fact that more scientists seem to be leaving their jobs in governmentbecause of the anti-science attitudes of the Trump administration.

“There is no substitute for having high quality technical people not only in US Congress but also the federal workforce,” Foster said.

Paid for by Bill Foster for Congress