New Yorker: Two NASA Engineers Try Out Politics

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

When Natalia Sanchez was fourteen, she travelled from her home in Bogotá, Colombia, to San Francisco to spend the summer with an aunt. During her stay, she took dozens of pictures of freeways—the on-ramps and off-ramps, the way the roads overlapped. “To me, it looked like ‘The Jetsons,’ “ Sanchez told me recently. “This country was a different world. I realized that if we wanted to pursue bigger things, we had to get out of Colombia.” Sanchez had been dreaming big for a while. After watching Carl Sagan’s television series “Cosmos” when she was eight, she had become obsessed with outer space. She wanted to explore the universe, and that meant getting to nasa.

Sanchez, who is now in her early thirties, moved to the United States within a year of that visit. She completed degrees in general and aerospace engineering at California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo, where she met and found a role model in Tracy Van Houten, of nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who was active in the Society of Women Engineers. A decade or so after arriving as an undocumented teen-ager, Sanchez became a citizen—and joined J.P.L., which she called “the holy grail for anyone who wants to do anything beyond Earth.” She worked on various projects, including the sampling drill on the Mars rover Curiosity. “I have always looked at my little blue book and felt how lucky I am to be holding an American passport,” Sanchez said.

On Election Night last year, that feeling of luck was joined by worry about Donald Trump’s anti-science, anti-fact, anti-immigrant platforms. “I couldn’t sit in my cubicle, sit there all day, and ignore all that is going on,” Sanchez said. “My dreams are in jeopardy.” When she learned that Van Houten was running in a special primary for California’s Thirty-fourth Congressional District—a seat vacated by Representative Xavier Becerra, who replaced Kamala Harris as California’s attorney general when she was elected to the Senate—Sanchez briefly contemplated her own run, for superintendent of public instruction. Ultimately, she decided to work for Van Houten’s campaign.

American scientists have a long history of political engagement. They have, among other activities, provided advice and expert testimony to Congress, lobbied for funding, worked for non-governmental organizations and think tanks, and shaped policymaking (for ill, think “Merchants of Doubt”; for good, think “Silent Spring”). But a scientist politician is almost as rare as a Really Great Whangdoodle. Among the five hundred and thirty-five voting members of the hundred and fifteenth Congress, the Congressional Research Service finds three scientists, eight engineers, fourteen physicians, and few others with scientific training. “In the past century, scientists have felt uncomfortable in the public arena,” Rush D. Holt, the C.E.O. of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a physicist and a former member of Congress, told me. “There developed among scientists this justification that it was inappropriate for scientists to be involved in politics—that somehow that would corrupt the science. And, of course, that is not true.” During the past few months, though, moved by the same unease that Sanchez felt on Election Night, thousands of scientists have decided to run for office or become otherwise politically vocal and involved.

Van Houten had been feeling the tug of politics for several years, since before Trump’s rise. She was slowly preparing for a run by taking online-training courses, becoming active in local political organizations, building a network, and reading “all the books written by women Democratic senators.” Her chance arrived earlier than expected, but she plunged in, even as she continued to work at J.P.L. “I have fought sexism, I believe in climate change, and I am based on facts,” she told me. “L.A. wants to send the opposite of Trump to Congress.” Van Houten is one of nineteen Democrats running against a solitary Republican and three other smaller-party candidates. If she were to win the primary, on April 4th, and then the special election, on June 6th, she would be the first woman engineer in Congress—and one of about sixteen women representatives with young children, which is a group as underrepresented as scientists, she noted.

Van Houten and Sanchez have both turned for information and advice to 314 Action, a nonprofit that supports Democratic candidates from the stem fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. After the election, 314 Action planned a webinar for an anticipated hundred or so politically interested scientists. About three thousand signed up, so the event evolved into a daylong conference. It was initially scheduled to be held in Washington, D.C., on March 14th—Pi Day (and Albert Einstein’s birthday). Snowstorm Stella blew the conference to April 20th, but 314 Action went on offering online lessons in campaign-finance law, volunteer recruitment, and public speaking. In one of them, Representative Jerry McNerney, an engineer, offered a pep talk and reality check. “This term, I am on the Science Committee, and I am seeing it’s like walking into an alternate universe,” he said. “We need people to fight for what’s true.”

314 Action is not the first organization of its kind. The non-partisan Scientists and Engineers for America supported stem candidates for several years, and Representative Bill Foster, between his two stints in Congress, founded the short-lived, non-partisan Franklin’s List (formerly Albert’s List). A majority of scientists identify as Democrats, yet, according to the Pew Research Center, sixty-four per cent of Americans currently perceive them as non-ideological. Foster is concerned that could change. “There is a danger in furthering the perception that science is a partisan issue,” he said. “Scientists stand up for truth and logic.… But I think some members of the other party have come to the conclusion that science is a sort of Democratic plot. I think that is very dangerous for scientific policy in our country.” One solution, he suggested, is for his colleagues to revive Franklin’s List, or for Republicans to start a political-action committee that operates in tandem with 314 Action—“as Emily’s List and the Susan B. Anthony List are sort of mirror images of each other.”

The southern part of the Thirty-fourth District, where Sanchez has been knocking on doors and stumping as one of Van Houten’s two field directors, is largely Latino. She has met many people there who, like her, emigrated to the United States—a persistent reminder that the impacts of Trump’s policies are for Sanchez both professional and personal. Her family left Colombia during a violent era. “People were dying when they went outside to go about their business,” Sanchez said, recalling the fear she felt about car bombs on the way to school. Moving to America provided her and her siblings the opportunity to thrive. Her brother became a cybersecurity expert; one sister became a dancer then a diplomat, and the other joined the F.B.I. Sanchez helped obtain evidence that Mars once was rich with water and that it has organic material—that the cold, dry, barren red planet may once have been habitable. All four found great success. But “there is a lot of suffering that goes into leaving your homeland,” Sanchez said. “Having gone through what I went through to become a U.S. citizen, it would be irresponsible not to take some action.”

Sanchez, who has left J.P.L. for now, remains undecided about what form that engagement will take. “I don’t know if I am cut out for politics,” she said. “I am a planner, an engineer, and I am outside my comfort zone.” She often finds canvassing discouraging. At the same time, she said, “I see parallels between what happens in science and what people in political fields are trying to do, which is, in the end, to solve problems.” For the architects of the republic, there was no conflict between the two realms. As the historian I. Bernard Cohen and others have described, the country’s founders conducted experiments, invented and innovated, read Newton, and embraced the Enlightenment. They provided for the patent system in Article I of the Constitution, in order to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Sanchez believes that science and politics remain intrinsically linked. “You can’t have one without the other,” she said.

Paid for by Bill Foster for Congress