Can Science Save Politics? Or Will Politics Ruin Science?

Suneel Gupta

Suneel Gupta had his bags packed, ready to go to Washington. It was the night of Nov. 8, 2016, and Gupta, then a tech entrepreneur, was itching to leave the Bay Area and begin a new job in the Clinton White House.

“I got asked to lead up Hillary’s Office of Science and Technology Policy for the transition,” he told me. “Literally election night, I’m watching the results come in. Watching them with my wife, who is nine months pregnant with our second daughter. The next morning, I’m supposed to be on a plane, ready to go … get my marching orders.”

He calls it the shortest job of his life.

Gupta is a computer programmer who has worked as head of product development for Groupon and Mozilla and founded an app-based preventive health care company with his older brother, the neurosurgeon and medical reporter Sanjay Gupta. The Clinton job was supposed to be the next step in his career. But instead of flying out, Gupta spent the next morning unpacking and figuring out what he should do next. Today, he’s running for Congress in Michigan’s 11th District, where he grew up and now lives — one of five Democrats vying for the opportunity to flip a seat that has been solidly Republican for the past 53 years.1

A Democrat, David Curson, held the seat for two months after a special election in 2012. Before that, the last Democrat was in 1967.

When Gupta tells this story, he presents his run as the logical next step. The Clinton transition job disintegrates in front of his eyes on TV … and yada yada yada … he’s a candidate for Congress.

It’s possible it would have felt that natural, that obvious, to him after any election year. But 2016 wasn’t just any election year for scientists. Between Gupta’s personal Point A and Point B, there’s been a whole atlas of cultural movement among scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, drawing them out of labs and startups and into politics. Thousands of STEM workers and their supporters marched on Washington to protest funding cuts and what they saw as a lack of respect for scientific expertise. Some scientists took it further, forming a political action committee to train and raise money for “science candidates” — a broad category that includes people with experience in research science, science education, engineering and technology jobs. That pro-science PAC, 314 Action, counted more than 300 people with STEM backgrounds who ran or are running for public office at all levels of government — 66 for federal-level and gubernatorial seats. Gupta is one of those 66.

Science has never truly been separate from the political system that funds it and uses the tools it creates. But scientists have not traditionally pushed so hard to make that relationship explicit, or to be the ones in charge of it. In the past, said Shaughnessy Naughton, the former chemist who founded 314 Action, scientists have sort of believed that they could just put the facts out there and the evidence would speak for itself. Before this, it had been rare for scientists to get involved in politics. “But it’s clear now that politicians are unashamed to meddle in science. And the way to push back is getting scientists elected. We have to have a place at the table,” she said.

When Gupta tries to win the Aug. 7 Democratic primary in the Michigan 11th, he won’t be just a lone guy with a science background running for Congress — a single data point, if you will. Instead, he’s part of a much larger sample — dozens of people trying to grant science some political power. It’s not clear that a commitment to STEM will help him win, though, nor is it clear what happens if Gupta and other science candidates do make it into office. That could mean more evidence-based policy — or more well-intentioned newbie politicians absorbed into the same old political machine. It could mean newfound respect (and research dollars) for science. Or it could turn “science” into a dog-whistle word for “liberal.”

Nobody knows what the result will be. There’s a word for what Gupta is running in this election, and it’s not “campaign.” It’s “experiment.”

“Who are we as Democrats?” asks Lisa Dirato, a liberal activist and a research chemist. At her kitchen table, in a neighborhood of manicured lawns, gabled porticos and brick facades near Northville, Michigan, Dirato hashed out for me how she was going to make her decision for the primary. Usually, she said, Democrats are lucky to get one person to run, let alone a crowd. It was a rare experience to choose, rather than accept. And she had some specific qualities she wanted to see in her choice. “[Democrats] have empathy, we care about people and we believe government can make people’s lives better,” she said. “When I listen to candidates, that’s what I’m listening for.”

“Are you listening for science at all?” I asked her.

“Um. You know, not really. And I’m a scientist. That’s my day job,” Dirato said. “I can’t even tell you why.”

This is the first challenge that Gupta, and any science candidate, faces.

Whenever I spoke with voters in Michigan’s 11th District, they were all more concerned with the state of the roads we had driven on that day than with the technological decision-making behind that infrastructure.

Voters — whether in the Michigan 11th or the U.S. at large — don’t seem to view science advocacy as a primary factor in their vote choice. But it’s not for lack of respect for the sciences. For the past 40 years, while partisan divides have increased, the General Social Survey, conducted by the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, shows that trust in science remained about the same and that the scientific community is the second-most trusted institution in the country, after the military. And you’d expect even more excitement for science candidates in the Democratic Party, whose voters, Pew Research data suggests, are a little more trusting of scientists and a lot more supportive of federal funding for scientific research.

In practice, though, the science candidates’ results have been mixed. Of the 23 federal-level candidates originally endorsed by 314 Action, nine have made it past their primaries (one ran unopposed), nine lost, and five primaries (including Gupta’s) are still to come. Results for unendorsed science candidates have also been muddled. And in an ongoing Gallup poll that asks about the most important issues facing American society, few of the issues identified are particularly science related. It’s pretty clear that science isn’t going to be a single-issue vote for the left as, say, abortion is for some conservatives.

Nevertheless, Gupta thinks there’s a good case for why voters should want more people with science backgrounds walking the halls of Congress. While driving between apartment complexes, delivering Meals on Wheels to housebound residents of Waterford, Michigan, he talked to me about the way Congress is called to make decisions and explore alternatives to problems — choices that often involve…

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