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Jan 15, 2014

Making Politicians Out of Scientists

PAC named for Ben Franklin aims to turn investigators into candidates.

Making Politicians Out of Scientists

A new political group is seeking professionals from STEM fields whom it would like to recruit as candidates for Congress and races beyond Washington. [© picsfive - Fotolia.com]

  • Before helping write the Declaration of Independence and Constitution for a new nation more than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin conceived of America’s first scientific society, discovered the singular nature of electricity, and famously flew a kite to prove the electrical nature of lightning.

    Now, a new political group named for the Founding Father is gearing up to make its own discoveries—namely professionals from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields whom it would like to recruit as candidates for Congress and, someday, races beyond Washington.

    Franklin’s List derives its name from the First American, as well as EMILY’s List, formed to help elect Democratic women who support abortion rights to elected office. That name came from Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), a onetime physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory who conceived of the group after losing in 2010; he returned to the House of Representatives two years later.

    Since it’s relatively late, in political time, to groom new candidates given the fundraising needed, Franklin’s List will spend 2014 backing incumbents in synch with its science policy agenda. Then in 2016 with another Congressional campaign underway—not to mention the presidential race—Franklin’s List will start in earnest recruiting and training candidates, and depending on the district, positioning them against incumbents the group deems science-unfriendly.

    “Where we’ll mainly be is in politics, trying to help the candidates in grassroots organization, strategy, fundraising, things like that. They might have experience doing a grant proposal, but making cold calls and doing campaign fundraising is a different kind of thing,” Shane Trimmer, Franklin’s List’s executive director, told GEN.

    Franklin’s List will provide early money for community appearances, while building a network of grassroots supporters online that could serve as campaign volunteers.

  • Cultural Hurdle

    One key roadblock those recruits, and Franklin’s List, will need to surmount is cultural: Until lately, investigators and other STEM professionals have balked at going into politics. Trimmer says that’s starting to change following years of flat or reduced spending on NIH. He cites Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemist and Democrat seeking to represent Pennsylvania’s 8th district (Bucks County) in the House; she must win a primary in order to face incumbent Republican Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick.

    “They’re seeing how the decisions made in Congress by politicians are directly affecting their ability to do research. Now they’re seeing that if they do not get more involved, then these things will just keep on happening,” he added.

    Details of the endorsement process will be decided by an endorsement committee of the group’s inaugural board of directors, which at deadline had yet to be announced. Trimmer said would-be candidates will be expected to defend evolution against critics, religious and otherwise, and advance climate change against detractors.

    Such views position Franklin’s List much closer to Democrats and liberals than their Republican and conservative counterparts—though the group insists it’s politically nonpartisan and would back Republicans who share its views on science. It remains to be seen if naming the group for a Founding Father draws any response from “Tea Party” conservatives who have appealed to the nation’s revolutionary history.

    While human-caused climate change is a cut-and-dry issue for climatologists—estimates of support range from 95% (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013) to 99% (all but 1 of 9,136 authors of 2,258 published articles between November 12, 2012, and December 31, 2013, James Lawrence Powell, January 8)—Trimmer noted that the overwhelming consensus doesn’t yet reach to a solution: More nuclear power? A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? “I don’t foresee Franklin’s List saying because you support this style of energy policy because they know the science isn’t really at the 98 percentile yet on maybe how to tackle that.”

    A bipartisan consensus may yet emerge this year on a third key issue—replacing a decade of yo-yo budgeting for NIH and other science-focused agencies with consistent funding increases. The idea gained steam following the 16-day October government shutdown, which saw Congressional popularity plunge to an all-time Gallup Poll low of 9%.

    As a traditional political action committee (PAC), Franklin’s List can work directly with candidates but cannot collect money from corporations or nonprofits, only other PACs (including corporate PACs) and individuals. The group differs from “superPACs” that can raise unlimited funds and advertise for candidates, but cannot strategize with or donate to them directly.

  • Combing for Candidates

    Trimmer says Franklin’s List will comb for candidates within the scientific community, while another potential avenue could be groups that have spent recent years lobbying for higher NIH funding: “You’ve had this stagnation where you have these great science nonprofits encourage scientists to engage and even run for office; however, how involved they can be has stopped at that point. We can kind of take over from there.”

    One nonprofit, Research!America, will refer scientists interested in mounting political campaigns to Franklin’s List for resources, President and CEO Mary Woolley told GEN. Because of its nonprofit status, she noted, Research!America cannot promote Franklin’s List or any other political organization.

    “For the midterm elections, we plan to educate candidates and voters about the importance of medical and health research through our national initiative, Ask Your Candidates! Is Medical Progress a Priority?” Wooley said. “Activities will include advocacy alerts urging candidates to state their views on government support for research, on-the-ground voter education activities in select states, social media outreach, and grassroots communications."

    Carrie D. Wolinetz, Ph.D., president of United for Medical Research and associate vp for federal relations with the Association of American Universities, told GEN the groups are generally supportive of STEM professionals serving as elected officials, but have not taken a position on doing so through Franklin’s List.

    Another challenge that Franklin’s List will need to surmount is communication. The science world thrives on nuance; investigators routinely cite shortcomings of their studies in published papers. It’s a far cry from the blunt, sound-bite hyperbole of elected officials and candidates. Others recognize the need: A generation after playing Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce on the TV series M*A*S*H, Alan Alda now trains scientists to address the public as a visiting professor at Stony Brook (NY) University.

  • Acting Locally

    Over time, Trimmer said, Franklin’s List envisions involving itself in state and local races—a logical expansion since state legislatures, school boards, and other local bodies wrestle with what to include in textbooks or exclude from curricula, and increasingly, how and how much to fund state universities, economic incentives, and other programs aimed at promoting STEM research and education.

    Acting locally will also help Franklin’s List find candidates better able to jump from the lab to the state house to Congress. The smaller the race, the less funding and fewer supporters candidates need.

    “The STEM candidates we’ll be searching for who have been in the lab or in academic circles, their idea was always to be in academia as a biologist or a physicist. They don’t have the network that somebody might have who has been a businessperson or an attorney in the community and might always have, in the back of their mind, thought about politics as an option,” Trimmer said. “It will be much easier for them to work their way up and to build that grassroots support.”

    And build they must, if science advocates are to get elected as members of Congress, senators, governors, mayors, or other local officeholders. They’ll need to learn—and Franklin’s List will have to teach them—how to build coalitions of voters adding up to 51% or more through politics and policy. In politics, while money matters much, it can’t always buy victory: Advocate-candidates must learn how to campaign for votes, drawing on veteran campaign staffers and volunteers, by winning over not just lab colleagues or the academic crowd, but the great swath of voters not engaged in science, whether through disinterest or ignorance.

    As for policy, groups like Research!America, UMR, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have made the case for higher NIH funding; who can oppose funding the cure for cancer? Science advocates will need to develop similarly effective arguments that can withstand increasingly vocal opposition for advancing climate change and evolution, and whatever other issues Franklin’s List adds to its agenda.

    To succeed, in short, Franklin’s List will have to find candidates substantive and honest enough to heed Ben Franklin’s advice in verse No. 179 of Poor Richard’s Almanack: “Half the truth is often a great lie.”



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