- 11 scientists were elected to the US House and Senate in 2018– a boost to the science credentials of Congress, whose members are mostly career politicians, business people, and lawyers.
- So far, three scientist candidates are hoping to join their ranks in 2020: NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, chemistry professor Nancy Goroff, and aerospace engineer Adam Hattersley.
- The scientists, all Democrats, told Business Insider that they want to bring more scientific thought processes to the Hill.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: an astronaut, a chemist, and an engineer walk into Congress.
But three scientists are hoping that come January 2021, this will be a reality in Washington.
Former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, PhD chemist Nancy Goroff, and Navy veteran and aerospace engineer Adam Hattersley are all running for political office in 2020.
“I haven’t liked the direction of our country, especially in the last couple of years,” Kelly, who is running for the Arizona Senate seat that John McCain held until his death in 2018, told Business Insider. “I find it very important that we have folks that understand science and data and facts and are not beholden to big companies or political parties.”
Goroff, who’s running to represent New York’s 1st District in the House, and Hattersley, who hopes to be elected in Florida’s District 15, have similar outlooks.
“Congress is disproportionately filled with lawyers,” Goroff told Business Insider. She recently left her position as chair of the chemistry department at Stony Brook University to run for office. “I do think there’s a benefit to having people with technical expertise in Congress.”
The three scientists are building on a trend that started in 2018, when Americans elected 11 new scientists to the Senate and House. It was a major boost to Congress’ science credentials, given that the governing body previously had only two PhD scientists and one PhD mathematician among its 535 members.
If elected, Goroff would be the first woman with a PhD in science on the Hill.
Using the scientific method to shape policy
The topline issues the three candidates are focused on aren’t radically different from those of other congressional candidates: They’re concerned about healthcare, climate change, and wage stagnation. What distinguishes them, all three scientists said, is that they approach these topics using the scientific method – asking questions, then observing, experimenting, and measuring what works.
“I think it’s important to have people there who understand the science to be able to respond appropriately and fashion policies that are reality-based,” Goroff said. “As a scientist, I’m trained to first find the best information available, and if we don’t have sufficient information, do what we can to get better information.”
“We’ve had lots and lots of models about tax cuts creating jobs over many decades from Republicans, and I don’t think they have ever worked out,” Goroff said. “At some point, you need a new model.”
Kelly, meanwhile, said he would draw on his 15 years of work as an astronaut to make decisions. Kelly lived on the International Space Station and was also part of NASA’s twin study with his brother Scott.
“I can bring that experience, solving difficult technical problems using science and data and maths – and I think that will be helpful in being a legislator,” Kelly said.
He added that “diversity’s important,” too.
“I don’t think every US senator needs to be an engineer,” he said.
Kelly’s vision: Better gun safety and action on climate change
If elected, Kelly would not be the first astronaut to join the Senate – John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, became the first astronaut in Congress when he was elected to represent Ohio as a Democrat in 1974. Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt also represented New Mexico as a Republican Senator from 1977 to 1983.
Kelly said his perspective on policy-making would be informed by his work at NASA, since he witnessed yo-yo-ing federal space budgets and shifting presidential priorities in the US space program.
“Some of these programs that NASA works on, they take more than the length of an administration of any president,” Kelly said. “Issues like climate change are going to require that we make thoughtful decisions and decisions that are going to be long-term.”
“At NASA when you’re trying to do something that’s incredibly difficult and dynamic, you’ve got to figure out what types of leadership to use in what types of scenarios,” he said. “Maybe it’s collaborative in one case, maybe it’s like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make really quick decisions here. I’m going to take the risk, I’m going to decide, we’re going to execute the plan.'”
Kelly’s priorities are also informed by his personal life: He’s married to former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head during an event with constituents in 2011. So gun control is a pivotal issue for him. Kelly pointed out that more than 100,000 people like his wife get shot in the US every year, and “40,000 of them die.”
He said the US needs “stronger gun laws” and added that a lot of the solutions are “common sense,” like universal background checks (which roughly nine in 10 Americans support). He’s also a fan of red-flag laws, which let family members and law enforcement disarm a gun owner if they are worried the person is showing signs they may threaten their own safety or someone else’s.
“I probably own more firearms than your average Arizonan,” Kelly said. “We could do things to keep people safer without infringing on the Second-Amendment rights of responsible people.”
Kelly added that he wants to see stronger laws around domestic violence and guns. Again, it’s an approach based on evidence: The perpetrators behind nine of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in the US all had histories of violence against women.
Hattersley jumped into the 2020 race last week
Hattersley, an aerospace engineer who worked as a nuclear submarine officer in the Navy, currently serves as a representative in Florida state House. He’s now running to unseat Republican Ross Spano to represent the suburbs of Tampa in Congress.
“I hate to say it, but I’m embarrassed that he’s my congressman and I think we’re ready for somebody to put country before party,” Hattersley told Business Insider.
Spano has been embroiled in campaign-finance scandals over some $US180,000 in funds he failed to declare, saying they were “personal loans”.
In addition to his science background, Hattersley thinks his eight years of military experience could come in handy when it comes to healthcare policy.
“The VA, for example, is able to negotiate with big drug companies to have reasonable drug prices for veterans,” he said. “Why can’t the federal government do that to negotiate drug prices for everybody?”
A group called 314 Action is helping these scientists raise funds
The three scientist candidates all have financial backing from 314 Action, a political group dedicated to getting more scientists elected to office.
“It’s tough when you’ve never run for Congress before, you know, where do you even start,” 314 president Shaughnessy Naughton, a former chemist who unsuccessfully ran for office in Pennsylvania in 2014 and 2016, told Business Insider.
The group supported nine Democrats who were elected to the Senate and House in 2018, and Naughton said she plans to help scientists in the House who are up for re-election hold their seats.
In the past, she said, it was unusual for scientists to leave the lab in order to legislate. But 314 Action’s goal is to push more of them to “go beyond advocacy” and actually write laws. (314 is named in honour of the mathematical constant Pi,as the group says on its website, because “Pi is everywhere … and like Pi, science is all around us.)
“Traditionally, scientists have looked at politics, maybe said ‘eww’,” Naughton said. “That approach is not working when we have elected legislators from Congress up through the President that are denying scientific consensus on really important issues like climate change.”
So far, 314 Action has raised $US400,000 for Kelly’s campaign. He has pledged not to take any corporate PAC money in the Arizona race. As of early July, Kelly had raised at least $US4.2 million,The Hill reported, much of it from donations under $US45.
314 Action says it is non-partisan, but the group did not support any Republican scientists in 2018, even though three ran successful GOP campaigns.
“I would love to see the Republican scientist that could win their primary on a pro-science agenda,” Naughton said at the time. “Bring me the unicorn.”