AAAS S&T Policy Fellow Joins Other Scientists in Bid for Congress

Randy Wadkins visited AAAS to speak to Science & Technology Policy fellows and discuss his congressional campaign. | Neil Orman/AAAS

After their fellowships conclude, AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellows work in all kinds of settings: academia and industry, government and nonprofits, in Washington, D.C., and around the world. Randy Wadkins, who served as a congressional fellow in 2015 and 2016, aims to return to Capitol Hill – this time, as a member of U.S. House of Representatives.

Wadkins shared his story at a send-off for the 45th class of S&T Policy Fellows, held Aug. 3 at AAAS headquarters to celebrate fellows’ accomplishments and provide networking opportunities and advice. The fellows – scientists and engineers who represent “such a diverse set of backgrounds and interests,” according to Jennifer Pearl, director of the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program – wrapped up a year embedded in the executive, legislative or judicial branches of the federal government to learn firsthand about policymaking and contribute their scientific knowledge to the process.

During his own fellowship, Wadkins worked in the office of Rep. Steve Cohen, who represents Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District. With more than 30 years’ experience as a biochemist researching cancer drugs, Wadkins earned the chance to work on the congressman’s health care portfolio.

“There’s a lot of difference between protein structure and Medicare billing codes,” Wadkins joked, but kept busy with new duties: meeting with constituents, briefing the congressman on health care issues, offering recommendations on votes and organizing district meetings in Memphis.

He also spent the year closely watching the votes of his member of Congress, Republican Trent Kelly, who represents the 1st District of Mississippi. “I wish most people could do that,” Wadkins said. That could change your mind about how well he or she is representing you, he noted.

After his fellowship, Wadkins returned to research and teaching in the chemistry department at the University of Mississippi, but he said he continued to track several disheartening political updates: the election of anti-science candidates in November 2016; the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget cuts to science agencies; and his congressional representative’s refusal to meet with constituents.

“I decided to take the leap and run for Congress,” Wadkins said.

In April 2017, he announced his candidacy in Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District, which spans the northeastern corner of the state and is home to the cities of Tupelo and Oxford, Columbus Air Force Base, and an economy dominated by agriculture and manufacturing. Wadkins is a native son, born in the 3,000-person town of Iuka and earning his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Oxford’s Ole Miss, where he has worked for 14 years.

Wadkins is among a wave of scientists who declared their candidacies in response to concerns about anti-science policies and appointments from the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidency. 314 Action, which formed in 2016 to advocate for evidence-based policy solutions and help elect scientists to political office, reported that more than 7,000 scientists have reached out to the group for assistance with their campaigns. “2018 is the year of scientists running for Congress,” said a headline from The Washington Post in March.

But early enthusiasm soon met the harsh reality of the campaign trail. Running unopposed in Mississippi’s Democratic primary and securing the nomination in June, Wadkins has fared better than many scientists-turned-political candidates. Wadkins was one of five scientist candidates profiled in a series of articles last year in The Los Angeles Times. Just he and one of the other scientists profiled – who is exploring a 2020 Senate run – are still standing. Two more hopefuls have suspended their House bids and a third was defeated in a 2017 special election.

Wadkins will face the Republican incumbent Trent Kelly at the polls on Nov. 6. Kelly took office in a special election in 2015 with 70% of the vote, was re-elected the following year with 67.57% of the vote.

To beat the odds, Wadkins is focused on ensuring affordable health insurance for all North Mississippians and bringing high-tech jobs in the aerospace and green energy fields to the district to connect with voters.

Rush Holt – AAAS CEO, physicist, former member of Congress and one of more than 3,000 alumni of the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships program – said in an April interview, “There is hardly a public issue that does not have scientific components — election laws, public health, transportation, economics — almost every issue can be illuminated by scientific findings and evidence-based thinking.”

Wadkins also cites his work in science as an attractive topic with voters. His research on cancer drugs is an automatic conversation starter – nearly everyone has some relationship with the disease, he said. Yet, regardless of field, scientists can – and must – make clear the effects of their work, he said.

He also urged the most recent class of S&T Policy fellows to consider running for political office.

“Go change the world,” Wadkins said.

[Associated image: Isabella Lucy/AAAS]