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After Policy Fellowship, Some Decide to Become the Policymakers

You may be familiar with media reports about the dearth of scientists in public office. In the current U.S. Congress, only two members have a science Ph.D. However, several former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows recently bucked that trend and ran for office in 2016. They encourage STPF fellows and other scientists and engineers to consider running for office as an important way to engage with the public on issues of concern to all.

“I was just so sick of the dysfunction at the federal level,” he said. While he lost the election, Plumb considers it a good campaign because he successfully carried out his plan, and it gave him a chance to discuss issues that affect his region and the nation including the opioid addiction crisis.“Not everyone will be good at bridging both worlds,” of science and public engagement, “but we need to, because science is under attack,” said John Plumb, a 2004-2005 Legislative Fellow sponsored by the Institute of Navigation and former Naval officer. In November, Plumb ran for a U.S. House of Representatives seat to represent a district in upstate New York.

"As a scientist and engineer, I was surprised at how hard it was to capture and utilize data” to target his resources on voters that he could sway or turn out, Plumb said. “Also, you need to be prepared for how personally expensive it is to run. I basically drained my life savings running, because you have to pay for your house, your car, and your meals, and you can’t do that through your campaign.”

Chris Rothfuss

Even in districts that are heavily partisan, it’s important to give voters a choice, said Chris Rothfuss, a 2003-2005 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of State. In 2008, the chemical engineer and University of Wyoming professor ran against a Republican incumbent for a U.S. Senate seat representing Wyoming, the most conservative and Republican state in the country. “Obviously, I didn’t go into it with the expectation of winning,” Rothfuss said. “However, with 25% of voters not having a candidate, I thought I could provide them a solid voice.”

Following that experience, he decided to run for Wyoming state senate in 2010, and won. He is now the state senate minority leader, but only one of three Democrats in the 30-seat body. Despite having such a small minority, he says he still feels he can get things done and make a difference, particularly on issues where his technical knowledge is needed.

“In the Wyoming legislature, there’s a reliance on expertise, not just partisanship,” Rothfuss said. “So if you work hard and bring forward the best ideas – and they’re not the hot button topics we read about in national news – it’ll work out. But that said, it does fall back to the lesson I learned in D.C., which is you can do anything you want if you don’t want to get credit for it.”

Steve Sinha, 2009-10 Executive Branch Fellow in the Department of Homeland Security and 2010-11 fellow at the State Department, is one of a growing number of people working to encourage more people of all backgrounds, including science, to run for elected office. On average, 43% of state elections have only one candidate, Sinha said, which has contributed to 25 states having their two legislative bodies and governorships controlled by Republicans, and six states where they are controlled by Democrats.

Currently helping to develop a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that will “increase the talent pipeline” by providing trainings, mentoring and networking to prepare people who are interested in running for office but don’t have experience running a campaign. He says because of their understanding of policy and how the federal government works, as well as technical issues, fellows may make good candidates.

“The people you want to run are self-reflective people who recognize they may be deficient in some areas,” Sinha said. “So, given the right trainings and information, fellows may be well-suited to not just win office, but be effective policymakers.” 

Plumb, Rothfuss and Sinha all encourage STPF fellows to consider running for office, and said they are willing to share their insights, regardless of a person's party affiliation. (If you are a fellow, you can find their contact information by logging into STPF FellowsCentral.) 

Editor's note: "This group wants to fight ‘anti-science’ rhetoric by getting scientists to run for office" is a January 17th story in the Washington Post about a new organization aimed at helping STEM professionals run for office.