Scientific community leaders are examining how best to advance the role of science and technology in recognition that at least eight candidates with STEM backgrounds were elected on Nov. 6 to the incoming 116th Congress, according to an event held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Research!America.
“Part of advancing science is to keep track of and advocate for the conditions under which science can thrive,” said Rush Holt, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, in opening remarks at a Nov. 8 event focused on the midterm elections and held at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America, a non-profit advocacy alliance for medical and health research, highlighted a poll Gallup regularly conducts in advance of each midterm election to gauge what groups voters find most trustworthy.
The scientific community was not included among the Gallup survey options, she noted. The poll ranked the military and church, respectively, as the most trustworthy, the medical system in the middle and banks and Congress at the end of the list. Surveys conducted by Research!America, Pew Research Center, and others have consistently found that respondents rank the scientific community among the most trustworthy.
“The most important thing here is that the science community remains relativity invisible to pollsters, to the American public,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do if we want to raise our visibility and impact as advocates.”
In reviewing the election results, Reid Wilson, national correspondent for The Hill, explored the impact of the suburban electorate in shifting House control to Democrats for the first time in 12 years, while rural voters were vital in keeping the Senate in Republican hands. More significantly, he said, were the participation levels of women voters.
“This was in fact the year of the woman,” Wilson said. “Women candidates of both parties won more seats than they ever have before.” For the first time in American history, more than 101 women will be members of the House of Representatives next year.
In a comment directed to future scientists eager to run for Congress, Wilson cited the difficulty of reducing leading scientific topics to less than a handful of seconds, today’s prominent form of political communication.
“The fact is: science is rarely at the top of a political agenda in large part because it feels so big,” Wilson said. “There is an abstraction to science that does not necessarily translate well into political advertising, and unfortunately that is the way we have conversations these days, in three-second spots.”
Still, candidates drawn from the scientific community performed well in the election. Among incoming House members are Illinois biochemist Sean Casten; Pennsylvania industrial engineer Chrissy Houlahan; South Carolina engineer Joe Cunningham; Illinois registered nurse Lauren Underwood; Virginia nuclear engineer Elaine Luria; New Jersey dentist Jeff Van Drew; Washington pediatrician Kim Schrier; and Oklahoma engineer Kevin Hern.
Political parties increasingly rely on analytics to project voting participation rates and candidate preferences through data collected from an increasing range of sources far beyond voter registration records. Liquor preferences, for instance, are reliable predictors of voter participation. Wine drinkers are most likely to show up and vote on Election Day, while those who prefer Don Julio tequila, or the liqueur Jägermeister are among the least likely to turnout to vote, said Wilson, attracting a round of laughter from the packed audience.
During the panel discussion, former House Reps. Michael Castle of Delaware, Bart Gordon of Tennessee and John Edward Porter of Illinois largely agreed that the incoming Congress would continue to support federal science appropriations. They also pointed to drug pricing and infrastructure as challenges the two parties are likely to tackle in the upcoming Congress.
Porter, however, noted that appropriators will probably be called upon to spread federal funding more evenly across the many programs covered under the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations measure, which funds the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among other programs addressing substance abuse, mental health, children, aging and disability programs.
To enhance public awareness of science and its societal benefits, Research!America launched the Bipartisan Civic Engagement Initiative backed by AAAS and 15 other scientific organizations to expand public and political interactions with the scientific community. Ten grants were extended to early-career scientists involved in science policy to boost the scientific community’s interactions with political candidates and policymakers and expand public understanding of the benefits of scientific research.
Rachel Owen, a leader of one of the 10 science policy groups established under the civic engagement initiative, joined Wilson and a panel of three former members of Congress as well as Sudip Parikh, a managing director of DIA Americas, an organization dedicated to issues facing the life sciences and a previous adviser to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Owen’s program to increase engagement among scientists, state and federal candidates and the public, held a candidate forum in Missouri’s capital that offered a mix of scientific sessions, candidate presentations and public participation. The group also hosted two watch parties open to the public that kicked off with scientific presentations before participants viewed candidate debates.
Woolley said the “theme song” for participants in the science policy group activities held in Washington state, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland as well as Missouri, was that early career scientists want to do it again.
“It really encouraged us to continue trying to connect with policymakers and elected officials,” said Owen. She quoted a Missouri House candidate for best summing up the experience: “If you’re a scientist, you need to use your voice.”
[Associated image: flysnow/Adobe Stock]