By Sam Lemonick
There are 217 lawyers in Congress right now, 15 doctors, 8 engineers and 1 scientist. Michael Eisen wants to change that.
Eisen is a fly biologist at UC Berkeley. He announced last month his plan to run for Senator Dianne Feinstein’s seat in 2018.
“After the election people started talking more and more about how important it is for scientists to run for office,” Eisen said.
Donald Trump’s election victory seems to have unlocked a new political awareness and activism in labs around the country. Scientists are speaking out against climate change skepticism and moves from the new administration they perceive as suppressing the free flow of information. They’ve have organized national marches on Earth Day, and there’s even a new political action committee called 314 PAC to help scientists run for office.
At the American Association for Advancement of Science annual meeting earlier this month, John Holdren, chief science adviser to President Obama, urged scientists to tithe one-tenth of their time to public service, including activism. And Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes received a standing ovation at the same meeting when she urged scientists to get more politically engaged and to be “sentinels” for the public.
Those same feelings are motivating Eisen. “At some moment I basically said, ‘Well, okay, that means me,’” he said.
Eisen, who has no political experience, explains he’s running because he thinks Washington needs to pay more attention to science and scientific thinking. “I’ve long felt that we needed to change the way science is perceived by the public and policymakers,” he said.
Very few of the people shaping science policy in Congress have any formal science background. The House Committee on Space, Science and Technology has one engineer, four doctors, one computer scientist and one physicist out of 38 members. The Senate subcommittee that deals with science has no one with formal training in the field. Together, they oversee some of the agencies that spend the US’s $135 billion research and development budget.
A lack of scientific expertise in politics has frustrated him locally, too. Eisen, who says he votes Democrat but will probably run as an Independent, calls himself alienated from Berkeley politics. “I find them to be frustratingly un-analytical,” he says. He opposed the GMO labeling ordinance, for instance, and thinks he might have been the only one.
His campaign promise is that he’ll approach every problem in Washington the way he would a problem in his lab. To him that means having an open mind, asking the right questions, weighing the evidence and being ready to question his own assumptions. Eisen doesn’t plan to enter the campaign with a long list of policy positions.
“That would not be in keeping with my idea of how the world should work,” he said. He doesn’t plan to portray himself as an expert ready to address scientific policy, but as a person equipped to apply a scientific thought process to a whole range of questions. And he believes he can encourage lay people to see their own potential to think that way too.
He readily admits that he faces tough odds. “I’m a scientist so I have to be realistic,” he said with a laugh. “If I were looking at the data and the evidence I would say I have little chance of winning.”
For one, Feinstein has not said whether she plans to run again. She’s in her fifth term as a U.S. senator, the second most senior Democrat in the chamber. She won her most recent election, in 2012, by 25 percentage points. And if she decided to retire instead, Eisen would undoubtedly be joining a crowded field jostling for one of the safer Democratic seats in the Senate.
But his biggest hurdle? He doesn’t exactly know what he’s doing.
“A lot of what happens in next six months determines if I’m quixotic outsider or can I mount serious campaign,” he said.
Eisen’s never held public office. He’s not even sure how to register as a candidate. He ran once for student council in high school, and later to be on the board of the Genetics Society of America. He lost both elections. He says he’s looking to groups like 314 PAC for guidance.
Still, there is evidence to suggest scientists can have political success. Illinois Congressman Bill Foster, a Democrat, had a decades-long career as a research physicist. Rush Holt, who retired from his House seat in 2015 after 16 years representing New Jersey, was a physicist as well.
Holt, now the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says we need more scientists in politics, both as candidates or advisors. And he says he’s gotten more phone calls from scientists this year who are considering getting involved, although he hasn’t spoken to Eisen himself.
But Holt, who badly lost his first primary election, cautions that it’s not an easy road: “I would say both campaigning and serving are by far the hardest things I’ve ever done, intellectually, psychologically and physically.”
And, he added, science is not a panacea. “Politics and policymaking consists of more than science,” he said. “No one should go into this with the arrogance that they’re smarter than anyone else or that their science will necessarily lead to better policies than anyone else.”