I ran for Congress in 2014 and one of the things I learned that thoroughly surprised me was the almost complete absence of people with scientific and technical backgrounds in Congress. Of the 535 Senators and Congressman in the 114th Congress, very few were trained in the natural and hard sciences. In fact, proportionally, the number of scientists and members of the STEM community in Congress doesn’t come close to the number of these workers in our professional workforce.
The dearth of lawmakers who bring a scientific perspective to national issues of energy, climate change, national security and technology deeply concern me as a scientist and as an American. As scientists we are trained to embrace uncertainty, use the tools of data, hard evidence and analysis to solve problems. For scientists, there are no facile answers; rather, there are complex questions that require disciplined, dispassionate and systematic thought — our aim to arrive at solutions that serve truth above expediency. I realize the importance of bringing the scientific perspective to bear on today’s urgent and complex environmental and technological issues because of my background and training.
For this reason, in 2016, I founded 314 Action, a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise the profile of science in public life. As a nonprofit with 501c4 status, 314 Action engages in educational and advocacy work as well as in electoral politics. Our purpose is to protect and preserve the power of science against the forces of skepticism and demagoguery that both undermine rational thought and promote policies of denial and convenience. Especially following the election to president of a man who has called climate change a Chinese hoax, as well as his nomination of like-minded officials such as Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, we find ourselves in a situation in which having scientifically versed representatives and pro-science advocates in Washington is arguably more important than ever.
To that end, 314 Action embraces a variety of goals related to the respect for and growth of science. First, we strive to encourage scientists and pro-science advocates to become active in the political process, running for local and national office. When scientists become involved in electoral politics, they change the conversation, stimulating thought and shifting the focus from transactional to transformational leadership.
Our aim is not to make science another highly partisan issue, but rather to let facts and empirically observed data trump emotional debate. It is far too common for politicians to find themselves defending oftentimes indefensible positions that can and should be approached and solved with a scientific perspective. With an increasingly gridlocked Congress, it is no longer viable to cross our fingers and hope our elected representatives turn to science for answers. Despite the inclinations of the president-elect and many Republicans in Congress, climate change and a plethora of other issues are grounded in scientific fact. 314 Action proposes we find and support politically inclined candidates with STEM backgrounds and provide for them the political apparatus and funding needed to successfully run for office.
Through 314 Action, we also advocate an end to the ban on research by the CDC on gun violence. The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996 as a result of pressure from the powerful NRA lobby, prohibited funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from being used to advocate or promote gun control. The effects of this amendment have reduced CDC’s funding for firearm research by 96 percent, leaving meager resources for any researcher looking to investigate the epidemic of gun violence. As we enter a new year and a new administration, 314 Action will seek to not only abolish this amendment, but also to promote a common sense, data-driven approach to solving gun violence.
A third prong of our organization’s focus is to support the growth of STEM at elementary, secondary and higher educational levels. The United States lags behind other nations in STEM education. Our mediocre performance in science and mathematics in international comparisons jeopardizes our future economically, politically and technologically. The underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM careers limits the opportunities for these groups to participate in growing and lucrative professions and also deprives the nation and the professions themselves of potential talent. Likewise, we advocate for teacher training that improves the breadth and quality of curriculum and instruction in STEM disciplines. Ultimately, we will strive to be a conduit for communication throughout the STEM community, bringing together scientists at local and national levels on this issue and others.
As we watch the political landscape take shape in this time of transition from one administration to the next, our concerns as Americans, and particularly as scientists, are real. Most of the individuals chosen for the top tiers of President Trump’s administration have expressed skepticism that climate change is caused or exacerbated by human activity. Since many of these administrative posts have some jurisdiction over climate policy, there is the likelihood that the federal government may do little to address the threat of global warming over the next four years. In a post-truth world, where people discard scientific reality simply because they don’t want to believe it, 314 Action adds its voice to the canaries in the coal mine who know the truth and refuse to stay silent.