Shaughnessy Naughton, is a trained chemist. She has also twice ran–unsuccessfully–for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 8th district. In seeking elected office, Naughton has been a rarity among scientists, who have traditionally steered away from politics, in favor of the rigors of the laboratory. “For scientists, the mind-set has always been that science is above politics, and that scientists should be above getting involved in politics,” she says.
Though Naughton broke that convention by running for office, a new initiative that she’s spearheading is aiming to get more scientists following in her footsteps. Called 314 Action (after, of course, the first three digits of pi), the group actually launched last summer, but it wasn’t until January, Naughton tells Co.Exist, that it really got off the ground.
The reason, perhaps, is obvious: Donald Trump.
With the newly elected president ushering in an administration that has made no secret of its climate-change skepticism, distrust of approved vaccines, and disavowal of reproductive health care for women, scientists have been left feeling everything from silenced to threatened. The divide between science and politics is eroding, but not in a way that favors the former. “We’re seeing politicians meddle in proven science, and we need to push back against that,” Naughton says. “This is not just dangerous for academic freedom, but for our whole country.”
314 Action is a political action committee formed with the goal of training scientists to run for office. It’s like the science version of Emily’s List, which recruits and supports female political candidates (and like Emily’s List, 314 Action is only backing Democratic candidates–a move that is not so much about creating a partisan divide as it is responding to an anti-science divide that already exists). Since putting out the call for scientists to sign up for candidate training two weeks ago, the organization has seen 2,000 sign-ups.
That response has been overwhelming, but also motivating for Naughton. While the candidate training was originally planned as a webinar, it’s now going to be a full-day seminar hosted on Pi Day (March 14) in Washington, D.C. Naughton and a host of speakers will walk scientists through the basics of running a campaign and generating support. The idea, in part, was motivated by Naughton’s unsuccessful runs for Congress and what she learned in the process. People who come from nontraditional backgrounds face challenges that range from fundraising difficulties to running unsupported by the party, Naughton says, and 314 Action wants to lend some legitimacy to scientists’ campaigns and “really unite the community behind them.”
It’s a tactic that is likely to generate a positive response from the left-leaning faction of Washington. Frustration at the current administration’s disregard for the incontrovertible science of climate change is animating a number of current elected officials; the New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone tweeted out on January 9 that he had joined in a Sierra Club protest against Trump’s cabinet selections, among them Environmental Protection Agency transition pick Myron Ebell–someone renowned for calling climate change rhetoric “alarmist.”
Naughton is not alone in mobilizing scientists to stake a claim on Washington. A planned March for Science will bring thousands to the National Mall on April 22–Earth Day–to show the people making decisions in government need to “listen to the evidence,” organizer and University of Texas Health Science Center postdoctoral fellow Jonathan Berman told the New York Times.
The threats to rationality and hard evidence brought about by this administration are nothing short of terrifying, and the scientific community is moving swiftly to defend both their critical work and the future of the planet. And for everyone who says that planning to get scientists into office will take too much time, or just be plain impossible, Naughton has an answer. “There are over 500,000 elected positions in this country, from school board offices to the federal level,” she says. “Something we want to convey is that we have elections just about every six months in this country–we don’t have to wait another four years to start change.”