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Live Science: Hey, Congress: Scientists Are Coming for Your Seats

By Michael Dahr, Live Science

From commanding eight nuclear reactors to building a telecom infrastructure in Central America, the experiences of U.S. political candidates have gotten more interesting of late. A wave of political hopefuls with science-y backgrounds may soon bring fascinating experiences and vital knowledge to the country’s governing bodies.

Famed astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson once lamented that most members of the U.S. Congress are lawyers, with few STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) representatives. “Where are the engineers? Where’s the rest of … life?” he asked in 2011 on the HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

The last year has seen hundreds of new candidates try to answer Tyson’s question. More than 450 candidates with STEM backgrounds are running at all levels (local, state and federal), including 60 at the federal level, according to estimates from 314 Action, a group that supports such candidates. The organization has helped train 1,400 STEM professionals in campaigning, with another 35 to 40 completing trainings this past weekend in Chicago.

Those numbers represent a huge change; with the recent loss of Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York representative with a microbiology background who died March 16, Congress currently has only two members with hard science backgrounds (physics and chemistry), said Ted Bordelon, a spokesman for 314 Action.

That flurry of activity came partially in response to the election of Donald Trump as president, said 314 Action President Shaughnessy Naughton. But candidates are also reacting to long-standing issues like conservative opposition to actions that would reduce greenhouse gases, proposed cuts to research funding and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), she said.

“The attack on science didn’t start with the Trump administration, but it certainly has been a catalyst for getting scientists to step up and get involved,” Naughton said.

Here are some of the unique perspectives that may soon come to office: Elaine Luria, Brian Forde, Ellen Lipton, Dr. Mai Khanh Tran and Lauren Underwood. Three of them — Lipton, Luria and Underwood — earned the latest 314 Action endorsements. (Live Science and parent company Purch do not endorse any candidates.) 

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Biochemist brings research to the legislature

Lipton paired degrees in biochemistry and law, serving as a patent attorney in the biotech and materials-chemistry industries. Through that work, she honed a probing, questioning approach to problem solving that she brought to her first elective role, as a Michigan state representative, Lipton said. She’s now running for national office in the state’s 9th Congressional District.

“I would look at legislative problems as problems to be researched and thought through,” she said. Lipton’s inclination toward thorough research helped her with one of her biggest legislative achievements. Partisan talking points about “throwing money” at schools had stymied any education funding increases for years, Lipton said, until she successfully pushed for an “adequacy study” to find exactly what level of funding students needed.

Results from the study helped spur long-needed funding allocations for Michigan schools, she said.

“I feel like it helped break the logjam,” Lipton said. “People know now, in both parties, we need to fund schools.”

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