Jason Westin, who until recently ran clinical trials testing treatments for lymphoma, hopes to claim the Democratic nomination to challenge the veteran Republican incumbent, John Culberson (TX).

Jason Westin campaign

A successful cancer researcher confronts a new challenge: getting elected to Congress

Starting this month, ScienceInsider will be following the 2018 U.S. elections, which have attracted unusual interest from the scientific community. Dozens of candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math are seeking election to Congress, and hundreds more are running for state and local offices. We will be profiling candidates and reporting on news from the campaign trail.

This story is the first in a three-part series about three Texas candidates with scientific backgrounds who are running for the U.S. House of Representatives as Democrats. The primary is 6 March.

As a clinical oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, Jason Westin tries to help his patients cope with their deadly disease by being both honest and upbeat with them. He’s taking the same approach as a first-time candidate for the U.S. Congress: He accepts the long odds and steep learning curve, but he can also see a path to victory.

A Democrat, Westin is hoping to unseat longtime Republican incumbent John Culberson. Democrats view the seventh district, which includes Rice University and affluent neighborhoods on Houston’s west side, as a ripe target because it went narrowly for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 after previously supporting Republican presidential nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain by large margins in the 2012 and 2008 presidential contests, respectively.

But before Westin can run against Culberson in the November general election, he must beat out six other candidates for his party’s nomination. Three have raised considerably more money, a conventional metric to judge a candidate’s viability, and a fourth is banking on name recognition from having made three previous runs at Culberson. And Culberson, who chairs a spending subcommittee that sets the budgets for several federal science agencies, is not without his own considerable resources, including the backing of a national Republican Party desperate to retain his seat.

Indeed, even one of Westin’s staunch supporters is not-so-silently hoping the researcher won’t win and abandon his quest to treat—and one day cure—lymphomas. Westin would “do a fantastic job [in Congress], but he’s grossly overqualified for what goes on in Washington, [D.C.,]” says R. Eric Davis, an associate professor at MD Anderson who partners with Westin on cancer clinical trials. If Westin stays in cancer research, Davis says, “I think he could go on and become a thought leader in the field. There are so many other people who could do a good job without disrupting their careers.”

Davis, whose political views are more conservative than Westin’s, isn’t being selfish. He’s just being a scientist. Productive, early career researchers like Westin traditionally have been loath to take such a leap into politics. But Westin, a physician who says he chose cancer research because it represented the greatest unmet need, believes that he can have an even bigger impact on society by serving in Congress. And he is hoping that 2018 is the right time for him to make that switch.

A flurry of facts

“I’m a 40-year-old father of three, a cancer doctor, and an award-winning researcher from MD Anderson; I deal with facts every day in my job.” That’s how Westin introduced himself to the 400 people who showed up last month at an elementary school on a rainy Saturday for a candidates’ forum on climate change. “My first commercial describes how I will stand up to [President Donald] Trump and his attacks on science. … When I’m in Congress I’ll use facts and science to fight back for us.”

That style was much in evidence at the forum. It was well-suited to the format, in which Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, posed a series of questions to the candidates on energy and environmental issues and demanded short, concise answers. And for better or worse, Westin used his responses to separate himself from the others at the table.

When asked how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, for example, most candidates talked about the need for more public transit and how to get people out of their cars. One even tried to blame their Republican opponent, asserting that “It’s not a technical problem, it’s a John Culberson problem.”

Not Westin. “Seventy percent of our oil goes to transportation—cars and planes. We use 15 billion barrels a day, that’s $2 billion,” he explained. And he was just getting started. “When you drive your car, 85% of the gas you put in it is wasted, and only 5% is used to move the car forward,” he continued. “We can dramatically improve fuel efficiency by making our cars lighter, including the greater use [of] carbon fiber, which is also stronger than metal. I agree we need better public transportation. But in Houston we all know public transportation isn’t available. And we’re a driving state. So, we need to use new technology to get our cars better prepared for the 21st century.”

Another question from Cohan, about increasing federal funding for climate and energy research, gave Westin a chance to display both his knowledge and his credentials. “I think this is one of the most important questions facing the country,” he began. “Are we going to be a global leader in technology, or are we going to move backwards? As a scientist, I’m uniquely qualified to discuss this.”

After mentioning the funding he’s received from the National Institutes of Health, he cited data to rebut Trump’s proposals to cut federal research spending. “For every dollar the government invests in basic research, it produces a return on investment of $8.37,” Westin asserted. “We’re actually living longer and more productive lives as a result of that research, which generates $3.2 trillion every year to drive our economy.”

Jason Westin at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., with his spouse, Shannon, and their children. 

Jason Westin campaign

Westin’s full-throated embrace of science sent the other candidates scrambling to keep up. “I’m a scientist, too, just a political scientist,” said one, to audience laughter. Another confessed, “I’m not a scientist, but I’m married to a scientist.” One candidate even called for restoring the Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan arm of Congress created in 1972 to analyze scientific developments that was eliminated in 1995 after Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives.

The prospect of flipping the seventh district from Republican to Democratic control has energized the party faithful and opened their wallets. Westin, for instance, had raised $389,000 by the end of 2017, an impressive total for a political newcomer. At the same time, it’s far less than the other top-tier candidates, who average $750,000. But second place may be good enough: If nobody receives a majority of the voters cast in the primary, the two top finishers will compete in a 22 May runoff.

Westin has won the endorsement of 314 Action, a nonprofit group formed in 2016 with the goal of getting more scientists and engineers elected to local, state, and national offices. The organization says its support is based on its assessment of a candidate’s viability, judged mainly by the professionalism of the campaign and the size of its war chest.

The group’s endorsement “is a way to verify my credentials,” Westin says. Such a stamp of approval can help him raise more money, he adds—a necessary evil for a candidate to be taken seriously. “It’s critical for me to do adequate fundraising to get my message out to voters,” he says. “There are so many things happening in the world these days, it’s hard to get their attention. So, fundraising is a key part of the campaign.”

Treating the body politic

Westin grew up in Florida and received both his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Florida in Gainsville. He did his residency at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill. He tacked a year onto his residency so he could be in step with his wife’s career as an obstetrician-gynecologist; during that time he helped create a department of hospital medicine at UNC. He started a clinical fellowship at MD Anderson in 2008 and joined the faculty in 2011.

Westin launched his campaign last spring, and by the fall he had handed over management of his clinical trials—most recently testing the efficacy of a combination of three drugs used to treat large B-cell lymphoma—to colleagues. He’s also reduced his clinical hours to 1 day a week, leaving him 6 days a week to campaign. The schedule allows him to continue to practice medicine without running afoul of rules governing political activity by state employees.

“So, I still work at MD Anderson, and I’m not on leave,” he explains. “If I had taken leave and continued to get paid, it would effectively mean that the state of Texas was paying me to run for Congress.”

When he’s in the clinic, Westin says the needs of his patients come first. Even so, many want to talk about his campaign, and he says sometimes the patient-doctor relationship overrides their party affiliation. “I’ve had several patients tell me, ‘You’ll be the first Democrat I’ll be supporting in a couple of decades.’”

Westin believes that his medical training will make him a more effective legislator. “Doctors don’t have the luxury of endlessly debating something,” he says. “When a patient comes to see you, you have to analyze the available facts, even if it’s not complete, come to a conclusion and explain it to them, and then act. And that’s something that I think would serve our political system well, in having more people who are trying to get things done.”

The Republican members of Congress who are doctors also possess those skills, Westin acknowledges. And he’s surprisingly generous is explaining how, given similar backgrounds and training, they can take stances that he strongly opposes, such as repealing the Affordable Care Act or dismissing the role of humans in climate change.

“I don’t think we want a Congress where everybody thinks the same way and every vote is unanimous,” he says. “That’s not healthy for our democracy. So I think having doctors with different backgrounds and perspectives is healthy.”

A life-long Democrat, Westin says he’s too busy at work to discuss politics with colleagues, but he suspects that the 35 to 40 members of the center’s aggressive lymphoma team hold a range of political views. That’s certainly the case for Davis, who came to MD Anderson in 2009 and began his collaboration with Westin 2 years later. “When I was young I was a Republican,” says Davis, who grew up in South Carolina and worked as a pathologist before making a midcareer move into bench science. “Then I became an anti-Democrat. And now I’m an anti-Republican.”

Westin has said repeatedly that he plans to return to MD Anderson if his bid for Congress is unsuccessful. But Davis isn’t so sure.

“So if he doesn’t win,” Davis speculates, “I think he’ll ask himself, ‘Why didn’t I win?’ And if he thinks that it just takes time to gain recognition, and that maybe next time more people will know him, then who knows. He has so much going for him—he’s photogenic, he’s got a family, he’s at MD Anderson, [and] he’s got people like me who praise him to the hilt.”