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One marcher at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., shows his support for scientists running for Congress.

Ryan Cross

At a political boot camp for scientists, enthusiasm and anxiety

Self-promotion, pithy sound bites, and political advocacy aren’t always the traits of researchers. But those are the skills a group of 60 scientifically trained attendees were encouraged to embrace last week at an event in Washington, D.C., that was part boot camp and part pep rally for scientists and those employed in technical fields who are considering running for local, state, or national offices. Judging by the reactions of those in attendance, however, it may be some time before the nation sees a large number of science-savvy candidates out on the stump.

The 20 April gathering, organized by a group called 314 Action that aims to encourage more scientists and engineers to run for office, was one of a number of events held in advance of the 22 April March for Science. The group’s recruitments have been amply covered by the media, and a few of the wanna-be candidates in attendance—who came from all over the nation—seemed at ease hopping amongst the reporters and camera crews, eager to share their stories and ambitions.

But many others appeared downright anxious and unsure, and hesitated when asked about their political views, hometowns and workplaces by ScienceInsider. A few even asked to remain anonymous, concerned about potential repercussions back home if they were associated with political activity. For these wary potential politicos, the event was mostly a way to test the waters and see whether public campaigning might be within their comfort zone.

314 Action, named after the first three digits of pi, was founded by former chemist Shaughnessy Naughton, who unsuccessfully ran for Pennsylvania’s eighth congressional district in 2014. Naughton kicked off the day on a positive note, telling the crowd that “running for office is a lot easier than getting your Ph.D.” Although the group is not a direct result of the election of Donald Trump to the White House—it was founded last summer—Naughton said that the current administration “has been a catalyst for scientists to step up and get involved.” 314 Action currently has coordinators in 35 states and says it has received inquiries from about 5000 scientists.

Naughton says her group embraces “a broad definition of scientist.” Attendees at the day-long Washington, D.C., workshop included a high school science teacher, a developmental psychologist, and an industrial engineer.

Despite the academic diversity, environmental issues emerged as a central rallying cry for the group. Sir Robert Watson, whose career has included positions as a scientific adviser for the World Bank and the White House, as well as chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, gave an impassioned, data-heavy speech identifying climate change and biodiversity loss as the two greatest threats to human health.

One active politician-scientist at the event was Philip Stoddard, a full time biology professor at Florida International University in Miami who is now in his fourth term as mayor of South Miami. He warned against campaigning only on megaissues such as climate change, however, and recommended emphasizing local concerns, too. “Larger issues you think are important are not going to get you elected,” Stoddard told ScienceInsider.

Mixed reactions

After hearing from speakers about the difficulties of campaigning and getting occasionally conflicting advice from panelists— a tribute to the nonlinear nature of politics—participants had mixed reactions. Steven Woyach, a computer game designer in Palo Alto, California, who has “been throwing around the idea of running for office for a long time,” said the event made the notion seem simultaneously “more doable and more daunting.”

Biomedical researcher Patricia Zornio, who works at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, said she is “seriously considering” running in 2020 as a Democrat for the Colorado Senate seat currently held by Senator Cory Gardner (R). Zornio said she was “incredibly energized to meet so many people here that want to help.” But she still wasn’t used to reporters asking her about her background and political opinions. “You know, when I go to a conference, people never ask me about me,” she said, laughing. “They always ask about my data.”

Elaine DiMasi said her science career as physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory for 21 years has prepared her well for politics. “Scientists welcome complexity,” she says. “We know that if you touch one piece of the health care system, you change everything else. We say, ‘Good, let’s see how we can analyze that.’” DiMasi is considering running as a Democrat in New York’s first congressional district, a seat currently held by Republican Representative Lee Zeldin.

Kathryn Allen, a family physician who is planning to run as a Democrat for Utah’s third congressional district in 2018, emerged as a star in the crowd, winning applause when one attendee announced during a Q&A session that the district’s current office holder, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R), had just announced he would not run for re-election in 2018.

But one attendee, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed concern about the group’s partisanship. Currently, 314 Action supports only Democrats. Many of the workshop participants self-identified as Democrats or political progressives (although Naughton said that scientists of any political party were welcome to attend the event). Naughton says she is interested in setting up a designated fund to support Republicans, but so far no right-leaning potential candidates have contacted her. “The Republican Party’s platform is just not acceptable on climate change,” she says.

It will be months before the public learns just how many of 314 Action’s trainees try to find a place on a ballot. But Patrick Madden, a computer scientist at the State University of New York in Binghamton who plans to run for that state’s 22nd district congressional seat, says he was emboldened by the event. “The skillset in that room was insane,” he said. And although “every last one of us could make more money doing something else,” he was impressed at the number who are thinking about making the leap into politics.