Her opponent calls her a “radical professor.” But Nancy Goroff says her scientific expertise is exactly what Congress needs to deal effectively with climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a host of other issues.
A physical organic chemist and longtime faculty member at Stony Brook University, Goroff will face off in November against Representative Lee Zeldin (R–NY), a lawyer seeking his fourth term. If she wins, Goroff would become the first female Ph.D. scientist to serve in Congress.
Running in a Long Island district that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after twice backing Barack Obama for president, the first-time candidate is touting her scientific credentials.
“As a scientist, I look at things differently than the way politicians do,” Goroff says in one ad. Referring to the pandemic, she adds, “I’m running for Congress to use my science to lead us out of this crisis.”
Into the fray
Goroff is no stranger to Democratic politics, having given more than $100,000 in some years to the national party and individual candidates. She has also been active in advocating for science, serving on the advisory board of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Along with many of her academic peers, Goroff stepped up those advocacy efforts after Trump took office in January 2017. She participated in both the Women’s March the day after his inauguration and the People’s Climate March in April, although professional obligations prevented her from attending the March for Science 1 week earlier. But she didn’t join the cluster of scientists running as part of what turned out to be a successful attempt by Democrats to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I had just started as department chair [in January 2017] after stepping down as interim dean of the graduate school, and I was focused on how to make the university a better place,” she says.
Still, she didn’t like where Trump was taking the country, and she was also troubled by the growing power of social media to amplify false messages and distort civic discourse. In the aftermath of the November 2018 midterm elections, she says, “I felt that it was time to put in a full effort and try to be part of the solution.”
Her decision to run came as a surprise to her departmental colleagues. “She told us she had an announcement, and we all expected to hear she was taking a job” as a dean or provost at another university, recalls Robert “Barney” Grubbs. Instead, she told them she wanted to beat Zeldin and would be stepping down as chair and taking an 18-month leave of absence.
Her first hurdle was a crowded Democratic primary. Fueled by $1.1 million of her own money, she narrowly defeated Perry Gershon, a developer who lost to Zeldin in 2018 by less than five percentage points and who was favored to win a second shot at the incumbent.
Despite Zeldin’s much larger war chest, recent polls show the two are neck and neck in the runup to the general election. Zeldin has tied himself closely to the president and hailed his policies during a coveted primetime spot at August’s Republican National Convention.
It’s rare that being a scientist plays a significant role in a congressional campaign. But both Goroff and Zeldin have elevated the importance of her academic training in their appeal to voters—she by stressing her expertise, he by implying it puts her outside the political mainstream.
For example, Zeldin’s most recent ad is titled “Radical Professor.” Although it focuses on public safety—he claims Goroff “has fully embraced an extreme antilaw enforcement agenda” while touting his endorsements from several police unions—the label seems designed to paint her job title as out-of-step with blue collar voters in the district.
Goroff waves off the criticism, calling it part of a broader attack on science by Zeldin and other Republicans that lacks any foundation. “They say that any Democrat is a communist or a socialist and that UCS is a left-wing organization,” she says. “And if they think that using facts and scientific evidence as the basis for making policy is radical, then that says more about them than about us.”
Goroff declined to place herself on the political spectrum. But her positions on most issues align with Democratic Party centrists. “She’s no Bernie Sanders,” says one longtime Stony Brook colleague, Stephen Koch, who is moving to emeritus status next year after more than 4 decades on the chemistry faculty.
Despite the claims in Zeldin’s ad, she is opposed to defunding the police. Nor does she support Medicare for All or free college tuition for all students.
Although climate policy is a central pillar of her campaign—she calls global warming “the biggest threat to our way of life”—she has not endorsed the Green New Deal advocated by the party’s progressive wing. “I have strong objections to some provisions, while others are appropriate,” she explains.
Her vision calls for making the country carbon-neutral in energy production by 2035 and enacting a suite of policies that promotes renewable energy sources, cleaner vehicles, and more efficient buildings. Nuclear power is “currently problematic because of safety issues,” she says, but she believes new technologies such as small modular reactors “hold promise and deserve a serious look.” Climate change is such an existential threat, she adds, that “we should not be rejecting any possible solutions.”
Goroff has spent her entire career as an academic. A 1990 graduate of Harvard University, she needed only 4 years to earn a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Following a postdoc at the University of Michigan (UM), Goroff was hired in 1997 as a research scientist at Stony Brook when her then-husband, applied mathematician Glen Whitney, joined Renaissance Technologies, the quantitative hedge fund founded by billionaire James Simons. Two years later she gained a tenure-track position, and by 2014 she was a full professor.
In her lab, Goroff studies the structure of semiconducting polymers with the goal of improving solar cells and other optoelectronic devices. “Nancy isn’t someone who publishes a lot of papers, but her work is always very solid,” says Luis Echegoyen, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, and a former head of the chemistry division at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has supported her work.
The recipient of a prestigious NSF early-career research award, Goroff has also been recognized for her teaching. “Her presence in the lab made us all smarter and better,” recalls James “Ned” Jackson, her postdoc adviser at UM and a good friend. “Rather than just telling people what they should do, she is much more interested in understanding why they think about a problem in a particular way.”
Her ability to walk in someone else’s shoes will be put to the test if she wins a House seat. Asked whether there are any Republicans she can imagine working with despite the hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington, D.C., she doesn’t mention any names but cites climate change as one possibility.
“I think that members are starting to hear from their constituents” about the importance of taking action, she says. She sees an infrastructure program that encourages deployment of green technologies as well as greater investment in research as important steps in that direction. And she would like to be the go-to person whenever members have questions for which science has answers.
“Bill Foster is telling his supporters that his workload would be cut in half if I’m elected,” she says about the Democratic House member from Illinois, a former experimental physicist who is now the only member of Congress with a science Ph.D. “It’s difficult for a nonscientist to distinguish data that are reliable from data that a lobbyist has manipulated to make things look in a particular way. … [So] I want my office to be a resource.”
Assessing foreign threats
One thorny science policy question for which Goroff admits she doesn’t have an answer is how to preserve the global flow of ideas in science without weakening national security. Many in Congress think U.S. universities have been lax in preventing cutting-edge technology from falling into the hands of economic and military adversaries, and several pending bills would restrict access by foreign scientists to U.S. labs and punish U.S. scientists who don’t disclose ties to foreign governments.
“As a scientist, I believe in the importance of international collaboration,” she says. “But I don’t have enough information to take a position on specific cases,” mentioning the government’s prosecution of Harvard chemist Charles Lieber. With regard to China, she says, “We need to take seriously the threats to our intellectual property and to human rights. … But I have not seen evidence that [China] is using access [to U.S. labs] to gain undue access to information.”
Although initially disappointed that she might be leaving them, her Stony Brook colleagues are now rooting for her to win. “I’m telling everyone I meet that we need to send a woman chemist to the House,” Koch says.
As the current president of the American Chemical Society, Echegoyen has another reason for wishing her well. He’s planning a symposium at the society’s spring meeting designed to encourage his colleagues to become more active in politics. He’s hoping that having Nobel laureate Fraser Stoddart say a few words will boost attendance. But an appearance by Goroff just a few months into her new job would be the real attraction.
“We gained more than a dozen technically oriented members in 2018,” he says about that miniwave of rookie legislators with some scientific training. “But they are not real scientists like Nancy.”