Last month, chemist Nancy Goroff failed to unseat Representative Lee Zeldin (R–NY) and become the first female science Ph.D. in the U.S. Congress. But the 52-year-old Democrat is still hoping national politics will loom large in her future.
Goroff waited until after New York state election officials completed counting absentee ballots on 4 December to concede defeat, by a margin of 55% to 45%, in her race against Zeldin. The three-term congressman got more votes than President Donald Trump, who won the Long Island district for the second time, and Goroff trailed President-elect Joe Biden. In retrospect, Goroff says, “It was clear that this district was not as much in play as we had thought.”
The former chair of the chemistry department at Stony Brook University isn’t dwelling on the outcome of her first attempt at national office, however. She has resigned from the faculty position she has held for 23 years, effective at the end of the current academic year. She’s hoping her next job will be in Washington, D.C., working for the Biden administration or for an advocacy organization that relies on scientific evidence to make its case.
“I ran because I wanted to bring more science into policymaking,” she says. “That’s still my goal. And I’m very excited that Biden is continuing to focus on that” in his plans to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, address climate change, and foster economic growth.
Money and message
Goroff blames her defeat partly on what she says was Trump’s success in waging a campaign that “rejected science and reality.” The chemistry professor takes special umbrage at how Zeldin, a lawyer and Trump loyalist, claimed a pivotal role in the U.S. Department of Energy’s recent decision to build an electron-ion collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a major employer in the district. “He said he had done more to advance science this year than I had done in my entire career,” she says about Zeldin’s boast during the campaign.
Goroff had surprised some observers by beating Zeldin’s previous opponent, Perry Gershon, in a bruising Democratic primary. She says any scientist planning to follow in her footsteps also needs to match her ability to raise the millions of dollars required to run a serious campaign.
“Money is a real barrier,” she says. “I was fortunate to have a strong personal network that helped me get past the credibility gap” that any political novice must overcome.
Goroff regrets not being able to help Democrats partially offset the loss of a dozen seats that will result in a razor-thin governing majority in the U.S. House of Representatives that convenes next month. But she thinks having Biden in the White House will bolster her party’s chances of advancing its agenda.
“I’m excited by the president-elect’s rhetoric and his commitment to use science as a leading factor in making decisions,” she says. “It’ll be a huge change.”