Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Several scientists have pledged to run for seats in Congress, but a handful think their expertise can do the most good in the local halls of power.
Bryan Sutton knows exactly what to say when he goes knocking door-to-door in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “I’m Bryan Sutton, a first-time candidate for city council. I'm an engineer, and I'm trying to get money out of politics.”
Sutton has a degree in astrophysics and works largely in the locomotive manufacturing business—two areas that, by his own admission, have nothing to do with ending political corruption. But he assures me, as he does his potential supporters in this week’s off-year election, that between his problem solving and management skills, and his involvement in local activism, he’s the right guy to get such a job done in his city.
Like many in the science community, Sutton is making his first foray into politics, largely in response to President Donald Trump and his administration’s rejection of health and environmental science, among other things. Many say they will be running for office this year and next in hopes of grabbing seats in Congress, which would help boost the dismal number of representatives with scientific backgrounds. Only one of the 535 members is a physicist (Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois) and one other is a mathematician (Rep. Jerry McNerney of California). A small handful are from the medical field, and a few others have undergraduate degrees in science, as The Atlantic previously reported. Sutton, though, has his eyes set on city hall.
Home to MIT, Cambridge is a city in which “there's no discussion on whether climate change is real,” Sutton says, adding that the state already has progressive representatives in Congress. But on the local levels, he says, his knowledge of data and analytics will come in handy for implementing city-wide initiatives. Cambridge, for example, already has a climate change preparedness plan in the works, and Sutton hopes to help carry it out when it’s completed next year.
Sutton isn’t alone in his ambitions. First-time candidates in this year’s local elections also include Christina Vandepol, a physician looking to be Chester County’s new coroner in Pennsylvania; Kevin Kosty, a laboratory scientist running for alderman in Shelton, Connecticut; and physicist Stacey Palen, who hopes to become the mayor of Marriott-Slaterville, Utah. At least 65 other scientists are running in local school board elections this year (and 140 more next year), according to the political action committee 314 Action (named after the digits for pi), which encourages and trains scientists to run for public office.
That’s only a handful of the 7,000 scientists who have told the organization that they intend to run for local, state, and national seats, says 314 Action founder Shaughnessy Naughton—herself a chemist. “A lot of time, when they start talking about the issues that are most important to them,” she says, “they turn out to be more of a local issue more than a federal one.”
By running for school board, for example, those scientists are at the forefront of keeping science in the curriculum amid a growing movement of anti-science education bills pursued by various states. Louisiana and Tennessee have already enacted such “academic freedom” legislation, and the Washington Post reports that since 2014, more than 60 have been filed in state legislatures.
“It’s incredibly important—making sure that just because a topic might be uncomfortable for someone, like evolution or climate change, it isn’t going to be taken out of the curriculum,” says Naughton. “And if children aren’t taught the scientific method and how to think critically, what does that spell out for our future?”
As for Sutton, he believes that science has been stifled by influence of political contributions on policymakers, both national and local. And his drive to get money out of politics starts in Cambridge. In scientific fashion, he breaks down residents’ concerns about campaign contributions in the local paper Cambridge Day, with no shortage of data, graphs, and charts:
Winning candidates spent on average $59,000 in 2015. A poll early this year by Voatz of 611 Cambridge residents found 74 percent were concerned by the money spent in those campaign; 64 percent agreed Cambridge politicians are influenced by campaign contributions; and 58 percent supported publicly funded elections.
“Municipal-level positions can be more powerful than you think,” says Kevork Abazajian, an astrophysicist who is running for city council next year in Irvine, California. He points to the global phasing out of the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) beginning in the 1980s. That’s a class of chemicals that was widely used in air conditioning and refrigeration but was found to be destroying the Earth’s ozone layer.
All that, he says, began in Irvine, starting with the initial discovery by two UC Irvine chemists—who won a Nobel Prize for it—and the subsequent law passed in 1989 by Irvine city council banning the use of nearly all CFCs in the industrial process. The ordinance came two years after the international adoption of the Montreal Protocol, in which countries agreed to limit the use of such ozone-depleting chemical. And at the time, it was considered to be the most far-reaching of such laws in the U.S. The hope was that other cities, and even other countries, would follow suit.
“We are very eager to prod our national government and international bodies to act much more quickly in the face of this global emergency,” then-Mayor Larry Agran told the New York Times. “Local communities acting two to five years in advance of states and nations is how change takes place.”
Abazajian hopes to continue that legacy as councilman for Irvine. Meanwhile on the East Coast, Sutton says the progressive city of Cambridge can also become such a role model when it comes to climate change. “A main role I see for myself as a scientist is that of an ambassador, and helping other cities get up to where Cambridge is,” Sutton says, adding that he’d be able to explain the more technical aspects of science-based policies.
Both Naughton and Abazajian say they’ll be watching this year’s election closely. “The more scientists that run, the more will be elected at the state and local level, the greater success we're going to have at the federal level,” says Naughton. “Because, let me tell you, running your first race for Congress is not dipping your toe in the pool; it’s jumping right in the deep end.” She ran for Congress in 2014 and 2016, but lost both times in the Democratic primaries.
Asked whether he sees a Congressional run in the future, Abazajian says that’s not off the table. For next year’s election, though, he’s focusing on the community in his very backyard—something he feels scientists in general haven’t been doing enough of. “Academic scientists are often less connected to the community at large often because they're focused on getting out that next result or next paper,” he says. But he’s hoping to change that, in part by representing the UC Irvine community in city hall and in part by keeping his ears open about what the rest of the city wants.