Tracy Van Houten has an undoubtedly cool job. She’s a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and she currently leads a team that’s conducting testing for the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. She joined JPL, located 15 miles outside of downtown Los Angeles, 13 years ago. Since then, she’s worked on several space missions, including the last Mars rover mission, Curiosity, and an Earth satellite that collects data on soil moisture.
Landing a job at JPL wasn’t an accident. Van Houten dreamed of working at the NASA center since she was in high school, and she looked for any way to get her foot in the door. She collected the business cards of people with even a slight connection to JPL, and she sent out hundreds of resumes. She hustled her way to her dream job. Now she’s willing to give it all up.
Van Houten is running to fill an empty seat in the 34th Congressional District of California, which includes several prominent neighborhoods in and around downtown Los Angeles. She says she’s been pondering a run for office for several years, volunteering on prior campaigns and attending political training seminars. When Xavier Becerra left his seat in Congress earlier this year to become attorney general of California, Van Houten saw a chance to accelerate her plan.
The field is crowded: Van Houten is one of 24 candidates in the race. The majority of the candidates in the race are Democrats, with one Republican, one independent, and two third-party candidates. Van Houten’s competition includes candidates who have worked for Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Voters will cast their ballots in a special primary election on April 4. Two front-runners will be chosen for a general election in June, unless one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, in which case that candidate wins. If Van Houten wins, she would become the first female engineer in Congress.
“It was very attractive that I could run in my area for Congress and fight back against the anti-science, anti-reason agenda that is going on in Washington right now,” she told Ars in a phone interview. “And it’s especially important to have people involved in the STEM discipline to have a seat at the table in Washington. Our representation there is very, very low.”
A growing group
Van Houten’s campaign isn’t an anomaly. There’s a growing trend of scientists and engineers seeking public office, many of whom say they’re reacting to the cabinet picks and policy decisions from the new Trump Administration, which in many cases have been at odds with science. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the former CEO of ExxonMobil, a company that misled the public about the impacts of global warming. Scott Pruitt, the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, recently said that he “would not agree that [human activity is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” a statement that contradicts decades of accepted research. President Trump himself has called climate change a hoax. His administration’s proposed budget looks to cut funding for the National Institutes of Health by nearly $6 billion and end federal climate change programs. All of these actions have riled up the scientific community, causing many to speak out publicly and become involved in the political process. A March for Science is planned on Saturday, April 22, also known as Earth Day.
Historically, the legislators in the US House and Senate usually come from backgrounds in law, business, or public service. Only a handful of scientists and engineers seek public office. Rush Holt, Jr., a former representative in New Jersey and current executive publisher of the journal Science, notably produced bumper stickers that read, “My Congressman IS a Rocket Scientist!” He was only the second physicist in Congress, after Vern Ehlers, who represented a district in Michigan as a Republican. Today, Bill Foster (D-IL), is the only physicist in Congress. And Louise Slaughter (D-NY) is currently the only House member with a background in microbiology.
Now more people in STEM fields are showing an interest in running for office—and many don’t have any formal experience running a campaign. 314 Action, a nonprofit organization named after the first three digits of the number pi, hopes to help solve that problem. It encourages those in the STEM community to run and offers resources to potential candidates, such as training sessions. Founder Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemist who previously sought a seat in Congress, says that having more science-minded people in Washington “would lead to a more collaborative and fact-based approach to governing.”
“We have a lot of people that never considered running for office before that now feel compelled to step up and try to make a difference in their communities because of this assault on our future,” she told Ars.
More than 3,000 people have reached out to the organization since January. Most of those people are left-leaning and about half of them are women. 314 Action has not officially endorsed any candidates yet, but it’s currently only supporting Democrats because the organization considers the Republican party anti-science, especially on issues like climate change. The training sessions, however, are open to people from all political parties.
Scientists who don’t align with the Democratic party are still interested in change, too. Michael Eisen, who teaches classes on genetics, genomics, and development at UC Berkeley, plans to run for a Senate seat currently held by Dianne Feinstein in 2018. He told Ars he wants to run as an Independent.
“It makes the path a little bit more difficult,” he says. “But if I win, I’ll be far more effective.” Parties compel politicians to “vote against what is rational,” he adds.
Like other scientists, Eisen believes that putting more people in office who are curious and use lots of data to solve problems would benefit the country. This doesn’t just apply to those in STEM fields—he also thinks that government needs more people who are ranchers or farmers, as they also use data to make important decisions.
The idea that science and politics shouldn’t mix is outdated, says Eisen. And, he says, many scientists don’t want to give up their careers. But Eisen wants to inspire other scientists who want to run for office in the future.
“There are not a lot of role models for scientists interested in politics,” he says. “I hope I can help to change it.”
Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, considered running for Congress, but she has decided not to run at this time.
An initial volley
With the election for California’s 34th district coming up on Tuesday, Van Houten will likely be the first candidate from a STEM field since Trump took office. (Notably, a runoff senate election in December in Louisiana included several candidates who expressed unfounded doubt that humans were a primary cause of climate change.) If voters want more people in Washington from other backgrounds, this is the first test, although the turnout for local elections is usually dismal. An election in March in L.A. County drew just 11.45% of voters.
But Van Houten is optimistic. She recruited several engineers to work on her campaign, and the team pores over data every night. They use that data to target Van Houten’s message and interact with people in the community. Her campaign is focused on holding officials accountable, and her priorities include immigration, LGBTQ rights, the environment, and education.
Van Houten has kept her job at JPL, although she will quit if she ultimately wins the general election. She thinks that her skills as an engineer and her work at JPL will easily apply to Congress. In many ways, she says, designing system requirements for a space mission is similar to crafting a law.
Another one of Van Houten’s selling points to left-leaning voters in Los Angeles is that she’s against Trump’s policies and the anti-science rhetoric coming out of Washington. “The most effective way to fight back against a Trump administration and a GOP-controlled government is to send somebody who is the complete opposite of Trump to Washington,” she says.
Whether or not she is successful, Trump’s policies will likely continue to inspire more people from STEM fields to run for office, and perhaps more women and people from underrepresented communities.
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