26 October 2018

A boatload of scientists ran for public office this year. How are they doing?

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Shane M Hanlon

Scientists have traditionally been underrepresented in public office, especially at the federal level. In Congress, there are only two PhD scientists – Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill), a physicist, and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), a mathematician. While efforts to get more scientists in public office are not new, they ramped up in response to the 2016 election. For example, 314 Action, a DC–based nonprofit leading an organized effort to elect more scientists and engineers into public office, was founded in 2016 by researcher Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemist who previously ran for Congress in Pennsylvania. Since then, numerous candidates with STEM backgrounds have decided to run for the House of Representatives for the 2018 election. With less than two weeks to the election, I wanted to check in to see how well those candidates are doing. 

As I’m writing this, I came across this great write up from Science: The ‘Political’ Scientists. It outlines the tracks of thosewho are still in the races. Some high-level notes:

  • Of the 48 candidates they identify, there are 14 PhDs, two JDs, 10 MDs, one DMD, 15 MSs, and six BSs.
  • Only 18 made it past their primaries.
  • Of the 18, there are 2 PhDs, one JD, 7 MDs, one DMD, and seven MSs.

Another analysis by researcher Dr. Matt Motta identified 194 candidates with at least a BS/BA in some STEM-related field. Simliar to the Science article, Motta’s research shows that most candidates didn’t make it to the general election. From his manuscript, “Figure 1 (Panel D) shows that less than one third (30%) of the STEM candidates who ran for Congress in 2018 advanced beyond the primaries. While some (8%) were eliminated prior to primary contests, most lost in primary elections (61%).

Figure from Motta’s manuscript, Political Scientists: A Profile of the Congressional Candidates with STEM Backgrounds


Similar attrition has been observed when it comes to support. 314 action originally endorsed 22 campaigns nationwide. Only 13 of those won in the primaries.

Much of the attention has been paid to national races; however, scientists are also running in increased numbers in state elections, and getting more support. 314 Action has endorsed over 70 candidates for state-wide races.

As we head into the final stretch, it will be interesting to see how the remaining candidates do in the general election and how much their science backgrounds play into their success (or failure). And, it’s important to point out that event though I focused a lot on how successful (or not) candidates have been so far, the numbers we’re seeing this year are encouraging nonetheless and hopefully a sign of things to come in the future.

Shane M Hanlon is a Senior Specialist in AGU’s Sharing Science program. Find him @ecologyofshane.