Research

Sensing New Threats, Scientists Entertain Political Ambitions

February 02, 2017

Courtesy of Jacquelyn Gill
For Jacquelyn Gill, an ecologist at the U. of Maine at Orono, the Trump administration’s recent moves have set off "a kind of identity crisis," she says, "in terms of what’s the path that could allow me to do the most good."

Work in government was something Jacquelyn Gill, an assistant professor of paleoecology and plant biology at the University of Maine at Orono, thought would happen later in her career — after she got tenure and built a large body of research.

But after President Trump’s administration signaled that it would restrict federal agencies’ communication with the public, sending scientists across the country into a frenzy, Ms. Gill said a campaign for public office may be in the cards for her sooner than she had imagined.

As with many scientists, Ms. Gill’s research depends on grants funded by tax dollars. So she’s made a point of being as transparent as possible about her work. She publishes a blog about her research and is an active Twitter user, looking to engage not just the scientific community, but anyone who’s willing to learn.

That’s why the new White House administration’s recent move was so jarring, Ms. Gill said. It stood against everything she and many other scientists strive for. "The citizens have a right to access the data that’s generated by federal institutions," she said. "The public has the right to know how their taxpayer dollars are being used."

She said she wanted to fight back, but hasn’t quite figured out how. Does she become more of an activist or run for office herself? Ever since the election, she said, "I have been really having a kind of identity crisis in terms of what’s the path that could allow me to do the most good."

Ms. Gill’s questions about how to best serve democracy and defend her field are similar to those that scientists are grappling with across the country. And the Trump administration has given some scientists a newfound sense of urgency to find answers.

In some cases, that sense of urgency translates into campaigns for office. A nonprofit group called 314 Action, which encourages people with STEM backgrounds to run for office, has been approaching scientists, including Ms. Gill (she said she hadn’t made any decisions yet).

Michael B. Eisen, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, has found his answer. He said he’s running in 2018 for the California seat in the U.S. Senate now held by Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat.

"One can’t go around saying, ‘Everybody should get into politics,’ and then say, ‘Oh, but not me,’" Mr. Eisen said. "I felt this was like put-up-or-shut-up time."

Though he hasn’t taken any formal steps for his run for the Senate, Mr. Eisen said the scientific community needed someone to defend science as a whole. He said that he knew that the transition from his lab to the campaign trail would not be easy, but that he’d been involved in the politics of science, fighting for principles like open-access research, experience that may come in handy.

Mr. Eisen isn’t running to add another vote for the left and to widen partisan divides, he said. He wants lawmakers to use empiricism to figure out the best policies and practices.

‘Bow Down to the Facts’

U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, a California Democrat, knows the desire to have empiricism lead decisions in Congress all too well. Mr. McNerney has a Ph.D. in mathematics and was inspired to run after being disappointed with former President George W. Bush’s policies on the Iraq War. When his son, who was serving in the Air Force at the time, received his absentee ballot, Mr. McNerney said, he realized he wanted to be one of those options on the ballot.

Ten years after being sworn into office for the first time, Mr. McNerney said he still missed being able to put an equation on a blackboard to prove his argument.

"In science one of the really critical things is you have to bow down to the facts, and there aren’t ‘alternative facts,’" Mr. McNerney said.

As some scientists contemplate a run for public office or become more politically involved, Mr. McNerney said he hoped that science could be applied to new policies, like encouraging solar- and wind-energy use. He also hopes that more people will be interested in what scientists are doing.

Once a week, Mr. McNerney said, he does his part to generate interest in science on Capitol Hill. House members are allowed to give one-minute speeches before each daily session, and once a week Mr. McNerney gets on the House floor to talk about a new scientific discovery, he said.

After attending a mathematics conference in Baltimore recently, Mr. McNerney said, he learned about a new "twin prime" theory, involving a prime number that is two less or two more than another prime number. He later gave a one-minute speech about twin primes before a daily session, and the response from other lawmakers was encouraging.

That is the type of interaction Ms. Gill strives for. Even if she doesn’t end up running for public office, she’s trying to engage people, not just her students, every day about her scientific work, she said. For example, her laptop sports a sticker that reads "Strong Science = Strong America." When she’s on an airplane or in a public place the sticker isn’t just for decoration, but serves as a cue to invite seatmates to chat with her about what she does.

In those daily interactions, and through her blog and Twitter account, Ms. Gill is trying to dismantle stereotypes that science isn’t accessible and that scientists don’t live in the real world, she said. As a first-generation college student, Ms. Gill said, she understands when people outside of academe don’t understand what scientists do. "We just haven’t necessarily been as vocal and visible. In some cases we are a highly respected group, but there are also, I think, a lot of people who don’t necessarily trust us to understand what working-class people are struggling with."

As she figures out how to take on more political responsibility, Ms. Gill said she would continue engaging with the public and encouraging her colleagues to do the same. But now, every move feels more important.

"If I can’t bring students to my lab because of discriminatory immigration bans and if I can’t protect the students that I have in my lab because of other legislation, and if my funding is at risk, for myself or for my students," Ms. Gill said, "that holds up my ability to just be a scientist."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.