Science Fights Back: As Trump Backlash Continues, STEM Professionals in Texas Run for Office
Allison Lami Sawyer’s path to the 2018 Texas midterms started at Space Camp.
As a child growing up in small-town Alabama, Sawyer spent five consecutive summers at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, where she built model rockets and began to envision herself as a scientist. Sawyer went on to earn degrees in engineering and nanotechnology before starting a Houston company called Rebellion Photonics, which develops high-tech cameras to detect gas leaks in oil installations.
Since she moved to Houston in 2008, that scientific background has attuned Sawyer, 33, to what she sees as a decline in “evidence-based decisions” in Texas politics, starting with the Tea Party’s rise to power in 2010 and exacerbated by Donald Trump’s election six years later.
Last spring, with the midterms on the horizon, Sawyer, a Democrat, decided to give politics a try, launching a campaign to unseat state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, in a purple district in the Houston area.
Sawyer is not alone. Across the country, hundreds of candidates with academic or professional experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have left their businesses and laboratories to compete in state legislative contests, congressional elections and even governor’s races. These scientists-turned-politicians constitute the largest wave of such candidates in modern U.S. history, according to 314 Action, an advocacy group that works to elect STEM professionals to public office.
Like the similar surge of women running for office this year, many of these first-time candidates entered the political arena in response to Trump’s election, frustrated with the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and energized by the inaugural Marches for Science held on Earth Day in April 2017.
“Attacks on science didn’t start with the Trump administration,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, a former congressional candidate who founded 314 Action — named for the first three digits of pi — in 2014. “But they’ve taken what felt like a war on science and turned it into a war on facts, and that has been a catalyst for getting scientists involved.”
Over the course of the election cycle, more than 150 candidates with STEM credentials announced campaigns for Congress across the country, according to VoteSTEM, another organization that advocates for scientists to run for office. Eleven of those candidates were in Texas.
Ultimately, only two of the congressional hopefuls in Texas, both of them Democrats, survived the primaries — Joseph Kopser, an engineer running in District 21, which covers a portion of Austin, and Rick Kennedy, a computer scientist competing in District 17 in Central Texas. But around the state, candidates like Sawyer remain in contention for a range of local positions, including seats in the state Legislature and on the State Board of Education.
And although many of these candidates face long odds in November, the current political environment, in which officials invoke “alternative facts” to justify inaccurate claims, could prove favorable to politicians schooled in the scientific method, said Colin Strother, a longtime Democratic strategist in Texas.
Candidates who favor “making data-driven decisions based on evidence and facts” will have a good chance in the upcoming elections, Strother said. “That worldview is a winner.”
This year, the highest-profile Texas candidate with a STEM background is Kopser, an Army veteran, engineer and tech entrepreneur who’s running for the congressional seat that U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, will vacate when he retires at the end of the term.
Smith, who chairs the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, has become something of a bÃªte noire among scientists, who resent his well-publicized efforts to curb climate change research and block environmental regulations. On the campaign trail, Kopser has attacked Smith’s work on the committee, calling him out of touch with science. (A spokesman for the congressman did not respond to a request for comment.)
“This anti-science, anti-facts style of leading this committee leaves a taste in people’s mouth that science is not as cool as it really is,” Kopser said in an interview. “You’ve got Lamar Smith questioning, doubting and putting politics into science in such a way that I’m afraid that it’ll lead people who might want to go into STEM to stay out of it.”
In the primaries, Kopser was not the only candidate with STEM credentials who ran to replace Smith. Republican Sam Temple, a statistician for AT&T, finished a distant 12th in a crowded field of 18 candidates, after an oddball campaign in which he opined memorably on Stanley Milgram’s controversial social psychology experiments during a speech to the Bexar County Republican Women.
Temple, a centrist who plans to vote for Kopser over Republican Chip Roy in the general election, said he ran for Smith’s seat because he did not want to see another “fear-mongering, science-hating Republican” take office. In 2013, Temple was enraged when Smith drafted a bill that critics feared would undermine the peer-review process at the National Science Foundation.
“I remember sitting at my desk at work reading this news article and beating my head against the desk and saying, ‘What the heck is going on?’” Temple said.
Other Texas candidates with STEM backgrounds express similar frustrations at the status of scientific discourse in national politics. Carla Morton, a neuropsychologist running for the State Board of Education as a Democrat, said she remembers feeling dismayed when Trump posited a connection between vaccines and autism, a dubious claim backed by little scientific evidence. And Michelle Beckley, a Democrat with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences who is running for a state House seat in Carrollton, said she wishes politicians would act on data showing the prevalence of gun violence across the country.
Over the course of her campaign, Beckley — whose knowledge of biology helps her prevent diseases from spreading in the bird shop she took over in 2003 — has applied lessons from her scientific training to her political strategy, as she looks to make inroads in a district where the incumbent, state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, cruised to re-election two years ago. Because she ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, Beckley treated that election as an experiment, sending different political mailers — one emblazoned with a donkey, for example, and another lacking equine imagery — to various precincts in her district to see which version generated greater turnout on Election Day.
“There’s no randomness in my campaign,” Beckley said. “I look at the data, so I know what works and what doesn’t work.”
A victory for Morton, Beckley, Sawyer, Kopser or Kennedy would not be the first time that someone with scientific bona fides has broken into Texas politics. Longtime Republican state Sen. Steve Ogden worked as an engineer on nuclear submarines during his career in the Navy. And Ron Paul, the two-time presidential candidate and former Texas congressman, was a doctor who cited his medical experience when he spoke out against abortion.
At the moment, however, only 16 of the Texas Legislature’s 181 members have STEM backgrounds, according to 314 Action. State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, a businessman who serves on the House Energy Resources committee, said it "couldn't hurt" to have more scientists in the Legislature. But he maintained that politicians with backgrounds in business and law also offer important perspectives on environmental issues.
"If someone just comes in and says 'we've got to get rid of fossil fuels 100 percent,' I completely disagree with that just because of the economic impact that that would have on the state of Texas," said Isaac, who unsuccessfully ran for Smith's seat in Congress this year, finishing fourth in the Republican primary. "But their science is certainly going to be welcome."
Many scientists avoid politics because they don’t want their research to become politicized, said Naughton, the founder of 314 Action.
“That is a legitimate concern,” she said. “But that is happening already, and it’s not going to change by pretending that because it’s ill-conceived, it will go away.”
Since its founding four years ago, 314 Action has provided financial support and political advice to STEM professionals interested in running for office. The organization teaches potential candidates how to create fundraising plans and convert their impressive CVs into political narratives suitable for the campaign trail.
One of the candidates 314 Action has worked with this election cycle is Sawyer, the engineer running for a state House seat in Houston.
Sawyer has always enjoyed doing math problems. She finds it calming, she said, “almost like meditation.” Someday, she said, she hopes to send her son, now 8 months old, to a local space camp.
“I just think it’s amazing that this crazy old world can be structured and defined by numbers,” she said.
As Election Day approaches, Sawyer hopes to take that appreciation for analytical thinking to a broader audience and defend scientific inquiry against what she calls “a war on the truth.”
“I never went to war for my country,” she said. “This is my — safe — version of that.”
Disclosure: Joseph Kopser has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.