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Science candidates prevail in US midterm elections

Trump administration’s controversial science and environment policies could come under extra scrutiny as Democrats gain in Congress.

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Cynthia Lazo, 25, votes in an outdoor booth during midterm elections on Oct 24th 2018

Voters across the United States headed to the polls on 6 November.Credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The results of the political experiment are in. At least 11 candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering or medicine won election to the US House of Representatives on 6 November — including several who had never before run for political office.

They include Elaine Luria, a US Navy veteran and nuclear engineer in Virginia, and Chrissy Houlahan, a former business executive with a degree in engineering, in Pennsylvania. Illinois saw wins by registered nurse Lauren Underwood, a former senior adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services, and clean-energy entrepreneur Sean Casten, who has degrees in engineering and biochemistry.

The four — all Democrats — are among roughly 50 candidates with science backgrounds who ran for the House in 2018, sparked in part by opposition to President Donald Trump. Fewer than half of these novice politicians made it past the primaries to the general election, but many science advocates are already looking to the next campaign cycle.

“I’m feeling good,” says Representative Bill Foster (Democrat, Illinois), a physicist who has pushed to increase the number of scientists in elected office. Foster, the only current member of Congress with a science PhD, is excited about wins at the state and local levels by candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering or medicine (STEM).

“We’ll have a much deeper bench among STEM candidates in future races for Congress,” he says.

Full House

With votes still being counted in a handful of national races, the advocacy group 314 Action expects that eight of the 22 candidates it endorsed for the House or Senate will ultimately win. The group, which sprung up after the 2016 election to help scientists run for office, also backed about 50 candidates in state races. As many as 31 could prevail in the final tally.

“It’s certainty exceeded our expectations of what we would be able to do this year,” says Shaughnessy Naughton, 314 Action’s president. She says that the group spent US$2 million during this election cycle on items such as ads and voter-registration drives, and contributed another $250,000 to various candidates’ campaigns.

That wave of interest is “indicative of people’s desire to get involved, and a recognition that it’s no longer okay to sit on the sidelines and watch”, says Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, Maryland.

The victories for science candidates came as Democrats regained a majority of seats in the House, taking the chamber back from Republicans — who still control the Senate and the White House.

Recapturing the House is “no small feat”, says Elizabeth Gore, senior vice-president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental-advocacy group in New York City. “It is going to change the dialogue in Washington, and will certainly change the dynamic around science and the environment.”

A changing climate

One of the most dramatic transitions will involve the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat and vocal critic of the Trump administration, is likely to take the helm from retiring Representative Lamar Smith (Republican, Texas). As chair, Smith has repeatedly questioned the science behind climate change, sought to pare back the National Science Foundation’s research portfolio and launched dozens of probes into alleged wrongdoing by individual scientists and US government science agencies.

By contrast, Johnson released a list of policy priorities on 6 November that includes fighting climate change — “starting with acknowledging it is real” — and making the science panel “a place where science is respected”.

Smith is not the only Republican with a strong interest in science who will exit Congress at the end of year. Voters rejected a bid for re-election by Representative John Culberson of Texas, a space enthusiast who leads the House spending panel that oversees NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Culberson’s stalwart support for a NASA mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa became a campaign issue after his opponent accused him of favouring pet projects and neglecting local issues in his district near Houston.

Culberson is “probably the strongest supporter of planetary science, maybe in history”, says Casey Dreier, senior policy adviser at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California. “It was so neat to see someone in Congress who had a personal passion for the search for extraterrestrial life.”

Poles apart

Holding even a slim margin in the House will give Democrats the power to investigate the Trump administration’s policies. Gore says that this is likely to translate into congressional hearings that probe the administration’s efforts to roll back a variety of climate and environmental regulations, and whether they are justified by the available science.

“Some of the oversight that we will see in a Democratic House will be focused on re-establishing scientific integrity and highlighting the failure of the Trump administration to use scientifically based information for policymaking,” Gore adds.

Others worry that with Democrats taking the House and Republicans solidifying their majority in the Senate, political gridlock will worsen in the coming years. With this election, “the polarization in the Congress has increased”, says Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. “What was left of moderate Republicans — those are the people who systematically lost to Democrats.”

Nature 563, 302-303 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07322-z
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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 07 November 2018: This story used an outdated title for Casey Dreier. He is the senior policy adviser at the Planetary Society, not its director of space policy.