Joseph Kopser, an aerospace engineer, Army veteran and Austin tech entrepreneur, is spending October on the campaign trail, Texas style.
At a barbecue, a block party, even a hayride through Hill Country, he’s making the case for a dramatic change in Texas’ 21st Congressional District and an historic transformation in the U.S. Congress.
Kopser is one of more than a dozen scientists running for Congress this November—a record number that reflects a groundswell of political activism in the scientific community triggered by the anti-science agenda of President Donald Trump‘s administration, especially on climate change.
Kopser is quick to point out that the political attacks on science pre-date Trump. His district is a prime example: He’s running to fill the congressional seat of retiring Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, who spent the past six years using his power as chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to cast doubt on consensus climate and environmental science.
“The problem I saw is we are so entrenched in our camps and party loyalty, no one is willing to think about other ways of doing business right now,” said Kopser, who is a Democrat like many of the scientists running for office. “Trump is just a symptom of the day and age.”
The scientist candidates and their supporters say the political movement has the potential to transform Congress, injecting a critical mass of evidence-based thinkers who could lessen the influence of ideology on decision-making. It could help catalyze real debate on solutions to address climate change and a host of other issues, they say.
Already, the scientists are having an impact, forcing some GOP opponents to attempt to rebrand themselves to appeal to voters who are concerned about the environment. But the collective clout of the engineers, physicians and other scientists running for Congress ultimately will depend on getting elected, and their odds vary widely depending on the political landscape of their states and local districts.
Backlash Against a ‘War on Truth and Fact’
The post-Trump pro-science political movement began to coalesce soon after the 2016 election, as tens of thousands of scientists took to the streets in response to Trump’s anti-science views in the April 2017 March for Science.
At that time, it was unclear whether protest would translate to sustained political action. But science advocates were further galvanized by the Trump administration’s sidelining of federal scientists and advisers and rollback of environmental protections. By the start of this year, hundreds of scientists were seeking office at the local, state, and federal levels, most of them for the first time, according to 314 Action, a non-profit that seeks to recruit and support scientists in politics and has an affiliated political action committee.
“I think the general war on truth and fact that the Trump administration has launched has outraged not just the scientific community, but a lot of average Americans who know that the sun rises in the East,” said 314 Action’s founder and president, Shaughnessy Naughton.
Many of the more than 60 scientist candidates who were running for Congress lost in the primaries, but that hasn’t discouraged Naughton or other supporters.
“I think that’s just a reflection that a lot of scientists are not strong on political skills,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a physicist who himself made the transition from the lab to legislative chamber. Representing New Jersey’s 12th district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years, at a time a handful of scientists served in Congress, Holt said he saw first-hand how their presence could make a difference.
“Almost every issue that comes before a legislature has some science, somewhere,” Holt said. “If there’s not a scientist in the room—and the way things are on Capitol Hill, there usually isn’t—the facets of an issue that could be illuminated by science won’t even be noticed.”
Scientists’ Opponents Rebranding Themselves
Currently, Congress has one physicist, a chemist and a handful of engineers. In contrast, there are 218 lawyers, and seven former radio talk show hosts.
“You arguably have people [in Congress] who know how to get things done, but they too often don’t have the foggiest idea of what needs to be done,” said Sean Casten, an engineer who is running for the House in the suburbs of Chicago.
“Electing some meaningful number of people who think facts are facts and are non-negotiable will make it possible, I think, for the organization of Congress to have a better idea of what needs to be done and make sure we’re working on the right problems,” he said.
Casten believes one of those priorities should be climate change.
“The way our political process works, and the way political journalism works, people will say, ‘How does climate change poll?'” he said. “I don’t give a rat’s you-know-what how climate change polls, any more than I care how gravity polls. It’s something that has to be dealt with.”
Casten touts the 17 years he spent in the energy efficiency business—building projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by recycling the waste heat of industrial processes into electricity—a technology known as “combined heat and power.” He believes clean energy can be an economic boon—an idea he’d like to bring Congress: “to make green business the business of America.”
Within two months of Casten’s victory in the Democratic primary, his opponent, GOP incumbent Rep. Peter Roskam, joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that has pledged to explore policy to address climate change, but so far has avoided taking a stand on any legislative solutions.
Roskam, with a lifetime 3 percent rating on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard, fits the mold of many Republican caucus members: he is running for re-election in a district where his weak environmental voting record could be a liability. “It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to understand the impacts and challenges that come from a changing climate,” Roskam said when he signed up. Casten blasted the move as a “death-bed conversion designed to obscure his horrible record on environmental issues.”
It’s not the only environmental rebranding by GOP members who face scientist opponents this November. Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.), another Climate Solutions Caucus member, who has a League of Conservation Voters score of 6 percent, is being challenged by a nuclear engineer, Navy veteran and offshore drilling opponent, Elaine Luria. Taylor previously previously supported oil exploration off the Atlantic coast, but he came out against Trump’s offshore drilling plan earlier this year. (He then voted against an amendment that would have blocked drilling off Virginia’s coast.)
[Update Nov. 7: Luria won, defeating Taylor 51 percent to 48.8 percent. Casten won, defeating Roskam 52.8 percent to 47.2 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Kopser lost to Roy in Texas, 47.5 percent to 50.3 percent.]
Trying to Hold Politicians Accountable
Naughton said the efforts by GOP incumbents to distance themselves from their environmental voting records shows that scientist candidates already are making a difference.
“Part of what we see as our mission is holding politicians accountable,” she said. “I can confidently say that politicians are in the business of self-preservation, and when they find things don’t work electorally, they’ll stop doing it.”
Naughton, a chemist, founded 314 Action after her own failed run for Congress in a district in the suburbs of Philadelphia in 2016. She wanted to establish a group that could provide training and institutional support for scientist candidates and modeled it after Emily’s List, which seeks to elect more women. (The name 314 comes from the first three digits of the mathematical constant Pi.) The group has raised more than $2 million, some of which it hopes to use on ads this fall in support of the 13 candidates it has endorsed, from an emergency room physician in Arizona to a physicist in Tennessee.
But not every scientist running for Congress has received 314 Action’s blessing. Biochemist Art Robinson, who is running as a Republican in his fifth bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Rep. Peter DeFazio in Oregon, is known for promoting a petition rejecting the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming.
James Taylor, senior fellow on climate and energy policy at the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that has led a years-long campaign to discredit climate science and where Robinson has served on the board of directors, said 314 Action’s rejection of Robinson for its scientist candidate slate shows that its aims are political.
“The SuperPAC 314 Action does not have a mission of getting more scientists elected. It has a mission of getting more leftist activists who can present some minimal scientific credentials to join the “resistance” (yes, that is exactly the word they use – see http://www.314action.org/),” Taylor said in an email.
But 314 Action, which is not technically a super PAC, sees Robinson’s work as advocacy, not science.
“Endorsing someone who is so far out of the mainstream … would be an insult to our network and donors,” the group’s spokesman, Ted Bordelon, said in an email. “Climate change IS real and one of the litmus tests we have for candidates (if you deny it you’re not getting our support). Period.”
Success Hinges on Winning Over Moderates
The odds of victory vary widely for this year’s crop of scientist candidates.
Cook Political Report currently has Illinois’ 6th District leaning Casten’s way, even though the seat has been in Republican hands since 1973. Migration from Chicago has transformed the once rock-solid Republican stronghold. The district also lies between Fermilab, the nation’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory. “This is a pretty educated district,” said Casten. “Being a little nerdy plays well out here politically, I suppose.”
In Texas, Kopser has a different fight for the seat that Smith has held for 33 years. Trump won the district by nearly 10 points in 2016, and the legendary gerrymandering by the state Legislature has made it tough territory for any Democrat. It’s one of six districts with a slice of Austin, the largest U.S. city without its own congressional district. As a result, the blue vote of the city is diluted by the larger rural portion of the district. The first time Smith fell below the 60 percent mark in a re-election bid was in 2016, when his Democratic opponent tried to make climate change a major issue.
Kopser believes that there are enough moderates in the district to give him a chance.
“It’s everyone in the middle—those independents and moderate Republicans who want to know what’s going on with science and the economy, who want to know what the future of jobs look like, and who are willing to listen to someone like myself,” he said. “That’s where we are going to win this vote.”
Kopser is a graduate of West Point and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who earned the Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. He later served in the Pentagon on a project to reduce dependence on carbon-based fuels. While fighting traffic on his commute, he began to develop the idea for the business he would start after he left government—an app to assist commuters in ridesharing. The business, Ridescout, was bought by Mercedes in 2016.
Kopser has raised $2.5 million for his campaign, nearly 60 percent more than his opponent, Chip Roy, a former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). But Roy has the backing from the conservative Super PAC Club for Growth Action, which so far has spent $1.1 million in advertising on his behalf, more than it has spent on any other House candidate.
Kopser doesn’t focus on environmental issues explicitly (health care, he maintains, is the biggest issue his district’s voters care about.) But climate change is always in the background.
“You can’t escape the conversation of Harvey anywhere in Texas right now,” Kopser said. “Every time you have a 500-year storm that happens every couple of years, then something’s going on and it requires people to talk about. When I’m at a VFW… there’s a way to talk about how changing weather patterns are a national security issue. [And] you can’t go very far out into the district in Hill Country and you have discussions about peaches, or water.
“I can have hours-long conversation with people about things that are on the periphery of the subject of climate change, but never have to mention climate change, because the second I do, too many people close their eyes and close their ears and don’t want to talk about it, because they think it’s partisan.”
Kopser said one of his goals in running for Congress is to change the debate on issues like climate change to one where people are not divided into opposing political camps but focused on evidence and the search for solutions.
“I would hope that our scientific training in the deliberate decision-making process … testing your hypothesis and studying the results, learning from the good and the bad without swaying the results for political reasons, well wouldn’t that be a wonderful world to live in?” Kopser asked.
Top photo: 2017 March for Science. Credit: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct that 314 Action is a non-profit that has an affiliated political action committee.