In this month’s election, where health and science issues such as the COVID pandemic and President Donald Trump’s handling of it played enormous roles, new science-oriented candidates for U.S. Congress had a large number of losses. Despite national events, many voters apparently were not swayed by the pro-science campaigns of these newcomers. Incumbents with science backgrounds did see more success.

This year 27 candidates—incumbents as well as new challengers—were endorsed by the science advocacy group 314 Action. The group recruits people with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering or medicine to run for office, endorses candidates and has a political action committee that contributes to their campaigns. In the House of Representatives, just two endorsed challengers out of eight won, though one race remains too close to call because mailed ballots are still being counted. Among endorsed Senate challengers, former astronaut Mark Kelly won in Arizona, and former geologist John Hickenlooper succeeded in Colorado, where he was previously the state’s governor. Chris Coons, an endorsed Senate incumbent from Delaware, also won. The victories were countered by two Senate losses. One was in Kansas where Barbara Bollier, a former physician and state legislator, was beaten; another was in Alaska, where orthopedic surgeon Al Gross lost. In the House, endorsed incumbents with STEM backgrounds, several of whom were first elected in 2018, won 12 of 14 contests, reflecting the easier road that incumbents usually have to reelection. (One of those races remains too close to call as well.)

Party affiliation overlapped with science advocacy in many races, and that may have been a factor. The candidates who made science a bigger point in their campaigns—including concerns about climate change as well as COVID—were all Democrats. Republicans rarely run on their science experience or advocacy, and 314 Action has never endorsed one. Overall in Congress this year, Republicans picked up seats from Democrats, and Shaughnessy Naughton, 314 Action’s founder and president, says it is hard to make sense of the election’s mixed outcomes. “Why did [voters] hold the president accountable for what was going on but not Republican representatives? I think it’s going to take a while to unpack that,” she says. Issues unrelated to science “may have had an effect on some Democrats running, including our scientists,” she says. Several pro-science candidates, for instance, voiced support for police reform and the Black Lives Matter movement, and some of their more conservative rivals went in the opposite direction.

Matt Motta, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University, says the outcomes are very possibly “less about specific things Democrats did and more about the fact that we underestimated support for some of the policies that Donald Trump and others in the GOP espouse.” Motta has, however, found in surveys that self-described conservatives are more likely to hold negative views of scientists than self-described liberals, and such differences increase after scientists engage in political activism.

Where candidates with science backgrounds won seats in Congress in 2020 and results for all scientist-candidates who ran
Credit: Amanda Montañez

“It was not a good year for Democrats in the House rather than any reflection on science,” says Bill Foster, a physicist who was elected to Congress in Illinois’s 11th District in 2012 and won his 2020 reelection handily. He notes that some Republicans in the House have been supportive of science. “There were Republican proposals in the House Science Committee to double the basic scientific research budgets in the United States,” he says. “Part of the justification [was] to find new technologies to mitigate CO2 emissions, which is quite remarkable as a change of the traditional stance of the Republicans in Congress.” Foster says that makes him optimistic that similar proposals will get bipartisan support in the coming year.

Naughton says that even without election victories, one of the goals of getting scientists to run for office is to make science issues more prominent in policy discussions. And she thinks the congressional contests accomplished that aim. “We definitely saw politicians talking about science in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Naughton says. She notes that Lee Zeldin, a longtime Republican incumbent from New York State’s First Congressional District, who is the likely winner over chemist Nancy Goroff, “claimed to do more for science than the scientists” during the race. Naughton says she wants to “make it so that it is no longer acceptable for politicians to deny scientific consensus and undermine scientific advancement.”

That is also the goal of Nikema Williams, one of the few 314 Action–endorsed challengers to win. Williams, who buried her opponent for the Georgia seat formerly held by the late Representative John Lewis in a landslide, is a former vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood Southeast and majored in biology as an undergraduate. She says she is “very grounded in my belief of following data and scientific experts in how we move and make decisions” and adds that electing people who follow evidence-based thinking “will impact everything from health care to climate change to getting our children back to school safely.”

That effect does not seem to be happening right away, however. “It would be great if we could find some bipartisan things to do, and if [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell should see the light or if it should become politically expedient for him to do something on climate,” says Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “But I don’t see us being ready just yet.” President-elect Joe Biden can take action to mitigate effects of climate change by issuing executive orders that counteract the greenhouse-gas-friendly policies of his predecessor, she says, but legislation would be more durable.

Gross says that if Biden winds up dealing with a Republican Senate, he likely will not be able to get climate change legislation passed even if Foster’s hoped-for bipartisan accord occurs in the House. “It’s hard to imagine Mitch McConnell giving in and allowing climate legislation to go forward,” she adds. “That’s why the makeup of the Senate is so important.” Two Georgia Senate runoffs are set for early January 2021. Gross says that if the two Democrats on the ballot win, they could shift the balance of power—and will be “incredibly important” for climate policy going forward.