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Michael Ham Headshot

It's No Longer Okay for Scientists Not to Run for Office

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The 2012 election process has shown that the relationship between science and public policy is in danger of becoming irreparably damaged. Mainstream politicians are no longer limiting scientifically baseless attacks to newer science like global climate change. They are also attempting to tear down long established scientific advancements in areas like womens health, once championed by the left and right.

Much of this is the inevitable result of a long-term trend that occurs when a large portion of our society loses trust in science. For American scientists who care deeply about the future of our great nation, it is time to take a stand and bring science back to the forefront of public debate and defend what is true.

In purest form, science has no ideological basis. In the same way, real public policy solutions are not inherently Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Green. In fact, like the political philosophies of most Americans, real solutions are generally a mix of ideologies and shaped by reality. Therefore, what scientists-turned-politicians should focus on is public policy initiatives that are based on defensible reasoning, with sensible metrics that demonstrate success or failure. The trick will be getting enough scientists in position to ward off the constant barrage of attacks.

Oddly enough, the Tea Party victories in 2010 provide a model for a science based political movement. Run candidates in every single primary. The advantage of this strategy is that scientists span all political backgrounds. Therefore candidates can run in every single Congressional primary: Republican Democrat, Libertarian, Green, etc.

Like any good scientist, I performed an experiment to see whether it was possible to run for Congress as a Ph.D. Physicist. In January of this year I entered the 2012 New Mexico Senate race. After a massively successful online question and answer session, I raised several hundred dollars for my campaign. I was floored and began the process of collecting signatures.

Unfortunately, my Senate campaign stalled out after the initial interest. Social media is not yet a sustainable way to run an individual campaign. Because of my late entry into the race, I didn't have enough time to organize a ground game to collect nearly 9k signatures by the deadline.

However, by creating a large scale scientific political movement, infrastructure could be created to run scientists in every Congressional election. And it would be a relatively cheap proposition by American political standards. Every two years, we elect approximately 33 U.S. Senators. Therefore, only 66 scientists would need to run to cover each of the Republican and Democratic primaries.

If funds are spent smartly, it only costs about $15k to get on the primary ballot for the U.S. Senate. The numbers break down like this (and vary from state to state). In New Mexico, getting a guaranteed spot on the Republican or Democratic ticket takes about 9k signatures (2X the number of signatures allows a safety margin for contested signatures). Signature gatherers can be hired for about one dollar a signature, and you will need to hire someone to coordinate the gatherers (or about $15k for a lean campaign).

Once on the ballot, scientists will be invited to debates where they can deliver their message to the public and provide the scientific movement a national platform from which to propose smart public policy and rapidly challenge deliberate misrepresentations of fact. At $15k per race, for 66 Senate races, only about one million dollars is needed to significantly change the conversation in 2014. By extrapolating this process all the way down to the State Legislatures, fact based public policy can begin making major headway in the United States. Considering the alternative, we truly can't afford not to.

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