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Amid Political Tension, Scientists Are Getting Involved

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The objective and rigorous nature of science can conflict with the more persuasive and interpretive view of politics. But with many of the traditional roles for scientists in politics being replaced by less-trained individuals, scientists are beginning to address their position in politics, in contrast with their previously more distant stance.

The role of science in government was highlighted when Sam Clovis was nominated to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientist, a position he later declined. In a letter obtained by The Washington Post, Clovis openly admitted he possessed no graduate-level background in either agricultural or natural science. He dpes have a PhD in Public Administration, which he equated with an understanding of agriculture.

"I bring 17 years of agricultural experience integrated into both undergraduate- and graduate-level courses throughout my teaching career," Clovis wrote to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. "Additionally, I ran for two statewide offices in Iowa and one cannot be a credible candidate in that state without significant agricultural experience and knowledge."

Clovis' nomination prompted backlash from scientists and other politicians who claimed that he lacked the experience required for the position laid out by the 2008 Farm Bill, which states that nominees for the chief scientist position must be "distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education and economics."

"In every aspect, Clovis falls far short of the standards demanded by the position," said 43 scientists in a letter to the Trump administration. "While he holds a doctorate of public administration, his professional background is completely devoid of relevant scientific experience that would otherwise equip him to fulfill his duties."

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The Sioux City Journal reports that at least two people who signed the letter hailed from Clovis' own state: Cornelia Butler Flora, an agriculture and life sciences professor, and Frederick Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

After Clovis' withdrawal from the nomination, Stabenow commented that it was "a victory for science and our farmers who rely on agricultural research." Though not all farm workers were pleased about Clovis' exit, most scientists were glad to know that he wouldn't be directing the agricultural department's research. Clovis' name also came up in the investigation into whether Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, which may have also influenced his decision to withdraw.

Scientists weren't as satisfied with the outcome at the Environmental Protection Agency. On Nov. 4, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt appointed 66 new people to three different advisory boards, many of whom have industry or state government backgrounds, rather than science backgrounds, The Washington Post reports.

The EPA also implemented a new policy that prevents scientists who received grants from the EPA from serving on advisory boards. Seven advisers chose to leave their positions and keep their federal grants, while two others chose to give up their funding so as to remain on the board.

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One of the scientists who left early was Clark University economics professor Robert Johnston, who was scheduled to serve one more year on the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board. Johnston received an $800,000 grant, along with colleagues at Virginia Tech and the University of New Hampshire, for a project on river quality.

"The research is too important," said Johnston. "Until recently people serving on the board were the top scientists in their field, and often these are often the people who were funded by federal agencies. So by systematically excluding those scientists, you have effectively knocked out the top scientists, most of them, in many fields."

It may seem like politics is becoming less friendly to scientists, but on Nov. 8, 17 individuals with STEM backgrounds were elected to government positions.

Some of the candidates were spurred on to run by what they perceive to be a threat from the current administration.

The nonprofit organization 314 Action, which takes its name from the mathematical constant pi, began training scientists to run for political office in January, following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Vice News reports.

"The goal is not to politicize science, but to get scientists involved in politics," said the organization's president Shaughnessy Naughton, who is a chemist and a former congressional candidate.

A few scientists who are now elected officials include an environmental science teacher and a cybersecurity expert, both of whom were elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.

Multiple scientists were also elected to school boards and higher government positions, including former doctor Ralph Northam as the governor of Virginia.

It remains to be seen whether scientists, who risk both bias and lack of credibility when stepping into the political arena, will vie for more representation in government, but Naughton remains optimistic for 2018.

"Voters are ready for candidates who are going to use their STEM training to base policy on evidence rather than intuition," she said in a press release. "Science will not be silenced."

Sources: The Washington Post (2), Sioux City Journal, Vice (2) / Featured Image: Lorie Shaull/Flickr / Embedded Images: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr, USEPA Environmental Protection Agency/Flickr

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