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        US 116th Congress sets new record for members with STEM backgrounds
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        US 116th Congress sets new record for members with STEM backgrounds
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The 116th United States Congress has the greatest number of members with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and medical backgrounds ever elected. Convened in January 2019, the 116th Congress also saw gains in diversity across the spectrum.

The 2018 midterm elections were record-setting in several ways—the diversity of the candidate pool, the number of candidates running, the relatively high voter turnout (highest turnout in a midterm US election since 1914), the spike in young (under 30) voters, and the highest level of fundraising for congressional elections.

So what galvanized so many new and diverse candidates to run? What drove more people, especially younger people, to vote? What incentivized donors, specifically individuals, to fund these candidates? And what brought scientists out in record numbers to join in the political discourse and run for office? “It comes down to representation,” says Alan Hurd, executive advisor at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a former Franklin Fellow who served as a science and technology advisor to the US Secretary of State. Hurd, a materials researcher, says that for many, especially those within the science community, the motivation is “defensive,” and Ilke Arslan, group leader for electron and x-ray microscopy at Argonne National Laboratory, agrees saying that she believes the motivation came from “constant feelings of not being heard as a community.”

“Many within the science community feel there has been a clear trend of disregard for science in Washington, most significantly over the last two years,” Arslan says. And scientists often point to topics like the president’s budget requests (that proposed drastic cuts to most science budgets), the fact that it took 18 months before a science advisor was nominated, and the debate over climate change, as reasons they feel science needs a bigger voice in Washington. Sarah Vorpahl, senior energy policy specialist at Washington State Department of Commerce and a former Congressional Fellow in the office of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), expressed similar sentiments saying, “The momentum for scientists stepping into politics was palpable following the 2016 election.”

The March for Science held in Washington, DC, on April 27, 2017, focused the public’s attention on the importance of science in daily life. Credit: Shutterstock.

This momentum drove two key responses from the STEM community. First, millions of people across the United States (and across the globe) participated in the March for Science [covered in the August 2017 issue of MRS Bulletin]. This movement “provided a ready outlet for scientists and science supporters to have a collective voice and engage in the political process,” says Ashley White, director of communications for the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and chair of the Materials Research Society (MRS)Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship Program. The second important outcome was that hundreds of scientists and STEM professionals were galvanized to run for public office in 2018.

“Many scientists do research to make a difference in the world, such as through medical advancement or clean energy,” Vorpahl says. “I think that those who have focused their careers and training on making the world a better place through technology saw an opportunity to have an impact in a different way … science was in need of a defender and many in the nation took up the call.” Megan Brewster, vice president for advanced manufacturing at Launch Forth and a former senior policy advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, adds that she believes that scientists have realized “that today’s grandest challenges require an all-hands-on-deck approach” and says she is “thrilled that scientists are leaning into the national dialogues about the importance and role of science.”

In addition to the desire for better representation, access to resources likely played a role in the larger and more diverse candidate pool. Action 314 [also covered in the August 2017 issue of MRS Bulletin] supported scientists and medical professionals running for office by providing funds, training on how to run a successful campaign, and endorsements. Sixteen candidates, including eight newcomers, who were supported by Action 314 won their congressional elections (and many others won elections at the state and local levels) [see Table I].

Table I. STEM and Medical Professionals of the 116th Congress.

* Denotes newly elected in 2018 midterm election.

** Denotes new congressional position (former House member elected to Senate).

“These new members can impact decision making from day one,” White says, “but more importantly, if they remain in Congress and become more senior on key committees that oversee science policy and appropriations, we may start to see more significant changes in policies that impact the materials community, like those around climate change, energy, and STEM education.” The budget process has a significant impact on what areas of science receive funding, and Hurd points out that “the non-diverse majority of the last two years has treated science and engineering quite well, standing off proposed cuts and even increasing some budgets for basic science.” With the Congress now split—Republicans control the Senate while Democrats control the House—setting budgets will likely become more contentious, especially regarding issues that are divided on party lines like climate change.

The fact that the Democrats now control the House also means that committee leadership has changed and Vorpahl believes that “leadership will have a huge impact on how energy and environment issues are talked about at a federal level.” Vorpahl illustrates her point saying, “The Science, Space and Technology Committee, which has been run by climate change deniers for almost a decade, is now chaired by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), a former chief psychiatric nurse. This marks the first time that the House science committee chair has a STEM background since the 1990s.” And despite the fact that they are just learning the ropes, some of the newcomers are likely to significantly impact science- and materials-related issues. For example, Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) is a likely champion for clean energy and environmental policy according to Arslan because he has “made clean energy his life work by founding a company that aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by trapping and reusing energy from industrial facilities.” And Vorpahl points out that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is already “endorsing aggressive, climate change movements that center around a ‘Green New Deal’—a policy that sits at the nexus of environmental issues and income inequality and includes a call for 100% renewable energy and more jobs in clean energy.”

While the increase in diversity and expertise within the 116th Congress will undoubtedly have an impact on a broad range of policy issues, perhaps even more importantly, “it will provide more diverse role models,” White says. “Seeing more women, people of color, and scientists serving in Congress can build momentum and encourage even greater future diversity.” Hurd echoes these sentiments, adding that the “most dramatic change in Congress is the influx of women,” which he says in his experience will likely translate to better governance because “every group effort runs more smoothly with a healthy gender mix in leadership.”

Brewster captures the importance of this moment in history saying, “The new Congress embodies a diversity of lived experiences—from those who have benefited from modern technologies, to those who have been displaced by new industries, to those who may take current technology advances for granted. We need this choir of voices to form robust legislative solutions for all of America.”