Inspired by Trump’s attacks on science, this former engineer is running for Congress

Chrissy Houlahan is running for one of the most closely-watched congressional seats in Pennsylvania.

CREDIT: Chrissy Houlahan For Congress
CREDIT: Chrissy Houlahan For Congress

Walk through the halls of Congress, and there’s one type of person that you won’t see much of: scientists. Out of the 535 members of the 114th Congress, just 41 representatives have a background in medicine, science, or engineering, according to a report released by the Congressional Research Service.

Chrissy Houlahan, a Stanford- and MIT-trained engineer and former Air Force captain wants to change that.

Houlahan is part of a growing wave of scientists that have been inspired to run for Congress by the current political climate, which often pits scientific facts against industry influence and political dogma. For instance, the House Science Committee is chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), a man who has received more than $675,597 from the fossil fuel industry and has referred to the official magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science as a non-objective source. The House of Representatives has voted multiple times to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of scientific research.

According to 314 Action, a political action committee aimed at encouraging scientists and engineers to run for elective office, 6,000 scientists and STEM professionals have reached out to express interest in running for office as of this month. 314 Action’s founder, former breast cancer researcher Shaughnessy Naughton, says many scientists have been roused to action by the Trump administration’s blatant attacks on science, from its support of “alternate facts” to its proposed budget that would inflict deep cuts on basic research.

“Politicians have shown us that they are ready, willing, and able to meddle in science, and the way we push back against that is to claim a seat at the table,” Naughton told ThinkProgress.

But getting into politics — and running for national office — isn’t easy. It requires time and money, and can be cruel to candidates without a preexisting network or establishment support. That’s where 314 Action is trying to help, by backing candidates that might otherwise struggle to secure funds support.

For someone whose first-ever foray into politics means running for a national seat, Houlahan — who recently earned 314 Action’s second-ever endorsement for a non-incumbent — has not had a difficult time finding support for her candidacy. In addition to 314 Action’s endorsement, she’s also scored endorsements from EMILY’s List and Vote Vets — a reflection of the fact that Houlahan’s election would increase representation not only for scientists, but for women and veterans as well.

Pennsylvania’s sixth district, where Houlahan is running, is an especially big prize for Democrats, because it is one of the handful of traditionally Republican districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in November. The district is currently represented by Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA), who has been in Congress since 2014, and won 57 percent of his district’s vote in 2016. And while Costello belongs to the House Climate Solutions Caucus, his record on the environment is mixed: He voted to open the Arctic to oil drilling, for instance, and he voted against methane pollution standards on new and modified sources in the oil and gas industry.

“I’m really hopeful, because of the enormous amount of energy that is in my community for change, to make sure that we have real-world representation in our Congress and to make sure that our Congress is not just serving as a backstop for our current administration,” Houlahan, who announced her candidacy in April, told ThinkProgress. “I’m excited about that continued energy that has been sustained since the beginning of the election cycle.”

ThinkProgress spoke with Houlahan about running for Congress, why it’s difficult for scientists to break into politics, and why it’s so important for Congress to have people with science backgrounds. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What inspired you to get involved in politics?

I never really expected that I’d be running for office, and not for Congress, certainly. I was inspired to run as a result of the most recent election cycle, where I really felt as though a lot of the democratic values that I think are important were being threatened in a unique way that I had not seen in my life, and I’m 50 years old. As a result of that anxiety and fear, I took a self-inventory and realized that I had a lot of the real-world experience that I thought was relevant to take to Congress.

I really felt as though I was doing my part as a citizen, over the last 30 years of my career, to serve the needs of my community, whether they were security or jobs and opportunity or whether it was in education. When I really felt as though that wasn’t enough, and I needed to bring my entire game together to Washington, that’s when I decided to run for Congress.

How has your science background prepared you for Congress?

The representation in Congress of people who have science or technology background is pretty poor. I think it’s really an important skillset to bring to Congress and to add to the skills that are already present there from other members. Many of the decisions that people are making — healthcare, the environment, education — all really involve what we think about science and technology, what we think about engineering, and also how we think. The skillset that an engineer or a scientist has in terms of how to think about problems and how to unravel them is a very worthwhile skillset to add to the already nice complement of skills that are most likely resident in Congress right now.

“Many of the decisions that people are making — healthcare, the environment, education — all really involve what we think about science and technology.”

Why do you think there is such a dearth of representation of people with science backgrounds in Congress right now?

The [job] economy is pretty rich for people who are scientists and engineers — people have really good opportunities within the economy that are educated in that way. Another reason is it’s a full-time job to run for Congress, and you really need to have left your life behind to be able to do that. For scientists and engineers and people involved in technology, the path to having enough money to be able to compete in this kind of a race is not something that science and technology people, or veterans, have access to. We don’t have the same kind of network that traditional politicians or people who are from legal backgrounds have had access to, historically. So to be able to have your voice heard and to be able to make your mark known as you’re campaigning really does require that large network of finance, and our finance situation doesn’t favor people like that right now.

What is the benefit of having an organization like 314 that is focused just on getting people with science backgrounds into Congress and into politics? What does their endorsement mean for your campaign?

It’s enormously helpful for the campaign and for me, and I hope it’s enormously helpful for representation of all kinds in Congress. We need representation such as scientists and engineers and educators that teach science and technology in Congress in a very serious way. 314 Action and organizations like them that help elevate people are really helpful in terms of bringing a different voice and different experience to Congress that isn’t currently there.

Why do you think we are seeing such a backlash from the Trump administration and some conservative politicians towards science and scientific fact?

I’m honestly baffled by it. I really can’t speak for the administration in terms of what their thought process is to undermine science and undermine truth in the way that they are. It is clearly one of the strongest motivators I have for why I am running.

“I think that scientists shouldn’t have to be political…but we’ve been put in this position where we have to be.”

What would you say to people that think that science should be apolitical and that scientists should not be getting involved in politics?

I think that scientists shouldn’t have to be political either, but we’ve been put in this position where we have to be. I remember a sign from the Science March that most resonated me that said, “I can’t believe I have to be here.” I don’t think any of us want to be marching on our beautiful Saturday afternoons for something as basic as truth and science, but here we are.

How does science inform what you’ve done in your campaign? Is it something that resonates with voters, in your experience?

It’s not just science, it also technology and the education of those things. It is very important to the community, it’s probably within the top three things folks ask about whenever I’m speaking around town. I had the opportunity to speak at the local Climate March in our community, and it was enormously well-attended. I think people are really energized about those issues, and the peripheral issues of truth, technology, the importance of the environment.