The unlikely candidate

Written by Janelle Weaver

Evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen has set his sights on the U.S. Senate. What does he hope to accomplish?

Science and technology are advancing at a dizzying pace. But all too often, these discoveries are not translated into meaningful, data-driven policies. One reason is that most scientists don’t want to get their hands dirty with politics. “Everybody complains about it, but few people are really willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved in these things,” said Michael Eisen from the University of California, Berkeley.

Eisen is now on a mission to fix this problem. On January 25th, the expert in evolutionary and computational biology announced on Twitter that he will run for the U.S. Senate in 2018. With President Donald Trump just now settling into office, the timing could not be more perfect.

In 2012, Trump called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese. Then, shortly after he was sworn in as president, virtually all mention of the phrase “climate change” was eliminated from the official White House website, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was instructed to remove its website’s climate change page. Administration officials also instructed staff at the EPA, the Interior Department, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services to limit their communications with the public.

“We’re dealing with an administration that at least was showing signs of wanting to silence science in certain areas,” Eisen said. “The moment is calling for scientists to get more engaged in politics.”

Era of Long Shots

Becoming a politician has not been a long-standing goal for Eisen. Yet, for a long time, he has been very interested in the broken relationship between science, the public, and policymakers. He co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and has strongly advocated for open access to scientific and medical research discoveries. Now, he is ready to take his advocacy to a whole new level.

At this point, Eisen is trying to figure out the logistics of running for office, and he hasn’t even started raising money yet. Currently, he is reaching out to people with experience in politics for guidance on how to get started. “This was not a long, thought-out, carefully reasoned decision,” he admitted.

Eisen has no illusions about his chances of becoming the next U.S. Senator from California. On the other hand, it is the era of political long shots. “Trump represents many things, but one of them is a frustration with politics,” he said. “It manifests itself in a way I really find highly objectionable, but I do think the era of machine party politics is probably fading rapidly.”

Data-driven Discussion

If elected, Eisen hopes to tackle issues such as agriculture and climate change. He insists that his goal is not simply to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health. Instead, his overarching mission is to articulate to the public and politicians the importance of scientific data and to inject a scientific perspective into political discussion in a way that doesn’t currently happen.

To illustrate his point, Eisen noted several recent examples where scientific thinking has fallen by the wayside. For one, there was a lack of in-depth discussion of climate change during the Senate confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet nominees. “They’re asking questions because they’re ‘gotchas’ and they’re trying to score political points,” he said. “One thing that having a scientist in office could do is just to be a model for how we should be having these discussions.”

More broadly, discussion of climate change in the political arena has focused too much on whether it is a primarily manmade phenomenon rather than on the underlying scientific data or what to do about the problem. “We’ve had 10 years of totally fruitless arguments about climate change in politics, and they’re fruitless because everybody’s trying to have an argument about who’s to blame, like is there some moral failing of humanity,” he said. “We have fundamental disagreements across the spectrum on whether that’s true, but almost everybody, in my experience, agrees that the climate is changing.”

Another major goal will be to pressure researchers and scientific organizations to serve the public in a more optimal way, in part through more open communication. “At the end of the day, we [scientists] basically are public servants,” Eisen said. “There needs to be a better balance between the important inside-baseball kind of stuff that happens in science, about jobs and careers and things like that, and our basic mission as public servants.”

Building a Movement

No matter the outcome of the election, Eisen hopes his Senate run will jumpstart the scientific community to get more involved in politics. Specifically, he wants to do the important legwork for other scientists and provide them with a template for running for office. He even envisions the formation of a political action committee that is run by scientists to promote the greater inclusion of science in public debate.

According to Eisen, there should not be such a sharp distinction between science and politics. “I do think it’s critical, no matter what happens in the near term, that we as scientists be more engaged in politics in a broader sense, not just to fight the policies of the current administration, but also more generally to try to better integrate science into decision-making at all levels, both within politics and in the business world.”

For the time being, scientists may remain reluctant to enter politics because they’re afraid that individuals who decide on grants or the fate of their careers would consider any activities taking place outside the lab as a distraction. “I’d like to show them that we shouldn’t think of it that way,” Eisen said. “If we actually believe that the kinds of things we do in the lab are really beneficial for society, which I think most of us do, we need to be willing to step out of the lab, even in ways that are inconvenient, to stand up for those ideas.”