STEM in Politics

By: Iyonna Young ’22, a Business Management and Political Science major, and Spanish minor.

The following work was created for POL 390: Political Science Internship.

Brief description: Have you ever noticed that your congressperson may not actually have a thorough or complete idea about the science behind much of the legislation they present? STEM and its various subjects often find themselves at a crossroads between what is popular and opinions surrounding issues within politics. For example, many politicians have purposely omitted details, hid, or even shaped scientific findings to make their opinions more appealing than actual facts. We see this with climate change, nukes, and so much more. This paper analyzes the many instances where politicians have marginalized science, which prevents STEM leaders from getting involved in politics despite their necessary expertise. It also assesses the role of PACs in empowering STEM leaders to overcome these obstacles.


Politics and the various subjects of STEM have been debated politically throughout history. In several instances, politicians have politicized science by condemning, questioning, or promoting a biased perspective of the information to their constituency. This is done for many reasons; however, the most common reason is because scientific findings and facts are often at crossroads between is the politically popular and unappealing. In cases of the latter, hard evidence and truth are rejected, and important information is misconstrued. Despite the expertise and solutions that STEM leaders can contribute to policies pertaining to their field, legislators with no connection to these issues are at the forefront of these matters. This paper will analyze the marginalization and politicization of science, particularly through the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations. I will then analyze the barriers that prevent scientists from becoming elected to political positions and assess the role that Political Action Committees (PACs) play in reversing this phenomenon.

Barriers against scientists are exacerbated by administrations who further oppress and marginalize scientists. Among the most prominent administrations for scientific misrepresentation was the Bush Administration from 2001 to 2009, which had nearly a decade of impact on modern-day political relations with STEM leaders and policies. According to The Union of Concerned Scientists’ investigation into the Bush Administration’s misuse of science conducted, “By the middle Bush years, reports were rampant that the Administration had presented inaccurate or incomplete information on issues such as climate change and stem-cell research, edited scientific reports to skew their contents, or had prevented scientists on the government payroll from speaking with the media about their findings and knowledge.”[1] The Bush Administration attempted to undermine and manipulate the public’s understanding of climate scientists’ views, including those that said anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions and other complex actions were making a real contribution to global warming. Despite this evidence being supported by most scientists, the Bush Administration spokespeople continued contesting this narrative and implying that the uncertainties in climate projections and fossil fuel emissions were too significant to warrant mandatory action to slow emissions.[2] The Administration also showed disdain for climate since in 2002 when it removed a section on climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) annual air pollution report. President Bush not only expressed public disdain towards both reports but also the initiatives presented by scientists and STEM organizations.

In several cases, candidates for advisory positions within the Bush Administration were not qualified and had strong partisan views. These candidacies are a manipulation of the scientific process because the hired individuals lack the necessary qualifications to fix field-related issues. Such a situation occurred when the Bush Administration created a five-person “review team,” predominantly made of nonscientists, to handle the management of national forests. The team overruled a $12 million science-based plan to manage old-growth forest habitat and reduce the risk of fire in 11 national forests.[3] The “review team” became a clear example of how the Bush Administration manipulated and politicized science in a way that could be harmful to the country. President Bush had a strong political advantage through his statuses as an incumbent and popular political leader. He could influence policy and place political pressure on organizations and Congress to support him. Due to his popularity, he took advantage of his bully pulpit towards these reports and facts, condemning them by portraying them as false, further oppressing and politicizing the role that science plays in policy. It is not enough to have advisors and organizations to assist in policymaking, because the policy makers ultimately hold the upper hand. However, if there were more policy makers with STEM backgrounds, then more opportunities would come to fruition that could make scientific evidence appear politically fashionable.

Succeeding President Brush, the Obama Administration made substantial gains in integrating science into policy making. Acknowledging the legacy of politicization in science, President Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place”[4] within government in his January 2009 inaugural address. This public statement permitted President Obama to incorporate scientific research into his policies more feasible than his predecessors. By stating that science had a fundamental right to be in government, President Obama created a leeway for STEM leaders to influence policy decisions and make strides in transforming ideologies. It also had established a precedent for defending science and proving its effectiveness. The Obama Administration recognized climate science, acknowledged the risks associated with climate change, and allowed federal climate science to communicate their expertise publicly and inform policy. “He invited a far larger number of scientists to the White House than previous Administrations. Moreover, he inaugurated the highly visible White House Science Fair.”[5] Although science was widely influential during his tenure, President Obama was still a politician and therefore held the advantage when those findings were inconvenient for his agenda.

One of the few major scandals in which President Obama rejected science for political gain was in the case of the emergency contraceptive, Plan B One-Step. The Obama Administration undercut the FDA’s attempts to move forward on approving this over-the-counter drug, which had proven to be safe in many tests. In fact, the manufacturer had applied to remove the age limit for purchasing the drug entirely. The FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, approved their application and qualified experts wrote that “Plan B One-Step should be approved for all females of childbearing potential.”[6] Despite widespread scientific support, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) publicly overruled the FDA’s decision due to previously disputed potential health concerns for 10- and 11-year-old girls. President Obama further justified this overruling by publicly supporting the HHS despite scientific evidence that proved there were no adverse side-effects for young girls who consumed the contraceptive.[7]

Overall, the Obama Administration made significant strides in undoing science’s politicization; however, in many areas, President Obama still fell short. Science is continuously at a crossroads with politics. As candidates attempt to campaign for their re-election, issues that attack and influence their base ultimately determine their decisions. President Obama was able to improve science’s politicization during his term because his campaign enforced scientific integrity and evidence-based reform. This stance ultimately provided leeway for science and STEM leaders to influence politics while creating more trust in scientific evidence.

The following Trump Administration substantially reversed the progress made by the Obama Administration by separating science from politics and ultimately damaging its credibility. As previously explained, whenever scientific findings contrast with popular ideologies that are based on long-term beliefs, campaigns are built against those findings and supporters are further condemned. There have been convictions ranging from “editing climate change reports to include scientifically unsound language questioning climate change, suppress oil and gas safety information, prevent scientists from discussing their work in public forums, or withhold vital scientific information that is required under other laws, such as the Endangered Species Act.”[8] It is clear that President Trump’s actions are not unprecedented for his position; however, President Trump blatantly condemned science unlike any other president in nearly 100 years. The result of these actions can lead to long-term, unforeseeable health impacts on many communities.

During a meeting to negotiate denuclearization with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, a challenge that has faced the U.S. for decades, President Trump proceeded without a White House advisor in nuclear physics.[9] This decision made the U.S. vulnerable in the nuclearization negotiations, because President Trump is not an expert on the topic, leaving the country vulnerable to manipulation and politicized facts on behalf of the negotiation partner’s end. President Trump was not only the first president to take this action since 1941, but he had not appointed a Chief Science Advisor in the State Department. The Chief Science Advisor would make public health decisions in foreign policy matters regarding issues from cybersecurity to global warming. Not only have his actions ridiculed science on a domestic level, but they ridiculed American science in front of other world leaders. President Trump sent a message to America’s global allies that Americans do not support their scientists, nor do they respect the scientific process.

One of the largest acts of politicizing and marginalizing science by the Trump Administration was the management of the Covid-19 virus. In one instance, President Trump hosted an indoor rally in Nevada that included over 1,000 people packed together in a facility.[10] This rally ignored Nevada’s ban on local gatherings exceeding 50 people, amassing over 1,000 people to publicly detest science, break state mandates, and go against medical expertise despite any foreseeable consequences. In turn, the event became a possible “super spreader” event which could cause a greater outbreak of Covid-19 in more communities across Nevada, threatening the overall health of the entire state.

Outside of his campaigning, the Trump Administration’s approach towards the Covid-19 pandemic was called “a callous disregard for human life” by Dr. Peter Hotez, the Co-Director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, in an interview with CNN.[11] From March 2020 to the article’s publication in September 2020, over 194,000 Americans had died from the virus and the United States was the leading country in Covid-19 cases. Against scientific advice, President Trump maintained his rallies and disregarded the recommendations made by health experts on how to decrease the virus’ spread as well as the lives being consumed. These actions are clear examples of how campaigns are built against unpopular ideologies; however, science is not an subjective ideology but factual findings. During the beginning of the virus, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly objected to holding mass gatherings indoors and suggested that everyone wear a mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19. President Trump publicly ridiculed these suggestions and ran on a platform that denied expertise regarding pandemic management. At the time of this essay’s writing, the U.S. is still the largest carrier of Covid-19 cases globally, which is entirely attributed to the rejection of expertise and proper pandemic-prevention protocol. This public rallying and detestation of science makes it harder for expert advisers to make strides in combatting the virus and diminishes their public credibility.

Even though STEM leaders can significantly impact policies that can potentially save lives, the marginalization of STEM leaders in politics inhibits that ability. There are many barriers that an individual must overcome in order to gain political popularity or influence the outcome of legislation. One barrier is the lack of credibility found amongst constituencies due to the exploitation of scientific data and findings.[12] Despite being research and fact-based, when science crosses with politics to create evidence-based legislation or policies, actors often manipulate scientific findings for political gain. This manipulation is represented in the aforementioned examples, in which information was omitted or publicly condemned by all three previous presidential Administrations. When running for public office, the main goal of candidates is to become re-elected. Thus, manipulating scientific findings to align with their constituencies is a resource to increase popularity. This tactic is most common within the GOP party which has a history of politicizing science.[13] In the past, conservative leaders saw efforts to control environmental toxins, climate change, or reproductive rights as an infringement of personal liberties, causing them to disregard and question those controls. Therefore, science has become unpopular in conservative ideologies, its marginalization being enforced by past Administrations. When science becomes inconvenient for politicians’ agendas, a campaign is formed against it, diminishing scientists’ credibility and ability to influence policy.

Undoing the marginalization of science is complicated because it can be challenging to break into politics when someone does not come from a traditional political background.[14] Unlike lawyers, businesspeople, or lobbyists, scientists are generally not exposed to the federal policy making process nor the realms of politics, the exception being exposure to ethical regulations on what can be researched or explored. Policymaking is not always done on a scientific basis and involves a language that scientists must learn.[15] In order to influence policy, it is not sufficient to only convince policymakers of a policy, but to also convince and mobilize constituents, because policymakers are pressured to adopt certain legislation or bring awareness to specific issues. Rather, activists bring the voices of the shadows into the light. As Choi et al argues:
“This calls for understanding the different backgrounds for policy decisions and developing many communication and networking skills to address counterarguments and communicate well. Nevertheless, it is important to influence public opinions, intentions, and behaviors through good media communications and partnerships with different stakeholders.”[16]
This background knowledge is essential to run for a state, local, or federal position successfully, yet that knowledge it is not often made available for them. A solution to this problem is PACs that advocate for STEM.

PACs have made strides in transforming the political landscape by bringing awareness to issues and candidates representing diversified interests. A PAC is as a group who voluntarily pools their resources to financially support candidates for elective office who share their legislative interests and concerns. Any group of U.S. citizens can decide to act together by forming a PAC to address complex topics or issues. We can see this with STEM PACS, which became a necessary means to provide underrepresented voices opportunities to win over their opponents and bring awareness to issues via support, training, and funding. Issues, like the development of nuclear engineering in surrounding bodies of water or the necessity for more legislation about public health concerns, require expert knowledge that many candidates may not have. Providing such expertise is not a simple task that anybody can perform; thus, the need for experts in these positions is crucial.

Electing scientists to office is challenging due to the lack of resources for accommodating scientists during their run. Many advocacy groups and PACs cater to specific backgrounds that are more favorable towards the public, like businesspeople and incumbents. As a result, scientist candidates are forced to learn by trial and error. The Democratic PAC, 314Action, is a popular STEM PAC that is on the forefront of assisting scientists in breaking into politics while promoting evidence-based legislation. Their mission includes reaching out to scientists around the world and empowering them to run for local, state, and federal offices. As stated directly by 314Action, “Our work includes training and supporting our endorsed candidates, ensuring they have the cutting-edge tools to run successful campaigns.”[17] As a result, 314Action has trained more than 1,000 scientists to run for office. To gauge the effectiveness of this particular STEM PAC, 11 scientists — eight Democrats and three Republicans — were sworn into congress and state legislatures in 2018. 314Action endorsed and supported all the Democrats, and 30 other candidates were elected to state legislatures throughout the country.[18] Candidates were trained to write campaign plans, budget, and deflect undesirable questions from the press and casework, all of which significantly impacts the success of a campaign. These skills made it easier for them to raise more money and increase their visibility through endorsements and advertisements.[19]

Mai Khanh Tran, a private-practice pediatrician from Los Angeles, CA, participated in the March for Science and met with elected officials before Congress voted on the Affordable Care Act repeal.[20] This inspired Tran to run for office to directly influence issues in which she is considered an expert. “The Affordable Care Act was the beginning, and we have to continue that work,” Tran said, because these are all public health issues “that require an in-depth understanding of healthcare and data to devise evidence-based solutions.”[21] This is essentially the role of physicians, to develop and approach public health problems impacting their patients. The issues that professional healthcare workers highlight are ones which require expertise that directly influence a person’s daily interactions. The opioid crisis, housing inequality, gun violence, and affordable healthcare are all issues that significantly affect individuals’ health outcome. This is not something that a member of Congress without a medical background can successfully nor feasible address.

Another example is seen with Representative Elaine Luria of Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District. Rep. Luria served as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer in the Navy and held a technical degree in Nuclear Physics.[22] Rep. Luria can now transform the analytical and complex skills she learned in her STEM career into comprehensive, evidence-based policies that address issues of which many are not aware. She currently serves on the House Committee of Armed Services (HCAS), is a member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, and is the vice-chair of the Sea Power and Projection Forces Subcommittee and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.[23] Here has Luria introduced several bills which target topics related to The Chesapeake Bay and ending offshore drilling. Other issues that arise are the contamination of water sources around military installations. These require expertise in this field in order to make a positive impact on society. Rep. Luria can have a direct impact on legislation by bringing awareness to these issues and working to solve them. Her advantage is that her district is predominantly military; therefore, many of her bills spotlight environmental issues that affect her constituency.

A final example arises when assessing the success of Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (IL-14), who became the youngest African American woman to be elected to Congress and is also a Registered Nurse. Her credentials are extraordinary in influencing many policies that are bought to the U.S. House of Representatives. She brings expertise while holding the same passion for these issues. As stated in an article by TIME, “As a registered nurse and someone who was inspired to enter public service because of her own experiences with a heart condition,” issues like health care policies and the Public Health crisis  “are personal for Lauren.”[24] Additionally, Rep. Underwood has helped alleviate the partisan divide within Congress through her background. “For instance, she convened with Representative Phil Roe, a physician who is co-chair of the House GOP Doctors Caucus, last spring to introduce legislation on protecting the medical supply chain.”[25] From this cooperation, Rep. Roe stated, “that sharing medical backgrounds has brought him together with Democratic doctors and other health professionals to work on health policy.”[26] This is a pertinent example that displays how the politicization of science hinders the success and public health of the United States. Rep. Underwood continues to address these matters and collaborate with other representatives despite their political backgrounds, prioritizing truth and evidence.

By not having enough leaders with STEM backgrounds in politics, Americans lose a perspective that can contribute to diverse and life-saving legislation. In many instances, science has proven to be a necessary part of government. Ignoring science further marginalizes the efforts and progress that science has made in our society. STEM leaders are often found to have low political efficacy — or the belief that they influence government — and, therefore, also have low incentive to engage in politics. Unlike public servants, lawyers, and businesspeople, they are not exposed to political mechanisms within their careers. Additionally, their findings are often publicly condemned by popular politicians. This makes them relatively far removed from the policymaking process and limits their potential growth within political realms. To fix this issue, the support of PACS is necessary. Here STEM leaders will be able to receive training and funding to fix this systemic problem and increase their visibility. It is not enough to have leaders act as advisors or chair agencies; there needs to be policymakers with STEM backgrounds present in government to ensure that they are not ignored. Although it is common for politicians to ignore evidence and do what their constituency supports, having individuals with STEM backgrounds can help apply analytical skills to policymaking and develop more complex policies that adequately address issues and appeal to supporters.

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Turned It into Policy.,” The Washington Post (WP Company, October 9, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/the-gop-has-a-long-history-of-ignoring-science-trump-turned-it-into-policy/2020/10/09/53574602-0917-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html.

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Footnotes

[1] Chris Mooney, “Analysis | A New Battle over Politics and Science Could Be Brewing. And Scientists Are Ready for It,” The Washington Post (WP Company, April 29, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/01/31/a-new-battle-over-politics-and-science-could-be-coming-and-scientists-are-ready-for-it/.

[2] UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists). 2004. “2004 Scientist Statement on Restoring Scientific Integrity to Federal Policymaking.” http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/center- science-and-democracy/promoting-scientific- integrity/scientists-sign-on- statement.html#.Wfx1S4prxYc.

[3] Ibid. USC pp 16

[4] Person, “Science under Eight Years of Obama,” Chemical & Engineering News (American Chemical Society, July 22, 2020), https://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i46/Science-under-eight-years-Obama.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Goldman, Gretchen, Genna Reed, Michael Halpern, Charise Johnson, Emily Berman, Yogin Kothari, and Andrew Rosenberg. Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking: Lessons from the Past Two Administrations and What’s at Stake under the Trump Administration. Report. Union of Concerned Scientists, 2017. 7-28. Accessed November 30, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep17230.6.

[7] Emily Berman and Jacob Carter, “Policy Analysis: Scien- tific Integrity in Federal Policymaking Under Past and Present Administrations,” Journal of Science Policy and Governance 13, (1) (2018), available at http://www.sciencepolicyjournal.org/up- loads/5/4/3/4/5434385/berman_emily__carter_jacob.pdf.

[8] Maria Caffrey, “Want More Science-Based Policies? Start by Protecting the Scientists,” November 25, 2020, https://blog.ucsusa.org/maria-caffrey/want-more-science-based-policies-start-by-protecting-the-scientists?_ga=2.216021334.135479248.1606628723-1866131798.1606628723.

[9] Coral Davenport, “In the Trump Administration, Science Is Unwelcome. So Is Advice.,” The New York Times (The New York Times, June 9, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/climate/trump-administration-science.html.

[10] Stephen Collinson, “Analysis: Trump Ignores Science at Dangerous Indoor Rally,” CNN (Cable News Network, September 14, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/14/politics/donald-trump-coronavirus-indoor-rally-wildfires/index.html.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Dietram A. Scheufele, Nicole M. Krause “Science audiences, misinformation, and fake news”

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr 2019, 116 (16) 7662-7669; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1805871115

[13] Matthew Dallek, “Perspective | The GOP Has a Long History of Ignoring Science. Trump Turned It into Policy.,” The Washington Post (WP Company, October 9, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/the-gop-has-a-long-history-of-ignoring-science-trump-turned-it-into-policy/2020/10/09/53574602-0917-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Choi BCK, Pang T, Lin V, et al Can scientists and policy makers work together? Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health 2005;59:632-637.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Electing Scientists Who Will Use Evidence and Facts to Fight Climate Change and Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.,” 3.14 Action, November 24, 2020, https://314action.org/.

[18] Ibid. 314 Action

[19] Alan Yu, “Scientists Running for Office Learn to Present More than ‘Just the Facts’,” WHYY (WHYY, April 23, 2019), https://whyy.org/articles/scientists-running-for-office-learn-to-present-more-than-just-the-facts/.

[20] Susan Jaffe, “Scientists and Physicians Run for Office in the USA,” The Lancet, April 2018, https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(18)30977-2.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Megan Eckstein, “Rep. Elaine Luria, Retired Navy Commander and Freshman Lawmaker, On Her First Months in Congress,” USNI News, May 23, 2019, https://news.usni.org/2019/05/23/rep-elaine-luria-retired-navy-commander-and-freshman-lawmaker-on-her-first-months-in-congress.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Cory Booker, “Lauren Underwood Is on the 2019 TIME 100 Next List,” Time (Time, December 5, 2019), https://time.com/collection/time-100-next-2019/5718829/lauren-underwood/.

[25] Victoria Knight, “US Election: How Covid-19 Pushed Doctors into the Political Arena like Never Before,” The BMJ (British Medical Journal Publishing Group, October 30, 2020), https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4118.

[26] Ibid,


Iyonna Young ’22 is a Business Management and Political Science double major with a minor in Spanish from Prince George’s County, Maryland. She is an aspiring business consultant who believes in empowering others to break barriers in their lives. Currently, she is the Director of Annual Events and a Residential Assistant for the 21-22 school year. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, hiking, and DIY projects. 

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