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‘It’s Science, Stupid’: A school subject emerges as a hot-button political issue

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Victoria Knight October 30, 2020

At the top of Dr. Hiral Tipirneni’s to-do list if she wins her congressional race: work with other elected officials to encourage mask mandates and to beef up COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. Those choices are backed up by science, said Tipirneni, an emergency room physician running for Arizona’s 6th Congressional District.

On the campaign trail, she has called on her opponent, Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), to denounce President Donald Trump’s gathering of thousands for a rally in Arizona and his comments about slowing down COVID-19 testing.

“I believe in data; I believe in facts,” Tipirneni told KHN. “I believe in science guiding us … whether it’s the opioid crisis or tax policy or immigration reform. Those decisions could be and should be driven by the data. Science is not partisan.”

Tipirneni is one of four Democratic physicians running as challengers for Congress in 2020, all in closely watched races mostly rated as toss-ups. And it’s not just doctors. The group 3.14 Action (named for the value of pi) is working to help elect more scientists to office, promoting on its website candidates such as Mark Kelly, an engineer and former astronaut, who is seeking a Senate seat in Arizona, and Nancy Goroff, who has a doctorate in chemistry and is running for Congress in New York. Science is an integral part of their policy platforms, with an emphasis on the coronavirus pandemic.

These candidates hope to become part of an expanding pro-science caucus that includes three Democratic physician incumbents facing election challenges.

The candidates present themselves as foils to Trump and other Republicans who they say have dismissed scientific evidence and public health recommendations to battle the pandemic. Although climate change has propelled some people with science backgrounds into politics in recent years, the coronavirus crisis has galvanized the movement in this election cycle.

Still, political scientists and pollsters said that while Democrats’ use of “pro-science” messaging in their campaigns could help them get elected, it also may ultimately lead to increased polarization.

“We’ve sometimes seen a modest difference in political parties when it comes to scientists generally, but it’s gotten a little bit bigger,” said Cary Funk, director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center.

Conservatives deny that they ignore science or downplay its significance. They say that, instead, Democrats often take positions that stifle scientific innovation by increasing taxes and regulation, citing research and development in the pharmaceutical field as an example.

“Democrats calling themselves the party of science sounds a bit like Trumpian self-flattery,” wrote Doug Badger, a visiting fellow in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, in an email. He doesn’t think Republicans and Democrats approach science differently since most research is conducted far from the political sphere.

This year, several Republican doctors are running for the first time for Congress, including Dr. Leo Valentín in Florida, Dr. Ronny Jackson, previously Trump’s White House physician, in Texas. Dr. Roger Marshall, a current member of the House, is facing Democratic physician Dr. Barbara Bollier in the race for Kansas’ open Senate seat. A cadre of Republican doctors already serve in Congress, with 11 in the House and three in the Senate.

Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), a physician who is a co-chair of the House GOP Doctors Caucus, said that sharing medical backgrounds has brought him together with Democratic doctors and other health professionals to work on health policy.

But new political action committees — for instance, Doctors in Politics — have cropped up with the goal of running up the score on the left.

Doctors in Politics was formed this year by a group of physicians who were frustrated by what they viewed as a failed federal response to COVID-19. The group’s aim is to elect 50 Democratic or independent doctors to political office by 2022, said Dr. Dona Murphey, one of the group’s founders and a neurologist. But for now, they’re focused on 2020.

According to David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern University in Boston and one of the leaders of a COVID-19 polling consortium, their timing might be right.

“My intuition is that this is a good year to be running as a doctor or scientist,” he said, pointing to a September survey from the consortium that showed trust in doctors and scientists is higher than trust in any other American institution or political entity.

Much of that may be traced to COVID-19. But, as the science surrounding the disease has been on nearly everyone’s mind, differing attitudes among the American electorate are likely to play out at the polls.

“The growing political divide around coronavirus is also seen in terms of trust in medical scientists,” Funk said.

Funk pointed to a May report by the Pew Research Center that showed overall public trust increased in medical scientists since 2019, but that increase is attributed to a growing trust among Democrats. Republicans’ trust in scientists stayed about the same from 2019 through the first few months of the pandemic. A more recent survey from Pew showed that those on the political right are often less trusting of scientists than are those on the left.

Trump’s rhetoric around science may be contributing to the split. During the pandemic, the president has dismissed public health advice from experts, touted unproven coronavirus treatments and questioned the efficacy of masks.

“The Trump administration has systematically done everything it could to downplay, dismiss or deny science,” said Michael Gerrard, an environmental lawyer and professor at Columbia University. “This is most prominent with climate change and now with the coronavirus, but it’s all across the board.” Gerrard has tracked more than 300 situations in which he found scientific initiatives to be restricted or questioned by federal officials since 2016, 19 of them COVID-related.

Such frustration during the course of this election cycle has become palpable, with organizations that don’t normally step into the political fray doing so.

The presidents of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine, for instance, released a joint statement Sept. 24 expressing alarm over what they considered to be political interference in the response to COVID-19 by the president.

And a multitude of scientific publications have spoken out. Scientific American formally endorsed the Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden — its first time making such a political pick in its 175-year history. The journal Nature has also endorsed Biden. The New England Journal of Medicine published a scathing critique — “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum” — of the federal government’s pandemic response. Although it was not a formal endorsement of any candidate, the editorial said, “Our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent.”

Such picking sides has led to another phenomenon, said Dominik Stecuła, an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.

“You’ll see yard signs that say ‘Science is real’ and with other messages clearly aligning scientists with a group on the political spectrum,” he said. But Stecuła said pro-science messaging by Democrats could lead to deeper fissures in public opinion.

“From a scientist’s point of view, it hurts the goals that you’re trying to achieve,” he said, “because what ends up happening is that, increasingly, Republicans treat scientists as an out-party group, a constituency of the Democrats.”

Others offer a different take.

“I really reject that premise,” said Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), a registered nurse who flipped her district to Democratic when she was elected in 2018 on a pro-science platform. She’s running for reelection this year. “I just don’t think that’s true. The American people may be uncomfortable with some findings and recommendations, but this is a core value set in our community.”

“We learn science in every grade, in every level of education,” she said. “There may be some partisan differences in how we take partisan findings, but I think it’s dangerous if we start to presume that science is polarizing.”

She also thinks her background as a health professional helps her in Congress to work across the aisle. For instance, she worked with Rep. Roe last spring to introduce legislation on protecting the medical supply chain.

Roe also dismissed the idea that science — especially regarding the pandemic and the development of a COVID-19 vaccine — is further polarizing the electorate. In his view, it’s less about science and more about the race for the White House.

“Of course it’s been politicized, it’s a political year,” said Roe. “If we hadn’t had an election, I think it would look different.”

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