Scientists Are on Ballot as New Money Tries to Shake Up Washington D.C.

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Updated: Nov 03, 2018 11:03 AM

Climate change, offshore drilling, the regulation of toxic substances -- several science-related policy issues are at stake in the midterm elections, and a new political action committee wants more scientists voting on them.

Scientists Are on Ballot as New Money Tries to Shake Up Washington D.C. (Reuters)

Climate change, offshore drilling, the regulation of toxic substances — several science-related policy issues are at stake in the midterm elections, and a new political action committee wants more scientists voting on them. Organizers formed 314 Action Fund — the name comes from the first three digits for Pi — after the 2016 election brought President Donald Trump and his planned regulatory rollback to Washington. Now, as Congress ponders legislation options that include defanging states’ product-labeling laws, the PAC has spent more than $1.7 million to back 13 congressional candidates who have science and technology backgrounds.

All of them happen to be Democrats — though the group says it’s not a partisan organization. “What is so troubling with the Trump administration is deregulation at all costs,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, founder and president of 314 Action, the nonprofit affiliated with the fund. The Republican platform is “just in denial of the scientific consensus too often.”

The use — and definition — of science in public policy is playing out in races across the country, a signal that such issues may represent a growing political battlefield. “Science should not be a partisan issue,” said Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the Consumer Choice Center, another new group, which advocates rolling back regulation. “It has obviously become one.”

Chicago Showdown
Nowhere is it more intense than in a congressional district in suburban Chicago. There, incumbent Republican Representative Peter Roskam is backed by the chemical industry, while his challenger, Democrat Sean Casten, is a clean-energy executive endorsed by former President Barack Obama and 314 Action.

The district is also home to a sterilization facility that’s under fire for emitting ethylene oxide. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency said the chemical was “carcinogenic to humans” and concluded that it’s 50 to 60 times more potent than previously thought.

A bombshell report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this summer said the 19,721 people living within a mile of the Sterigenics facility were at an elevated risk for cancer. Four schools and a daycare center are also located within that one-mile radius. The chemical industry’s trade group, the American Chemistry Council, says the testing is flawed and has asked for the data to be corrected.

Also last summer, the ACC spent $82,250 on TV ads supporting Roskam, according to Kantar Media — ads that were focused on Roskam’s support of the 2017 income-tax overhaul legislation. Scott Openshaw, a spokesman for the ACC, said the industry group has a long history of “periodically running issue ads thanking elected officials from both parties for their efforts to improve economic growth, job creation and overall U.S. economic competitiveness, including comprehensive tax reform.” Nationwide, the group spent about $2.2 million on such ads for 14 candidates, Openshaw said.

Calls for Closing
Last month, the 314 Action PAC countered by spending $92,696 to oppose Roskam in direct-mail ads, federal records show.

Casten, the Democrat, whose background includes degrees in molecular biology and biochemical engineering, has called for halting production at the Sterigenics plant until further study. While Roskam also called for closing the plant last month, Casten says Roskam would have a hard time separating his constituents’ needs from the industry’s.

Roskam’s office didn’t provide comment for this story. He has voted with his party in favor of bills that have drawn the ire of environmental groups, including the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, which expands industry representation to panels that inform policymaking and makes it harder for academics to serve; and the Honest Act, which would bar certain data not publicly available or replicable. Critics say that would exclude epidemiological data that’s been used to demonstrate substances’ harm to populations. Both measures passed the House on near party-line votes.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report says the close Roskam-Casten race is leaning Democratic with just days to go before voters head to the polls. Casten said it’s important to get more science-minded people in policymaking roles.

‘Institutional Knowledge’
“To the extent that you make government beholden to outsiders, you basically put all the institutional knowledge on K Street rather than in the government, and there’s a real problem there,” Casten said in an interview. “But here we’ve got something right in people’s backyards where we’re saying the data from the EPA science advisory board, which was a decade in the making, is pretty unambiguous.”

The 314 group is also backing 75 state-level candidates in Tuesday’s election and says it has raised as much as $5 million to fund its aims this cycle. As of Oct. 17, it had raised about $2.5 million for use in federal campaigns, according to its filings with the Federal Election Commission.

“What I realized was that we really need to get scientists to go beyond just advocacy and actually get involved in electoral politics, whether it’s to run for office themselves or support their colleagues,” said Naughton, a former chemist and breast-cancer researcher who ran unsuccessfully in two Democratic congressional primaries in Pennsylvania. When the group put out a call in January 2017 for scientists interested in running, 7,000 responded.

The group is what’s known as a “hybrid” super PAC, meaning it contributes directly to candidates but can also make “independent expenditures” that support candidates but can’t be coordinated with their campaigns. As of Wednesday, it had spent $1.5 million independently and contributed $231,500 directly to congressional candidates.

The outcome of those races matters when it comes to how Congress thinks about science, said Stier of the anti-regulation group Consumer Choice Center. Although that group doesn’t back candidates, it does work to promote its anti-regulatory positions, and it warns a Blue Wave could make it more burdensome on companies trying to keep costs to consumers down.

If Democrats advance, “there is going to be a move toward a European style regulatory approach that embraces the precautionary principle at the expense of consumer freedom, low priced, affordable and safe products,” he said.

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