Meet The Scientists Who Have Just Been Elected To Congress

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This year's midterms were some of the most hotly contested in decades, reflecting the highly politicized climate in the US in 2018. The result is likely to trigger major changes in Washington next year and not just because the Democrats swept in to re-take the House while the Republicans strengthened their grip on the Senate.

In general, Congress is becoming more diverse. Aside from the success of female and LGBT candidates and historic wins for Muslim and Native American women, the midterms saw an influx of candidates from STEM backgrounds seeking office and winning elections – a welcome change, you could say, from the former businessmen, ex-lawyers, and career politicians that typically saturate Congress.

So, what does it mean for America?

Perhaps the biggest change from a science perspective is the fact that the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will soon be headed by a Democrat, the current favorite being Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).

Johnson is the former chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas Veterans Administration Hospital, Texas, and was the very first registered nurse to be elected to Congress when she was sworn in in 1993. According to her website, she was also the first woman and African American to be elected Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology back in 2010.

In a statement published on the committee page, Johnson explained what her priorities would be if she were to be made chairman. These include maintaining the country's status as "the global leader in innovation" and addressing climate change by "acknowledging it is real", "seeking to understand what climate science is telling us", and "working to understand the ways we can mitigate it”. She also stressed the importance of restoring "the credibility of the Science Committee as a place where science is respected and recognized as a crucial input to good policymaking” – which really isn't something that should need saying, but then again, it is 2018.

Shockingly – or not, depending on how cynical you are – if she is elected, she would be the first person in 28 years to lead the committee and have an actual degree in science, says Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaplan. This pro-science stance would mark a departure from the committee's current chairman, self-identified "climate skeptic" Lamar Smith, who has spent the past five years undermining peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF), issuing subpoenas to block climate science, and accepting campaign funding from fossil fuel industries.

But what about some of the new faces? This year saw more candidates with science degrees run for office than ever before. Here's a little background on the Congress first-timers who will be joining the likes of Bill Foster, Chris Collins, and Ami Bera, starting with the House:

Sean Casten (D-IL) 

Casten's background is in chemical engineering and renewable energy. He was previously the CEO and founder of a company (Recycled Energy Development) that recycles excess heat produced during industrial processes to make electricity. So, unsurprisingly, energy, the environment, and climate change were all big campaigning points of his. 

"Once elected, I look forward to working to make green business the business of America, as well as working on some more immediate solutions to climate change," he told the Chicago Sun-Times

Joe Cunningham (D-SC)

Cunningham worked as an ocean engineer and then retrained to be an environmental lawyer. He calls climate change "the single greatest non-military threat to our nation" and favors the creation of a "high tech, green economy" built on renewable sources like solar and wind energy. Given his previous work, he has been particularly outspoken against offshore drilling, saying "As an ocean engineer, I know firsthand how destructive drilling for oil – and even just testing for oil – can be to a coastline." 

Kevin Hern (R-OK)

Hern has a degree in engineering and has worked in the aerospace and computer programming industries, which he left to pursue a career at McDonald's and now, politics. Unlike the other scientists on this list, he opposes the Affordable Care Act and doesn't list any other science-related priorities on his campaign website.

Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA)

Houlahan has had a varied career, working as an Air Force Reserve veteran, industrial engineer, and high school chemistry teacher – and now is in politics. Affordable healthcare, women's health, and the environment are all top priorities of hers. 

"Instead of rationing healthcare to only the rich, Congress should be working to expand access to it, and to control costs through legislation that insists on the incorporation of sound competitive practices into the businesses of drug development and distribution, and hospital management," she explains on her website.

Elaine Luria (D-VA)

Luria takes over from Scott Taylor, a Republican who opposed the Paris Agreement. Before seeking office, Luria spent 20 years in the navy, where she was deployed six times and operated nuclear reactors.

Luria ran on a platform of security, equality, and prosperity, campaigning on the idea that security means "we are healthy – and have reliable and affordable choices in healthcare" and "we must protect our environment – so that we, along with future generations, can breathe fresh air and drink clean water." She also calls for the repeal of the Dickey Amendment, which limits the CDC's ability to study gun violence.

Kim Schrier (D-WA)

Schier is a pediatrician, who also happens to have a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from the University of California-Berkeley. She was inspired to run after the seven-term incumbent, Republican Dave Reichert, voted in favor of a bill removing healthcare for thousands in her district. Schrier's main focus was healthcare – which is also the principal concern of most voters, according to the exit polls

"I was ticked off. Frankly, if Congress was doing its job, I would not have to run for office. I would be back holding little babies," she told volunteers, reported The Seattle Times.

Lauren Underwood (D-IL)

Underwood is a first-time candidate but has experience in politics, having worked for the US Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. She is also a registered nurse and has a master's in health policy. In contrast to her predecessor, Randy Hultgren, who was in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act and stepping out of the Paris Agreement, Underwood is a strong advocate for affordable healthcare, reproductive rights, and environmental protections as well as measures to reduce gun violence.

"My experience as a healthcare provider informed my belief that every American has the right to high-quality, affordable healthcare," she told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I aim to implement reforms to make healthcare more affordable for middle class families, such as empowering the federal government to negotiate fair prices for prescription drugs."

Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ)

Before spending three terms working as a New Jersey state senator, he was a dentist. It is because of this experience in the American healthcare system that he says he understands the need to make it "accessible and affordable". He hasn't always voted in line with the Democratic party – for example, he has voted against gay marriage and minimum wage, has an A rating from the NRA, and frequently picks industry over the environment. But he does side with the party when it comes to subjects like offshore drilling, Social Security, and Medicare. 

And in the Senate:

Jacky Rosen (D-NV)

Rosen has a background in computer programming and degrees in psychology and computer science, but she currently serves as the US Representative for Nevada's 3rd congressional district. In winning a Senate seat for Nevada, she succeeds Dean Heller, who lost support after his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act even though he promised to not vote for anything that threatened cover for pre-existing conditions. As well as improving access to affordable healthcare and standing up to hardline anti-immigration policies, Rosen ran on a platform that prioritized investment in STEM education.

"I think healthcare is the first thing we need to take on," she told Vox. "They’ve been sabotaging our health care system for so many years, so we need to stabilize the system, boost up those cost-sharing reductions."

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