By Valerie Horsley
While many of my community members have thanked me for running for State Senate in Connecticut, many others have wondered why I would step into this political world when my career as a scientist is going well. Yet, when I think of the students struggling with student loan debt, the women in our society who battle to have their voices heard or to be paid equal to their male peers, or the brown and black youth who have lost their lives too early due to violence, I think, “we need smart leaders to solve these problems.”
Scientists are trained to create innovative solutions to complex problems. We use the available tools, generate data by taking risks (i.e. doing experiments), and solve the problem. By 2018, I had spent 20 years honing my problem-solving skills, first as a part of Emory’s BCDB program in the laboratory of Grace Pavlath, then at Rockefeller University in my postdoctoral fellowship with Elaine Fuchs, and finally as a faculty member at Yale. I had used my organizational and problem-solving skills to protect postdoctoral rent subsidies at Rockefeller and to help open a new daycare facility at Yale, but I had not considered running for public office until I began paying attention to the political landscape after the 2016 Presidential Election.
In November of 2016, I started Action Together CT, a local organization launched with the goal of helping my neighbors and friends engage in political work: volunteering in elections and supporting legislation. Through my activism, I realized that the values of science— truth and scientific inquiry— were lacking in both our national and state politics. I also saw that legislators use skills like public speaking and debate, skills that I had cultivated as an educator and scientist. And finally, I knew I wanted to see more problem solvers leading our nation and states.
So, a year later, I decided to run for State Senate in Connecticut. Legislators in Connecticut have other jobs, so I wanted to balance my service for my state with my scientific career at Yale. During my campaign, I learned several important lessons.
1) Voters trust scientists and want new smart leaders leading their state and nation.
2) Courage is contagious. Many people stepped out of their comfort zones to knock on doors or make calls as volunteers for my campaign because I took a courageous step by becoming a candidate.
3) Candidates influence the conversation. Many of the issues that I emphasized became issues that my opponents started to emphasize as well.
Although my first campaign was not successful, I am even more committed to encouraging a diverse discourse in our democracy. Scientific perspectives and skills have the potential to impact economic and social issues that will make our states and nation stronger, more successful, and more equitable. Innovation in biosciences and technology can build a strong economy for the future. Yet, perhaps more importantly, the ability of scientists to “follow the data” has resulted in positive policy changes. For example, later start times for high school students in Seattle to allow for more sleep that scientists have shown teenagers need, or changing our carbon emissions to thwart the climate changes that persist in our environment.
I believe that as citizens of our states and nation, we, as scientists, have a responsibility to ensure that our communities support the values of truth and foster the success of everyone, not just a few. I am encouraged by groups like 314 action that support candidates with a STEM background in their quest for election to public offices. From school boards to U.S. Congress, the voices of scientists are needed to ensure that public policy is based in fact and rigor. Therefore, I encourage you to get involved in your community either by volunteering for a candidate that holds your values, holding your elected officials accountable by calling or emailing them, or even running for public office. Only by stepping out of the laboratory and into the public sphere will we, as scientists, be able to ensure that science and truth are the foundation of our government.