Shaughnessy Naughton contemplates methods of integrating science in politics with MHC students


On the evening of Sept. 21, the Mount Holyoke community gathered in Gamble Auditorium to hear from chemist, former congressional candidate and now nonprofit founder, Shaughnessy Naughton. The event was titled “From the Chemistry Lab to Public Policy: The Science of Creating a Political Movement” and was sponsored by the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, the department of environmental studies, and the Science Center. 

Naughton, who studied chemistry at Bryn Mawr, ran for the House of Representatives in both 2014 and 2016. She went on to found Action 314, a nonprofit organization that advocates for STEM policy and encourages scientists to run for public office. She took the stage at Gamble Auditorium last Thursday to discuss her experiences. 

After words of welcome from Catherine Corson, director of the Miller Worley Center for the environment, Naughton thanked the audience for attending. 

Naughton began the event by discussing her childhood dream of becoming a chemist, which began in fifth grade when science class sparked her interest in STEM. “I still have my chemistry set that I had in elementary school,”  said Naughton. 

While at Bryn Mawr, she studied breast cancer research and drug discovery and planned to continue her career in chemistry. However, when her family’s business started to go intojeopardy, she moved home to help. 

“I went to college to not have to go into the family business, so this was a bit of a shock,” she said. “But I helped turn things around and ended up running the business for a decade.” 

Naughton said that by 2013, she had reached the boiling point in watching the attacks on science on Capitol Hill. She announced she was running for Congress in her home district, Pennsylvania’s eighth district. However, this was easier said than done, as Naughton struggled to find donors for her campaign. Naughton explained that it was difficult to turn to her friends for their help because many of them were in their mid-30s and were starting families. Meanwhile, her family was mostly Republican and she was running as a Democrat. She also explained that she was locked out of the traditional democratic donors because the Democratic Committee had already endorsed a candidate. 

She struggled to find donors for her campaign. Thus, Naughton explained that she and her team had to be creative in finding donors and supporters. So, Naughton returned to her roots and reached out to the scientific community.

“A big part of why I was running was because I was concerned about the attacks on science and the lack of steady funding for research. So I reached out to chemists to ask for their support and then worked my way into the larger scientific community,” she said. 

Although Naughton did not win the election, she walked away having learned a lot, including the harsh reality of being a female political candidate. 

“As a woman running, you get a lot of unsolicited advice. Before I announced I was running I kept reaching out to the chair of the Democratic Committee in our district. He sits me down for a meeting and says, ‘I’m gonna give you some advice: stop wearing skirts, start wearing pearls, cut your hair (she had long hair at the time) and make yourself look more frumpy.’ That was the advice. It wasn’t about policy, politics or messaging — there’s just that reality.” 

Naughton said that during her campaign she noticed a severe lack of legislators with scientific backgrounds. “What I observed was that there’s a whole lot of businessmen and attorneys in Congress, but not many people with scientific backgrounds,” Naughton explained. “I think we see the results of that reflected in legislative priorities and a lack of progress.”

Because of this lack of STEM legislators, Naughton went on to found the non-profit Action 314 to encourage the scientific community to step up and get involved. 

Naughton went onto say that she believes that as problem solvers, individuals with science backgrounds could make positive change in the government and deserve a place at the table, and not just as advisors, but as legislators too. 

“In the 2016 election, people voted for change — scientists represent change in a more productive way as political outsiders,” said Naughton.

Action 314 also strives to make science and scientists more visible in communities, organizes people across the country who believe in a pro-science agenda and urges the public to call out legislators who make anti-science or non-factual claims. 

During the lecture, Naughton stressed that the success of Action 314 has been extremely successful so far in its support of scientists who want to run for office. For example, the nonprofit’s candidate training for scientists, which was meant to provide trainees with an idea of what it’s like to run for office, has had 7,000 scientists participate. 

Naughton then announced that Action 314 sponsors 6,000 candidates, from local, state and federal levels. She went on to say that she believes this is a sign that scientists are becoming more involved in politics andpolicy. 

“With all of the upsetting and discouraging news that we have seen out of the Trump administration, I think one good thing we’ve seen is people realizing that it’s no longer just someone else’s job to step up and act. We all need to step up and act,” she said. 

Naughton then asked the audience if anyone had participated in the Women’s March (over half of the room raised their hands), then if anyone had participated in the March for Science (far less than half raised their hands) and finally if anyone had knocked on doors for a candidate or phone banked (a few people raised their hands). She smiled as she said that this was a moment to learn from. 

“That’s what we need to work on,” said Naughton. “We need to take that energy that the march all inspired in us and put it to productive use to help deserving candidates, whether they have a scientific background or not, get elected so that we can have a pro-science, fact-based agenda in the government.”

Naughton went on to further encourage listeners to be politically active by voting, paying attention and being active in local politics and communicating with elected officials.

“Even the most anti-science legislator can count,” said Naughton. “They count the phone calls and emails that come into their offices, whether for or against an issue. And it’s incredibly important that we all make our voices heard.” 

Many in the audience enjoyed hearing not only about Shaughnessy’s journey from STEM to politics, but also about her non-profit, Action 314.

“I liked it because I honestly hadn’t heard of Action 314 before and I feel like Mount Holyoke is a great place for something like this to be on campus,” said Kate Rawson ’18. 

Brad Thornton, a community member in the audience, attended the talk because of his interest in science-based political advocacy.

“As someone from an environmental background, the current state of environmental policy is very concerningto me, so I’m very interested in how we can get scientists and experts into office, as well as respected, based on their expertise and the work that they’ve been doing for their entire careers,” Thornton said. “The talk was a great opening for dialogue between those of us in the community that are interested for running for office to at least know what the process is like and to be able to evaluate whether that is an attainable goal.”