Will the Pandemic Propel STEM Experts to Political Power?
If your car won't run, you head to a mechanic. If your faucet leaks, you contact a plumber. But what do you do if your politics are broken? You call a… lawyer.
"Scientists have been more engaged with politics over the past three years amid a consistent sidelining of science and expertise, and now the pandemic has crystalized things even more."
That's been the American way since the beginning. Thousands of members of the House and Senate have been attorneys, along with nearly two dozen U.S. presidents from John Adams to Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama. But a band of STEM professionals is changing the equation. They're hoping anger over the coronavirus pandemic will turn their expertise into a political superpower that propels more of them into office.
"This could be a turning point, part of an acceleration of something that's already happening," said Nancy Goroff, a New York chemistry professor who's running for a House seat in Long Island and will apparently be the first female scientist with a Ph.D. in Congress. "Scientists have been more engaged with politics over the past three years amid a consistent sidelining of science and expertise, and now the pandemic has crystalized things even more."
Professionals in the science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields don't have an easy task, however. To succeed, they must find ways to engage with voters instead of their usual target audiences — colleagues, patients and students. And they'll need to beat back a long-standing political tradition that has made federal and state politics a domain of attorneys and businesspeople, not nurses and biologists.
In the 2017-2018 Congress, more members of Congress said they'd worked as radio talk show hosts (seven) and as car dealership owners (six) than scientists (three — a physicist, a microbiologist, and a chemist), according to a 2018 report from the Congressional Research Service. There were more bankers (18) than physicians (14), more management consultants (18) than engineers (11), and more former judges (15) than dentists (4), nurses (2), veterinarians (3), pharmacists (1) and psychologists (3) combined.
In 2018, a "STEM wave" brought nine members with STEM backgrounds into office. But those with initials like PhD, MD and RN after their names are still far outnumbered by Esq. and MBA types.
Why the gap? Astrophysicist Rush Holt Jr., who served from 1999-2015 as a House representative from New Jersey, thinks he knows. "I have this very strong belief, based on 16 years in Congress and a long, intense public life, that the problem is not with science or the scientists," said. "It has to do with the fact that the public just doesn't pay attention to science. It never occurs to them that they have any role in the matter."
But Holt, former chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, believes change is on the way. "It's likely that the pandemic will affect people's attitudes," former congressman Holt said, "and lead them to think that they need more scientific thinking in policy-making and legislating." Holt's father was a U.S. senator from West Virginia, so he grew up with a political education. But how can scientists and medical professionals succeed if they have no background in the art of wooing voters?
That's where an organization called 314 Action comes in. Named after the first three digits of pi, 314 Action declares itself to be the "pro-science resistance" and says it's trained more than 1,400 scientists to run for public office.
In 2018, 9 out of 13 House and Senate candidates endorsed by the group won their races. In 2020, 314 Action is endorsing 12 candidates for the House (including an engineer), four for the Senate (including an astronaut) and one for governor (a mathematician in Kansas). It expects to spend $10 million-$20 million to support campaigns this year.
"Physicians, scientists and engineers are problem-solvers," said Shaughnessy Naughton, a Pennsylvania chemist who founded 314 Action after an unsuccessful bid for Congress. "They're willing to dive into issues, and their skills would benefit policy decisions that extend way beyond their scientific fields of expertise."
Like many political organizations, 314 Action focuses on teaching potential candidate how to make it in politics, aiming to help them drop habits that fail to bridge the gap between scientists and civilians. "Their first impulse is not to tell a story," public speaking coach Chris Jahnke told the public radio show "Marketplace" in 2018. "They would rather start with a stat." In a training session, Jahnke aimed to teach them to do both effectively.
"It just comes down to being able to speak about general principles in regular English, and to always have the science intertwined with basic human values," said Rep. Kim Schrier, a Washington state pediatrician who won election to Congress in 2018.
She believes her experience on the job has helped her make connections with voters. In a chat with parents about vaccines for their child, for example, she knows not to directly jump into an arcane discussion of case-control studies.
The best alternative, she said, is to "talk about how hard it is to be a parent making these decisions, feeling scared and worried. Then say that you've looked at the data and the research, and point out that pediatricians would never do anything to hurt children because we want to do everything that is good for them. When you speak heart to heart, it gets across the message and the credibility of medicine and science."
The pandemic "will hopefully awaken people and trigger a change that puts science, medicine and public health on a pedestal where science is revered and not dismissed as elitist."
Communication skills will be especially important if the pandemic spurs more Americans to focus on politics and the records of incumbents in regard to matters like public health and climate change. Thousands of candidates will have to address the nation's coronavirus response, and a survey commissioned by 314 Action suggests that voters may be receptive to those with STEM backgrounds. The poll, of 1,002 likely voters in early April 2020, found that 41%-46% of those surveyed said they'd be "much more favorable" toward candidates who were doctors, nurses, scientists and public health professionals. Those numbers were the highest in the survey compared to just 9% for lawyers.
The pandemic "will hopefully awaken people and trigger a change that puts science, medicine and public health on a pedestal where science is revered and not dismissed as elitist," Dr. Schrier said. "It will come from a recognition that what's going to get us out of this bind are scientists, vaccine development and the hard work of the people in public health on the ground."
[This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.