October 4, 2021

Massachusetts voters might see the name 314 Action pop up in local races this election season.

The political advocacy group, which helps elevate former scientists and STEM professionals to elected office, began as a response to climate change denialism. Now, the organization faces a new anti-science challenge: The repudiation of vaccines, masking and other public health measures designed to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Those efforts have led to significant burnout in the health care profession: as many as one-third of such workers have considering quitting this year. But founder Shaughnessy Naughton believes it’s also galvanizing science-minded people to run for office, including in Greater Boston.

“We have a lot of folks appearing on the ballot this year in school board and municipal races,” Naughton told the Business Journal on a recent visit to Boston. She said it’s a reaction to a failure to follow the science in local policies: “Their school board that’s refusing to follow CDC guidelines. Their community that isn’t taking action on climate. I think the pandemic has kind of condensed the timeframe in which people can see the problem of ignoring science and expertise,” she said.

Naughton is a Pennsylvania resident who was trained as a chemist and ran for office herself in 2014 and 2016. She lost both races, but during the campaigning process, she saw a growing voter base: People who wanted scientists — trusted thinkers who don’t exclusively have political backgrounds — representing them on their city councils, municipal planning boards and in Congress.

Locally, 314 Action is backing four candidates this year: Bryan Cole for the Milford Planning Board, Justin Klekota for Somerville’s at-large city councilor, Wilfred Mbah for Somerville mayor and Yvonne Spicer for Framingham mayor. The organization does not plan to throw its weight behind any candidates in the Boston mayoral election or city council races.

According to a spokesperson for 314 Action, donations to the organization have exploded over the last couple of years. The organization raised about $5 million for the 2018 midterm elections; in 2019 and 2020, it raised about $25 million.

Looking ahead to 2022, Naughton is expecting several challenges. Foremost among those is that political candidates will be working with new electoral maps following a redistricting process. Massachusetts has not gained nor lost any electoral seats, but districts will still be redrawn based on the 2020 Census, and that process will not be finished until the new year.

Naughton spent part of last week in Boston to speak with supporters as well as network with people who might become 314 Action-backed candidates in the future. Many political candidates supported by the nonprofit political action committee have ties to local academic institutions like Harvard University and MIT and are now spread out around the country. Some local schools are seen as potential incubators for scientists who might run for office 10 years from now.

Naughton also expects candidates will have to find new ways to counter anti-science rhetoric centered around Covid-19, which is increasingly falling along party lines, as climate change denial did in 2016.

“There’s a lot of similarities between the climate denial movement and the public health denial… It’s just becoming a complete partisan litmus test,” Naughton said. “The good news is that most Americans who can get vaccinated have been vaccinated. Even when you have these Republican governors banning mask mandates in schools, where children can’t be otherwise protected, you see schools going ahead with it anyway. It’s a very frustrating time for a lot of people, though, because it’s extending the crisis. We could be maybe not past it, but not having 2,000 people a day die.”

Read on Boston Business Journal.