January 24, 2022

Engaging in local elections: how one scientist help elevate science in Boston

Posted by Caitlin Bergstrom

Leticia Lee is a PhD student in Earth and Environment at Boston University in Massachusetts and a member of the 2021-2022 Voices for Science cohort.. She worked with the Boston Candidate Science Survey in 2021 to help raise science issues with local candidates. 


In 2021, as part of the AGU’s Voices for Science Program, I worked on a non-partisan project to inform voters about the positions and plans for science and technology issues of candidates running for the municipal election in Boston, the Boston Candidate Science Survey. This project was similar to the Science Debate, which focuses on candidates running for federal office. Our project focused on a wide range of science-related issues, including climate change, STEM education, healthcare, and the role of science in a candidate’s approach to policy.


On the surface, this project looks like a way to educate voters on what the candidates think. However, this project also aims to introduce candidates running for office to science issues that are important to their community. With scientific issues such as the pandemic and climate change as crucial issues for many voters, a forum to specifically address science issues like these is needed.


It likely now goes without saying how important local government is in assuring a community’s public health. Likewise, local governments have the power to address a variety of different societal issues with scientific solutions, such as the climate crisis. Scientific inquiry and development are essential to address the challenges associated with both of these issues, but it is crucial to go beyond the research and focus on implementing those same findings into local public policy. Our elected policymakers must understand the value of seeking out and accounting for scientific knowledge to make sound policy decisions not only regarding climate change, but in other areas of public health and safety. Their constituents (that is, all of us) must know where they stand on these and other important issues.


In the city council election in Boston, there were a total of 47 candidates for all districts and at-large member of the council in Boston and a total of 5 candidates for mayor. We received 20 responses for the city council candidates and 3 responses from the mayoral candidates. Many of the races, including the mayoral race, were highly contested with many candidates running for the same position, so this was a great opportunity for many of the candidates to set themselves apart. Most responses were received before the primary election, with few responses received after the primary but before the general election.


Overall, I believe our project was successful in informing voters about the science positions and getting potential political leaders to start to think about science policy. Of course, there were many challenges and things that I would do differently in the future, including better advertising. While we did participate in some events in-person this election cycle, it was a challenge to engage fully in the community.


Much of the feedback we received on this project was that it was helpful for voters to decide who to vote for. I believe that science issues are extremely important and are not covered very well in other forums. For example, many of the mayoral and city council town halls and debates only briefly (if ever) covered the topic of climate action, let alone other important scientific issues, such as STEM education and tech safety.


Elections in general, but particularly local elections, have vital consequences on our everyday life. While local politics may seem less glamorous than federal politics, the city government holds a lot of power to affect immediate change. We need to vote for policymakers who will take science into account when creating public policy. I believe that this project is an important way to hold our politicians accountable on science issues and it is my hope that other scientists will take the initiative to get their local politicians on the record about science issues as well.


If you want to do a similar activity for your local election, here are some tips for success:


  1. Starting Early: I would highly encourage starting early and coming up with the questions, so there is ample time for feedback and iterations of questions.
  2. Working with others: I am a graduate student at Boston University and am active with the science policy group, many of the members worked on this project. The questions we developed were created in partnership with other science policy organizations at surrounding universities as well as Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally.
  3. Start with the primaries: By starting with the primaries, there are more candidates, so they will all be looking for ways to maximize their time that will make themselves stand out from others. The advice I got from people who worked on the national Science Debate mentioned that many frontrunners did not respond, likely because they need to spend their time focusing on other aspects of their campaign.