A Data Scientist Goes to the State House

By: Derek Stanford, Ph.D., Washington State Representative
November 27, 2017
Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes
Our "Stories from the field" series shares the experiences of engineers and scientists who are making a difference in their communities.
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As a statistician and data scientist, I was an unusual candidate for the state legislature. But by the time I filed to run in 2010, I had spent a decade volunteering with advocacy groups and political campaigns and learning in depth about policy areas where I wanted to make a difference. I also knew what to expect in a campaign for State Representative.

Serving as a state legislator isn’t glamorous; it’s a part-time position with low pay which requires many days away from home. Few STEM professionals, especially in a strong job market, choose this path. But I believe that government would benefit if more of us did, and I hope my story will inspire more of you to get involved.

Getting to Know my Community

After grad school I wanted to be more connected to my community, so I started volunteering at a food bank. I was surprised by the breadth of things I learned there: how nonprofit finances work, how food banks collaborate regionally, and the huge amount of effort required to recruit volunteers and raise funds. I also discovered my own passion for learning about how government policy affects community issues. My interest turned out to be not just curiosity but a drive to get involved in government policy for the long haul.

Derek Stanford, Washington State Representative

Through the food bank and several other nonprofit volunteer positions, I learned that I needed to be flexible to make a difference. I did not find a non-profit group that needed a Ph.D. data scientist (although some may), but I found many groups looking for competent volunteers with a can-do attitude. I focused on doing whatever the group needed, whether making deliveries, organizing an office, or planning events. I found that this practical experience is crucial for understanding how an organization really works and for building insight into effective ideas for expansion or improvement.

To explore government, I found that city, county, and state level public meetings were an excellent opportunity to see process in action and to soak up the basics of policy issues. Attendance at these meetings is often light, so I generally felt welcome and appreciated. I once went to a meeting of a city advisory board on technology and felt like everyone was staring at me as soon as I walked in. When I told them that I was just a member of the public interested in learning what was going on, they gave me a hearty welcome, commenting that it had been over a year since their last public visitor.

These meetings are often televised on local cable channels or online, so it is easy to watch and find out if you have an interest in what is going on. But it is also important to show up in person. Not only will the experience be different for you, it also gives everyone else there a chance to see you and interact with you. Informal conversations with people during breaks or after a meeting are times when new connections are made; don’t be shy about expressing your interest in getting more involved.

Preparing to Run for Office

With my growing interest in government, I started volunteering with local political campaigns. This allowed me to explore the nuts and bolts of a campaign so that I could figure out if running was something I wanted to do before putting my name on a ballot. For most local and state level campaigns, the vast majority of effort goes to direct voter contact, so the candidate, every staff person (if there are any), and every volunteer are all focused on knocking on doors, handing out fliers, and making phone calls. You also have to raise money and make yourself accessible to the press and to your constituents.

Although outside the comfort zone of many engineers and scientists, these are skills like any other that you can develop with practice. You don’t have to be good at it before you start; you just have to find opportunities to learn, ask questions, and see how other people do it.

Serving in Public Office

I have served as a State Representative for the 1st legislative district in Washington for seven years, focusing on middle class issues like worker safety, consumer protection, and fully funding our public schools and universities. I’m proud that I helped pass several pieces of landmark legislation, including extending marriage equality to same-sex couples and creating a statewide program for paid family and medical leave.

While my legislative work doesn’t often (or ever) utilize my skills in coding or machine learning, I have found that numerical literacy and the ability to engage in scientific conversations with subject matter experts are incredibly useful skills. The reason this is so important is that elected leaders are frequently required to make policy decisions with limited time and limited information, and this creates an environment ripe for confusion and half-truths to sway policy decisions. We need leaders who can recognize when scientific answers are needed and who can tell the difference between self-serving talking points and an honest assessment of available data.

Climate change policy at the federal level is a well-known example of policy actions stunted by lack of attention to scientific consensus. But I have worked on many areas where science has been successfully incorporated into policy. For example, reducing wolf depredation of livestock requires knowledge of the social structure of wolves; destabilizing their social structure can cause an increase in roaming and predation. Responding to toxic contamination of rural water wells requires understanding the physical mechanisms of runoff from industrial livestock and agriculture operations. Leaders who pay attention to science can easily be the difference between fixing a problem or making it worse

How You Can Make an Impact

There are many ways you can have an impact on policy decisions. Running for office is one way, but you don't need to be elected to make a difference. In fact, being elected means you often don't get to choose what you work on – you are responsible to your constituents for everything they care about. Business groups, advocacy groups, and community groups play a leading role in setting the agenda for politicians; these groups generally define the issues and proposed solutions that get attention from the public and the media.

The most important lesson I’ve learned is that making an impact starts with showing up. Look for nonprofit or political groups working on the issues you care about, and volunteer or go to a meeting. Go see any of your elected officials in action at a public meeting, or find out about city or county boards or commissions. Don’t forget about other local governance bodies, such as water and power districts, library districts, or school boards. You don’t have to be an expert to get started. Just get involved and explore, and you will find opportunities to make a difference.

Do you have a story to tell about your own local engagement or of someone you know? Please submit your idea here , and we will help you develop and share your story for our series.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 11/27/17
Updated: 07/31/22
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