A neuroscientist wants to see change in the government — and he’s creating it.
Thomas Prigg is a brain cell circuitry researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US. Now he’s using his science skills to fuel his campaign for Congress in 2018. He talks to Nikki Forrester.
Why did you decide to run as a congressional candidate for Pennsylvania’s 12th district in 2018?
The decision to run for Congress came to me as a realization rather than a decision. I remember a sign that said, “Be the change you want.” It was at Zuccotti Park during the second or third weekend of Occupy Wall Street [a protest movement in 2011 that raised issues about social and economic inequality, greed, and corruption in the United States] — that quote was on a lot of signs in a lot of places. I had my daughter with me. I told her that this was a significant time — it brought social and economic inequality into the conversation.
Before that people weren’t really talking about poverty and didn’t question how much the extremely wealthy pay in taxes. People weren’t thinking about whether millennials were going to be the first generation to earn less than their parents. The breaking point was my frustration with the Republicans shutting down the government [in 2013 due to the inability to enact an appropriations bill to fund the government on time] and the Democrats’ lack of a good response. The funny thing is that I was preaching to others that they should go into politics to change things. It was quite some time before I thought, “I’ll do it.”
How did you begin organizing your campaign?
I’ve been looking into this for three to four years. There was a lot of planning. I needed to figure out how to make connections, who to make connections with, what groups are in this county. You need to talk to a lot of groups. They want to know how their interests are going to be represented, so I needed to learn how to communicate what I wanted to do for them.
Seven people work on the campaign every day: a campaign manager, two PhDs in molecular biology and biochemistry, an immigration lawyer, a cybersecurity employee for Dell, a former communications union VP for Communications Workers of America, and my wife, who has an MBA in finance and is a grant administrator. Four of the seven are women.
What is the biggest challenge we’re facing today?
Economic inequality, but more specifically our job market. Automation is coming; driverless cars alone will wipe out millions of jobs. If I’m going to save science, I need to save jobs. If I want to save health care, I need to save jobs. Jobs are the engine for all these programs. Without jobs, there’s no tax base. Without a tax base, there’s no funding. That’s how I came up with my campaign platform.
How do you discuss scientific issues with your constituents?
I can’t talk about climate change with everyone, but it doesn’t mean I throw climate change out the window and don’t bring up the topic. We talk about alternative energy industries, which will bring jobs. Why not focus on that part? We don’t need people to agree with us about climate change as long as they agree that we can get new jobs from green energy.
How has your experience as a scientist shaped you as a politician?
Doing research taught me how to think about what questions to ask — how to look at a problem, break it down into questions, and test hypotheses. I start looking at how things are connected; it’s like neural circuitry. I need to think “if I do this, what else will it affect?”
How are people supporting your campaign?
There isn’t going to be one congressman that’s going to become the lead. I’m asking for help from people all over the country. We get letters and donations from people in California and Oklahoma. We’re reaching out through Facebook and Twitter. Everything helps.
Nicole Forrester is a PhD student studying plant evolutionary ecology at the University of Pittsburgh.