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In Wyoming, an ecologist seeks a new niche as a U.S. senator

Merav Ben-David

Nadav Soroker

More than 10 years ago, Merav Ben-David encountered a bureaucratic blizzard when she launched a study of polar bears in Alaska. She had to comply with a host of regulatory policies, obtain permits from regional, federal, and tribal agencies, and plot out the team’s trip through the Artic Ocean. So, days after receiving her U.S. citizenship, the Israeli-born conservation ecologist says she found herself “neck deep” government affairs.

Now, Ben-David is once again neck deep in governance—but this time, she’s aiming to craft policy, not simply follow it. On 18 August, the University of Wyoming professor won the state’s Democratic primary for Senate. Now, she’s running for a U.S. Senate seat as an underdog against Republican Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming’s former representative to Congress.

Ben-David’s interest in ecology started on a farm. Growing up in Nahalat Yehuda, she tended to young animals—nestlings, bunnies, hedgehogs, and the like—that she found in the fields of her father’s farm. By her early 20s, she had a master’s degree in zoology and was leading wildlife tours in Kenya. In 1990, she began a doctoral program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She became fascinated by the state’s marine ecosystems, occupied by mink, martens, otters, salmon, and polar bears. In 2000, she won a faculty job at the University of Wyoming.

Ben-David’s research, which includes highly cited studies of diet changes in Alaskan wildlife, the role of salmon runs in fertilizing river-side vegetation in the Alexander Archipelago, and the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on otters in the Prince William Sound, frequently takes her back to Alaska, where she has witnessed the impacts of climate change. Peering off the stern of an icebreaker on that 2009 trip, for example, she had a realization: There was no ice on the normally frozen seas. The hastening pace of warming, she says, “made me realize we are simply running out of time.”

Around the same time, she found that the “context” of her work was evolving. “I felt a pressure to inform the public,” especially people living in Wyoming, about the threat of climate change. She began to juggle an active research program (she has published 114 articles and counting) with activism, writing letters, giving lectures, and lobbying for legislation. Some colleagues, she says, expressed concern that those activities would compromise her scientific work. But Ben-David arrived at a different conclusion: “I came to understand those efforts would be a lot more effective—more than just a conversation or a debate—if I was in the decision-making process.” Eventually, she decided to run for office.

Hostile political terrain

Wyoming’s political landscape is not particularly friendly for Ben-David, whose platform includes calls for stronger environmental regulation. Extractive industries—including mining, quarrying, oil, and gas—are dominant. And deeply Republican Wyoming hasn’t backed a Democrat for federal office since 1976. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Donald Trump won it with more than 67% of the vote.

Then there’s Ben-David’s opponent. Lummis is a household name in Wyoming; she’s held a number of elected positions, including as the state’s treasurer. Lummis received nearly 64,000 votes in winning the Republican primary with some 60% of the vote. Ben-David, in contrast, received just under 10,000 votes to win the Democratic primary with 40% of the vote.

Despite such numbers, Ben-David is optimistic. “Navigating hostile terrain has always been my day job,” she says. And colleagues admire her tenacity. “Her resolve is inspirational,” says Henry Harlow, a zoologist and director of National Park Service Research Center at the University of Wyoming.

To woo voters, Ben-David is leaning into her differences with Lummis. Whereas Lummis’s campaign has decried “attacks from the environmental left” that threaten the state’s major industries and “market opportunities at home,” Ben-David advocates “futureproofing” the state’s economy, which is facing its biggest downturn since 2005. Ben-David is calling for greater investment in infrastructure, education, and job transitioning programs. Such efforts, she says, will not only “rescue Wyoming” from crippling recent job losses, but “reimagine and rebuild it.”

She also supports federal investments in alternative energy and wildlife protection, and stiffer regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. “This is about preserving our way of life,” she says. “Mother Nature is not going to wait anymore.” Wyoming residents, Ben-David believes, are now seeing both the economic and ecological the impacts of climate change, such as shorter, warmer winters (limiting the ski seasons) and drier, hotter summers (extending the fire seasons). “People are seeing in their own backyards that we are not immune” to global warming, she says.

The importance of science in the senate

Ben-David, who has emphasized her scientific training during her campaign, says it offers a useful and pragmatic lens through which to see politics. Scientists are “forward-facing” she says, relying on prospective experimentation and observation, whereas politicians are often “backward-referencing,” for example by looking to the law for precedents.

The Senate, she says, could use a few more scientists. Congress “simply lacks people who understand the facts, and how those facts should—or should not—influence policy.” And she hopes her run will inspire peers and students to participate in politics as well. “Laws, like the ecosystems, are fragile,” she says. “Conservationists, ecologists, scientists—we need to join this critical civic process more than ever.”

If Ben-David pulls off an upset, other researchers believe she has the qualities needed to do the job. Ben-David is “fearless in the quest for truth,” says Terrie Williams, a mammalian physiologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “She will not be intimidated,” Harlow says, “by self interest groups or seasoned politicians with threatening agendas.”

Ben-David, meanwhile, says her run is also a learning experience. “Politics, it’s a science,” she says. “Now, I’m a student of that science, too.”

Source: Science Mag