After putting his children to bed, Congressional candidate and cancer doctor Jason Westin was feeding the dogs and cats when a notification popped up on his phone. It was a retweet from Mark Hamill – as in, Luke Skywalker himself.

"I couldn't believe it," Westin told Science AF.

"He created a tweet for my Congressional campaign video that said I was a valiant fact-wielding fighter."

Most Congressional candidates are not blessed with a personalized slogan from revered Star Wars actors, but Westin isn't like many other political candidates.

Westin is a 40-year-old father of three, a cancer doctor and an award-winning researcher at the top cancer hospital in the world. If elected to Texas' 7th District, Westin would be one of the only scientists in Congress.

Being a scientist is a key part of Westin's story and his campaign. In a time when the politicization of basic facts is common practice, Westin is determined to bring science back to policymaking.

"That's what I would do in Congress. I would analyze the facts, which is somehow now a radical concept," Westin told us.

"I think having that dispassionate review of facts is something unique to a person versed in the scientific method, as opposed to someone that comes to it from a more partisan side."

In 2018, more scientists are running for office than ever before in US history, and the timing is no mistake.

"The reasons for electing more scientists are becoming increasingly clear with every news story that comes out about some unqualified politician who has been nominated to a scientific post," said Westin.

"These are making the case for why people like me should have a role in public policy, and why it makes sense to have more people with a scientific background in Congress."

Westin is running for a seat in Texas' 7th District against nine-term incumbent John Culberson, a Tea Party Republican in charge of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). And – surprise! – Culberson's only background in science is an Astronomy 101 course he took in college.

If you're wondering who the "neanderthals" are that Hamill is referring to in his tweet, Culberson is definitely a contender.

Last year, in Culberson's community, Hurricane Harvey caused widespread devastation. The unprecedented storm dumped more than 16 inches of rain in some areas of Houston, flooding more than 100,000 homes and causing more than a $100 billion in damage.

Yet even though climate scientists estimate the storm was roughly three times more likely to occur and 15 percent more intense because of climate change, Culberson (who has no expertise in this area) has said we do not know enough to make such a causal leap.

Nearly six months after the disaster, the district still lacks funding to try and rebuild, recover and prepare for the next storm.

"This is an occasion where the science is clear and there is a very high probability that the climate is changing and that mans role is significant," said Westin.

"Our community was devastated by something that was directly impacted by this change and the person who is tasked to represent us is sitting on his hands saying we need more information."

Climate denial isn't the only thing Culberson and President Trump have in common. So far, Culberson has voted in line with 98.5 percent of Trump's positions, including a vote for the overhaul of the tax bill and a vote for the permanent ban on the use of federal funds for abortion.

"There are a lot of issues that come from a science perspective that are very important to the average voter," said Westin.

"These are real issues that are impacting the bottom line for families. And having someone with a background in medicine and science that's going to speak for those voters is key."

A Doctor's Perspective on Health Care

As a cancer doctor and researcher, Westin knows a thing or two about America's health care system. For instance, he knows it's the most expensive in the world, spending almost twice as much per person on health care as the next country.

Still, Westin also knows that high price tag doesn't necessarily ensure better or more efficient medical care. A 2014 report ranked the US dead last in the quality of its health-care system when compared with 10 other western, industrialized nations.

"This is not sustainable. The things we need to work on are not radical changes. We need to have some basic level of coverage that every American has access to," said Westin.

"And this is not a government takeover of medicine. What I advocate for is having a system that includes essential health benefits, preventative care, maternal care, basic medicine to treat chronic illnesses… these aren't radical proposals."

So if all that money that Americans spend on health care isn't going into better care, where is it going? Well, right now in the private insurance market, about 17 percent of every dollar spent on health care is overhead for administration charges, not for making patients healthier.

"That needs to change. For medicare it's about a 1 percent overhead charge, which is much more resonable. These are the short term steps we need to try to get some system that provides at least basic coverage for Americans and their family," said Westin.

As a seasoned doctor, Westin knows that better health care is not just a humanitarian issue, it's also an economic argument.

"I believe strongly that health care is a human right, which is something that I learned as one of my first lessons in medical school when I helped run a clinic that gave treatment to people who could otherwise not afford it," Westin told us.

"They knew they were sick but they had to wait until they were sick enough to go to the ER. Not only is that expensive, people are dying from preventable diseases."

He's not wrong. Every year, Americans lose up to 407 million million days' worth of wages due to their own sickness or that of a family member, according to a 2005 report.

Plus, nearly 900,000 Americans die prematurely ever year from the five leading causes of death – yet 20 percent to 40 percent of the deaths from each cause could be prevented, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If elected to Congress, Westin believes he can tackle this important issue with science, data and reason.


Science AF is ScienceAlert's new editorial section where we explore society's most complex problems using science, sanity and humor.