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Silicon Valley Emerges As A Political Force

When Jeb Bush visited Silicon Valley this week, the Republican candidate was visiting the heart of a Democratic state that few expect to be contested in the 2016 presidential election. But when it comes to the political money chase, the Northern California home of the world’s technology giants spreads the wealth to both parties — positioning the tech industry as one of the most powerful forces in American politics.

Since 2008, the Internet firms, software companies, computer manufacturers and data processors that comprise Silicon Valley have delivered more than $172 million worth of campaign contributions in federal elections, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s a nearly 40 percent increase over the prior 8 years. Counting only presidential election years, the increase is even more dramatic: The $109 million of Silicon Valley money pumped into the 2008 and 2012 elections represents a 61 percent increase from 2004 and 2000.

Out of the money given directly to candidates (as opposed to third party groups) since 2008, Democrats have received 62 percent of the contributions. But Republicans’ 37 percent in that same time was hardly pocket change — it translated into a whopping $55 million.

In a vacuum, these figures may seem unimportant. But in context, they are astounding. All of a sudden, Silicon Valley has surpassed many traditional political powerhouses as a source of campaign cash. Specifically, in the last election cycle, technology firms delivered more money to candidates for president and Congress than defense contractors, pharmaceutical manufacturers, the automotive industry and Hollywood.

“Silicon Valley woke up to the importance of influencing public policy,” said Stanford University’s Vivek Wadhwa.

In 2012, that influence was on display when Internet firms notched an unexpected victory over the Hollywood studios that were pushing legislation to hold Internet companies responsible for the illegal transmission of pirated movies and television shows. Despite the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act being backed by the powerful Motion Picture Association of America, the bill was defeated by tech firms’ furious lobbying campaign against the measure.

Of Silicon Valley’s ability to defeat Hollywood-backed legislation, MPAA chairman Chris Dodd said at the time: “It’s a watershed event, what happened.”

Of course, as Wadhwa notes, there is no single Silicon Valley public policy agenda. Tech firms, he asserts want “freedom from regulation and immigration,” but, he says, “there is no single ideology.”

That said, technology firms have forged a unified front on some hot-button issues, moving beyond immigration reform, corporate regulation and the online piracy bill.

In 2013, Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Apple, Google, and Mozilla pressed for limits on National Security Agency surveillance after disclosures by whistleblower Edward Snowden. A few years later, Congress reformed the Patriot Act to add restrictions on such surveillance.

Similarly, in March of this year, Silicon Valley won a victory when the Federal Communications Commission passed so-called “net neutrality” rules designed to prevent cable companies from charging different transmission rates to Internet content providers. Most recently, Apple, Google and Facebook wrote a letter to President Barack Obama declaring their opposition to any efforts to weaken encryption standards.

While the power shift toward Silicon Valley is significant, it should not be altogether surprising. Information technology is becoming ever more integral to American society. And the tech industry’s millionaires and billionaires are ready to take their place as political powerbrokers, in much the same way oil and railroad barons represented new political power more than a century ago.

The implications of that revolution are profound not just for campaign fundraising, but ultimately for a whole new generation of public policy.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising, and Back to Our Future. Email him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

Photo: Patrick Nouhailler via Flickr

Weekend Reader: ‘Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — And The World’

“Why do we keep writing about scientists in the context of their gonads?” journalist Christine Aschwanden asked in a 2013 blog post. “Treating female scientists as special cases only perpetuates the idea that there’s something extraordinary about a woman doing science.”

Aschwanden was referring to the endemic problem she found in writings about scientists who happened to be women, namely that the article, profile, or obituary would inevitably diminish the scientist’s achievements by burying them in anecdotes about her husband, her children, or her success as a “role model.” To counter gender bias in science writing, she proposed the “Finkbeiner Test,” named for her colleague Ann Finkbeiner, who had lamented in her own blog post that writers who emphasize a scientist’s gender distract attention from where it belongs — on the science.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World, a remarkable new book by Rachel Swaby, is focused on the science. It is endlessly fascinating, compulsively readable, accessible, and illuminative. In brisk, exuberant prose, Swaby creates lasting portraits of 52 women who deserve to be recognized, not as “women scientists,” but as revolutionary in their own right — as scientists whose innovations had a permanent impact on medicine, physics, astronomy, technology, and more; and whose contributions continue to influence the way we see our world, and ourselves.

You can read Swaby’s introduction below. The book is available for purchase here.

This book about scientists began with beef stroganoff. According to the New York Times, Yvonne Brill made a mean one. In an obituary published in March 2013, Brill was honored with the title of “world’s best mom” because she “followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Only after a loud, public outcry did the Times amend the article so it would begin with the contribution that earned Brill a featured spot in the paper of record in the first place: “She was a brilliant rocket scientist.” Oh right. That.

The error — stroganoff before science; domesticity before personal achievement — is so cringe-worthy because it’s a com­mon one. In 1964, when Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin won the greatest award that chemistry has to offer, a paper declared “Nobel Prize for British Wife,” as if she had stumbled upon the complex structures of biochemical substances while matching her husband’s socks. We simply don’t speak of men in science this way. Their marital status isn’t considered necessary context in a biochemical breakthrough. Employment as an important aerospace engineer is not the big surprise hiding behind a warm plate of noodles. For men, scientific accomplishments are ac­cepted as something naturally within their grasp.

In 1899, the inventor and physicist Hertha Ayrton put on a demonstration showing her latest breakthrough in calming the temperament of the arc light, long notorious for hissing and flickering. When the paper reported on the presentation, it treated Ayrton like some kind of circus performer: “What as­tonished the lady visitors…was to find one of their own sex in charge of the most dangerous-looking of all the exhibits. Mrs. Ayrton was not a bit afraid.” Annoyed by this and many other similar perspectives, Ayrton called out a persistent problem with the way she and her contemporaries like Marie Curie were treated: “The idea of ‘women and science’ is entirely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist or she is not; in any case she should be given opportunities, and her work should be studied from the scientific, not the sex, point of view.”

Even today, it’s important we hear those words again. We need not only for fairer coverage of women in science, but more of it.

Access to role models really matters for girls coming up in the STEM fields. Sally Ride turned her father into an advocate for the cause. After coming across an advertisement featuring a boy daydreaming about the day he would go up into space, Ride’s father wrote a strongly worded letter to the advertiser pointing out an inherent bias in educating children that should be corrected. “As a parent of the first US woman astronaut, I know first hand that girls also aspire to math and science and we should encourage her to ‘get America’s future off the ground.’ ” In a New York Times Magazine article, Eileen Pollack, one of the first two women to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics at Yale, noted the large poster of famous mathematicians hang­ing in her alma mater’s math department lobby which — even at the time of the article, in 2013 — didn’t include a single woman. She opted not to continue on in science. In early 2014, a seven-year-old named Charlotte wrote an open letter to Lego. “I went to a store and saw Legos in two sections, the pink [girls] and the blue [boys]. All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks. I want you to make more Lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun ok!?!”

As girls in science look around for role models, they shouldn’t have to dig around to find them. By treating women in science like scientists instead of anomalies or wives who moonlight in the lab as well as correcting the cues given to girls at a young age about what they’re good at and what they’re supposed to like, we can accelerate the growth of an entire new generation of chemists, archeologists, and cardiologists while also reveal­ing a whole hidden history of the world.

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By her own standards, Hertha Ayrton was a good scientist. So was the detail-oriented seismologist Inge Lehmann, and the firecracker neuroembryologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, too. The scientists in this book aren’t included because they were women practicing science or math in a time when few women did — although by that criteria, many would fit. They’re in­cluded because they discovered the earth’s inner core, revealed radioactive elements, dusted off a complete dinosaur skeleton, or launched a new field of scientific inquiry. Their ideas, discov­eries, and insights made earth-shaking changes to the way we see the world (and that goes for the seismologist, too).

Accomplishments alone could have warranted inclusion in a different kind of book, but to be here, narrative — a secret bedroom lab, an ocean-floor expedition, or a stolen photograph that helped solve the structure of DNA — needed to be the twin pillar of achievement. Bullet points of a dazzling career weren’t enough.

To make sure each subject’s lasting influence is clear, the book includes only scientists whose life’s work has already been completed. Omitting the living was particularly painful since it meant filtering out so many extraordinary scientists and achievements. Furthermore, opportunities for white women in STEM fields opened up before they did for women of color. Even five years from now, a book with much greater diversity would emerge from the same criteria.

Because Marie Curie is who we talk about when we talk about women in science, I’ve chosen not to include her. She’s the overwhelming favorite for almost every occasion: the token woman in a deck of cards featuring famous scientists, the one most likely to pop up in casual conversation, and the scientist to which all other women in science are compared. A two-time Nobel Prize winner, the director of Paris’s hugely influential Radium Institute, and the scientist who first drew widespread public attention to this little prize called the Nobel, Curie cer­tainly deserves her place in history and in our zeitgeist. For Chien-Shiung Wu, Marguerite Perey, and even her own daugh­ter, Irène Joliot-Curie, Marie Curie was an inspiration. My hope is that the stories in this book will provide readers of every age a new set of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to admire.

So instead of calling every standout woman in science the Marie Curie of her field, next time someone really lives for their work, let’s call them the Barbara McClintock of their spe­cialty. If a scientist charts new territory, let’s refer to them as the Annie Jump Cannon of their particular exploration. If a re­searcher puts herself in physical danger for an experiment, let’s say she’s like any number of the scientists here who worked with radioactivity or mustard gas.

There are fifty-two profiles in this book. Read one a week, and in a year you’ll know whose research jump-started the Envi­ronmental Protection Agency, who discovered wrinkle-free cot­ton, and even whose ingenious score has now saved generations of struggling newborns. So little coverage has been dedicated to these scientists elsewhere that, in going through these profiles, I hope you’ll feel like you’ve gained a breadth of knowledge that rivals that of Salome Waelsch.

Reprinted from Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World. Copyright © 2015 by Rachel Swaby. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

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Students, Faculty Decry Penn Plan To Cut Math And Science Libraries

By Susan Snyder, The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — A plan by the University of Pennsylvania to cut back on two of its branch libraries — one for engineering and the other for math, physics, and astronomy — has yielded an outcry from students and professors who say the books are critical to their studies and research.

Both libraries are housed within the same campus buildings as their departments, and are heavily used by undergraduates and graduate students alike. Mathematics students, in particular, said many of the books and materials they need are not available electronically, and they must browse the library to find what they need.

“We think they’ve grossly underestimated how valuable of a resource this is,” said Brett Frankel, a graduate student in mathematics who signed a petition against the move. “Our subject has a very long memory, and that I think is a big part of why we are so heavily dependent on print sources. I have a book checked out right now that is more than 50 years old.”

The university, however, cites a pressing need for classroom space and, in the case of the engineering library, offices as well. Each library is about 5,000 square feet and houses between 35,000 and 40,000 volumes. The engineering library would be closed under the plan, though it would still have an office for its director, and the math, physics and astronomy library would be reduced by more than a third. The changes, the university said, would not result in layoffs.

“Those of us who grew up with a veneration for the printed word and who still collect and cherish books will be pained by this transition,” Eduardo D. Glandt, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said last week in an email to faculty. “We all understand, however, that we are going through an irreversible sea change. The book or journal printed on cellulose is becoming a collector’s item, a wonderful artifact to be saved and preserved. Just not in the Towne Building.”

That refrain has become a familiar one at universities around the country as they move to digitize libraries and find space for other uses.

“It’s a trend, and it’s unfortunate, really,” said Steven Bell, past president of the Association of College and Research Libraries and associate librarian at Temple University. “They say the library is the heart of the university. They’re cutting a little piece of the heart out now.”

Temple in 2006 closed most of its branch libraries in areas such as education, social work, math, physics, chemistry and biology, he said. The sting hasn’t entirely faded.

“I still run into faculty who will say, ‘I really liked it when we had our own library in our building,'” Bell said.

At Penn on Monday, students turned in a petition with about 500 signatures to the provost’s office, opposing the change in the math, physics, and astronomy library. A second online petition against changes at both libraries has garnered more than 400 signatures to date, students said.

David Harbater, a professor of mathematics and chair of the graduate students, signed on.

“There’s a perception in the public and among administrators that people under 30 or 40 don’t believe in anything on paper, that they believe that books are obsolete,” Harbater said. “But in fact, it turns out that’s not true. People actually care about things that are print. They care about libraries.”

Under Penn’s plan, the library books would be stored in a New Jersey warehouse. Students could request them, but would have to wait several days to receive them, Frankel said.

“A lot of times you’re reading something and you realize you need something else,” said Neel Patel, a mathematics graduate student from South Brunswick, N.J. “If you’ve waited four or five days for that first book, now you realize you need another book, you have to wait another four or five days for that. It’s impossible to get any kind of research done that way. This is sort of sending the wrong message.”

Nisha Sosale, a graduate student in chemical engineering, said she was shocked to hear the engineering library was closing.

“It’s pretty much the only room in this building where you can study,” said Sosale, who was working on her thesis there on Monday.

Andrew Binns, Penn’s vice provost for education, said the university was still reviewing plans for the math library.

“We have lots of different priorities that we have to consider,” he said. “We’re trying to find the right mix of collections, study space and classrooms to meet the needs of the entire community.”

The university, he explained, is moving away from the traditional lecture structure in the engineering and science fields to more “active learning,” and needs flexible spaces where groups of students can sit and work together. Plans call for an “active learning” classroom in what is now the math library.

The university is exploring the possibility of storing the library books at a location closer than the warehouse, possibly in the main library, Binns said.

Access is critical, said Caitlin Beecham, a sophomore math major.

“At any one time, I have three books checked out that I’m reading,” she said. “It’s really important to have the library here.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons