Opinion staff column

When systems biology fails to predict the biology of people

The Tech staffers weigh in on their thoughts on Ayyadurai’s political beliefs

Shiva Ayyadurai, an MIT alumnus with a BS in EECS, Masters in Animation, Masters in MechE, and PhD in Systems Biology, is a Republican candidate for the 2018 United States Senate election for Massachusetts. Most of the coverage surrounding Ayyadurai thus far has been about his controversies and his interactions with the conservative fringe. We discovered, however, that little writing exists about his actual political views, and decided to sit down with Ayyadurai in September for an interview to gain a better understanding of his political beliefs.

Ayyadurai has identified a few key issues in his campaign with his slogan “Clean Food, Clean Air, Clean Government; Real Jobs, Real Health, and Real Education.” He believes strongly in the power of technological innovation to solve global problems and views the free market as a force for good. These values likely stem from his professional background in science and technology but lack thereof in governance, which he underscores to claim that he is more connected to the everyday man than the traditional “establishment” politician. However, we found that Ayyadurai falls prey to the same contradiction that describes many politicians: despite his anti-establishment rhetoric, his faith in the free market and technology and his opposition to government regulation mean that he more closely aligns with the economic and political elite than with the common man.

“Clean Government” is the central focus of Ayyadurai’s campaign — he spent much of the interview discussing the roots of his anti-establishment beliefs and criticizing establishment politicians and corporate lobbyists’ power in the government. Ayyadurai calls MIT his political “training ground,” where he first recognized that establishment politicians do not serve the common people. At MIT, he started The Student, a newspaper known for its radical anti-establishment views, with Arnold Contreraz, head of the Mexican American students’ union and was involved in various other political activities such as the apartheid divestment movement. To this day, he has retained his wariness of career politicians and both the Democratic and Republican parties. Ayyadurai proudly expressed to us, “I've never voted since 1983; I've never voted,” and explained that he was only running as a Republican candidate to give “the Republicans a chance” and that if they didn’t treat him right, he would do his “own dance.”

Interestingly, however, when we asked Ayyadurai how he wished to “clean up government,” his answer largely involved technology, demonstrating the large influence of his experience within the computer science industry and the far smaller influence of his prior political involvement. Ayyadurai said that, in order to decrease the influence of lobbyists in government, more technology should be disseminated to allow individuals to communicate directly with their governments. However, if Ayyadurai’s proposal were a sufficient solution, the expansion of email, phones, and online petitions should have massively decreased the power of lobbyists over the past several decades, but the opposite trend has been true. His seemingly noble solution ignores corporations’ wealth advantage, which allows them to spend over $3 billion per year funding dubious research and influencing elections. By holding so much confidence in the power of technology, Ayyadurai obscures a far more important cause of government corruption: economic inequality.

Another central issue in Ayyadurai’s campaign is healthcare, which he refers to as “Real Health” and “Clean Food.” Ayyadurai believes that debates should be centered around preventative care rather than insurance or treatment, which he calls “crisis management care.” He believes that the main issue with healthcare is that people do not have access to clean foods and exercise plans. Consequently, Ayyadurai believes that the government should focus more on helping the free market develop businesses to sell cheap and healthy food and less on creating or improving healthcare programs such as Medicaid or Medicare. He supports efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and went as far as to call the policy “garbage,” claiming that it “incents [sic] people to get sick” because they know they have the option to receive care after getting sick.

While lifestyle choices are important factors in a person’s health, it’d be overly reductionist to assume that lifestyle changes are a sufficient substitute for healthcare policies, or that the two are mutually exclusive. Lifestyle changes cannot cure existing chronic diseases, eliminate the risk of genetic diseases, or help people who need health coverage for other reasons, such as birth control. Ayyadurai’s understanding of health at the molecular level does not translate to an understanding of healthcare policy, which is geared towards ensuring widespread accessibility to medical services, and necessitates tackling non-scientific problems such as insurance risk discrimination and government funding.

“Clean Air” refers to Ayyadurai’s environmental platform. Ayyadurai believes that the solution to climate change lies in removing barriers to market entry for companies that create environmentally beneficial technologies. Currently, he explains, “There are some amazing technologies out there, but crony capitalism doesn’t allow them to reach the market.” However, when asked about what policies he would implement to encourage innovation, he avoided giving a clear answer by claiming that there isn’t one single policy that could resolve the issue. When asked more specifically whether he would support a carbon tax or a cap and trade system, policies that scholars argue could drive green tech innovation, he again avoided giving a clear answer and instead went into a critique of the Paris Agreement. Ayyadurai’s vagueness on the political mechanisms that could resolve climate change seems to indicate that he is over-reliant on the power of the free market and technology to resolve problems, but has not adequately considered the policy mechanisms that could make the innovation and implementation of this technology possible.

During our interview, Ayyadurai also briefly commented on another part of his platform, “Real Education,” saying that more vocational technical schools should be implemented. He did not comment on the last part of his platform, “Real Jobs,” and did not reply to our follow up email.

Oddly, Ayyadurai appeared to not have a foreign policy platform. When we asked Ayyadurai what his foreign policy platform was, he did not respond with any specifics, and instead just described his general principles that globalisation and trade are good, while military interventionism is bad.

When asked about more specific topics, such as terrorism, immigration, and North Korean nuclear development, Ayyadurai gave answers that were roundabout, unclear, or contradictory. For example, when asked about his stance on terrorism, he only vaguely claimed that the U.S. should decrease its military interventionism, as it fuels the growth of terror groups. However, he also insisted that the U.S. should increase its vetting practices of immigrants, clearly not seeing the contradiction between his goal to stop provoking terror groups through harsh policies, and his proposed practice of increased vetting.

This lack of a clear foreign policy may be the result of Ayyadurai’s focus on science and technology above all else. Foreign policy is an area without clear scientific answers and requires nuanced understanding of political theory, international institutions, and military power, which Ayyadurai seems to lack.

Our interview with Ayyadurai revealed a politician who, by relying too heavily on the free market, science, and technology as solutions, obscures the deeper and much more complex socio-political issues underlying topics a senator must tackle, such as corruption, health care, climate change, social inequality, and foreign policy. We live in a world of rapid innovation, where science and technology can provide useful solutions to our problems, and our governments should make sure to include leaders and policymakers who understand these fields. However, this scientific knowledge must still be combined with an awareness of technology’s limits, an understanding of the policy mechanisms that work in conjunction with technology, and an acknowledgement of the broader social forces at stake.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that Ayyadurai is a candidate for the United States Senate election for Massachusetts.