What It’s Like to Be a Scientist in Congress: Bill Foster

Doctorates in research-based fields offer an inside view of the outlook for science under President Donald Trump.
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Doctorates in research-based fields offer an inside view of the outlook for science under President Donald Trump.
Photo of the Capitol building in the United States

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

It’s a fraught time for science and the American government. In his first few weeks in office, President Donald Trump appointed climate change deniers to his cabinet, promised to cut $54 billion from the part of the budget that funds research, and, for a little while, barred the Environmental Protection Agency from communicating with the public. In response, some scientists organized to copy government climate data, track federal websites, and plan an Earth Day march in Washington, D.C.

How has all this activity affected lawmakers who also happen to be scientists? To find out, Pacific Standard sought the few members of Congress who have doctorates in research-heavy fields. They offered us an inside view of the outlook for science funding and evidence-based policy in America over the next four years. (You can read our first conversation, with California representative and mathematician Jerry McNerney.)

Below, we talked with Representative Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois and former physicist with Fermilab. Foster serves on the Science, Space, and Technology and Financial Services committees.*

What’s the feeling like in Congress for science concerns right now?

Science is finding itself under attack both at the level of funding and of basic support for scientific facts. On the funding level, the proposal from the Trump administration to increase the military budget by $54 billion at the expense of the rest of the budget is almost certainly going to land heavily on areas including science. In fact, the guy who will be writing the Trump administration budget, Mick Mulvaney, recently became sort of famous, in the scientific community, for publicly suggesting that there may not be a need for any federally funded scientific research at all.

I hope that cooler heads will prevail when it comes time to actually make a budget proposal and that cooler heads in Congress will understand the long-term value of scientific research.

The best argument that works well on both sides of the aisle is simply the economic one. Since World War II, over half of our economic growth has come from technological innovation, with a large fraction of that coming from federally funded research. People forget that the integrated circuit industry and a lot of biotechnology had its birth with federal contracts.

Photo showing Representative Bill Foster and another man looking at booklets in an office

Bill Foster (right) touring the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois.

 When you look forward, the biggest single cause of stress in our nation’s budget is the tremendous cost of diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s. If we could use scientific research to come up with a low-cost cure for either one of these, there would not be a long-term budgetary crisis for Social Security or Medicare. When we shortchange fundamental research, it’s something where you could be a hero this year by balancing the budget, by cutting things, and then when it does economic damage, decades from now, you just blame the other party.

Has the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology changed since Trump became president?

It’s certainly emboldened those who just fundamentally question the unbiased search for scientific truths and facts generally.

I was talking with Jerry McNerney and he thought that the Science Committee used to be more bipartisan.

I think that there’s probably some truth in that. It’s sort of issue by issue. There are some issues where we continue to work in a bipartisan manner. For example, there’s good bipartisan support for NASA.

It’s only when the near-term economic considerations come in, like when we argue about next year’s budget, that we really retreat into our separate, partisan corners.

How do hearings like this translate into policy that the average American would notice?

When you hold hearings like this, they do diffuse into the consciousness of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. For example, there was a very influential report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” that came out several years ago. It was a discussion of how the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in science education and it resulted in something called the America COMPETES Act, which got strong bipartisan support and has done a lot toward improving the focus of the U.S. on both education and research.

Did you come into the Congress with the explicit plan that you were going to stand up for science?

No, I came to Congress with the understanding that issues would probably develop in an uncontrolled way. For example, when I entered Congress in March of 2008, I was put on the Financial Services Committee and I was there during the financial collapse.

Are people in Congress aware of the upcoming March for Science? What do you think of it?

Among Democrats, certainly, yes. It may be that Republicans pay less attention.

Do you have any advice for scientists interesting in getting involved in politics?

Get involved in politics with whatever party you’re most aligned with and at any level. Having scientific and engineering competence in the local school boards is every bit as important as having scientific and technical competence in Congress.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

*Update—March 16, 2017: A previous version of this article identified Bill Foster as a congressman from Ohio. In fact he represents Illinois’ 14th congressional district.