Making the Case for Science: Representative Randy Hultgren Sees Room For Improvement in Federal Role

Making connections. Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL) says few in Congress recognize the connections between government, industry, and academia that make for a healthy scientific enterprise.


Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL) came to Washington in 2011 after defeating Bill Foster, one of the few Ph.D. scientists in Congress. (Foster will return to Congress in January after defeating Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL) in a different district.) Although Hultgren*, a lawyer and former Illinois state legislator, lacks any background in science, he joined the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and quickly made a name for himself as an advocate of basic research.

Along with representing the parochial interests of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), which is located in his district, Hultgren has repeatedly used committee hearings to press Obama administration witnesses on their vision for federally funded research and the need for stronger partnerships between universities, federal labs, and industry. Last month he was named a "champion of science" by the Science Coalition, an advocacy group of research universities.

Fresh off his successful campaign for a second term, Hultgren, 46, talked last week with ScienceInsider about his agenda for the next Congress. Here is an edited version of his remarks.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing U.S. research universities?

R.H.: Funding across the board is going to be the biggest challenge, including support for our national labs. Taking a step back, the issue is recognizing the importance of these institutions and the interconnectedness within science. … I don't know if people in government, specifically Congress and the administration, understand how important this connectivity is for the country to remain a global leader in science and innovation and discovery.

It comes down to making sure that there is adequate funding for each piece, and how important it is for the research universities, the national labs, and the private sector to work together.

Individual members, if they have a research institution in their district, may understand it. But otherwise, we need to spread the word.

Q: Congress isn't structured in a way that it is easy to foster those connections, is it?

R.H.: Yes, Congress isn't set up well to understand that process. Rather, it is segmented into 12 appropriations subcommittees, and the oversight function is separate from the spending function. So it demands more effort on our part to educate our colleagues. If we want America to be an innovation nation, we need to understand how important all these pieces are. The need exists on both sides of the aisle. It's especially important to focus on government support for fundamental research, because I don't see the private sector doing that.

One thing I want to work on—and I know this is a huge issue, and it may be impossible—is changing the way we fund science. Other nations have long-term funding, but in the United States it's very hard for scientists to plan long-term projects.

Q: Are you suggesting 5-year budgets?

R.H.: Yes. I know that's a huge obstacle for Congress, for which long-term planning is the next election. But it's a major hindrance for us trying to compete against other nations that have 5- and 10-year budgets. And whenever we want to join an international collaboration and we tell them we have annual budgets, they laugh at us.

Clearly, we need to have a long-term vision in science, and a couple of the reauthorizations coming up in the next Congress, for NASA and the America COMPETES Act, give us an opportunity to provide that long-term vision and funding commitment.

Q: Do you think the proposed LBNE [Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment] at Fermilab has been hindered by a lack of commitment from DOE? After all, DOE has a process for building big facilities, and can explain where LBNE fits in.

R.H.: It has to come before that. We won't be at the forefront of high-energy physics for a while because of the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] at CERN, so we have to find our role. And certainly Fermilab is still a major component of U.S. physics research. And if it's not at the highest energies, then maybe it should be in high-intensity physics. That's where LBNE fits in. We have the people and facilities to be on the forefront of high-intensity physics, and that includes Fermilab and Homestake [a retired South Dakota gold mine that has become an underground laboratory] and other places. There needs to be a commitment from our government that this is important and that people can count on adequate resources for the next 5 or 10 years.

Q: As a fiscal conservative, how do you justify spending billions on what some call "luxury science," that is, science that's not applied research and that won't have a short-term payoff?

R.H.: I think that is the key. If we want to remain at the forefront in science, we have to decide what it is that the federal government can do that no other sector can do, and what part of science can't be supported by the private sector.

Where the government is absolutely necessary is in basic research. I don't see it as a luxury item; I see it as a foundational piece of who we are as an innovation nation. And if we're not committed to our foundation, all the structures on top of it will crumble.

As I talk to my fellow conservatives, and I'm not a libertarian, I think that there needs to be a federal government. It needs to be limited and focused on issues that only the federal government can do. And this is the area in science that we need to pursue. If we have extra resources, we can put it into applied science. But if money is tight, and it is, then [basic research] is something that we cannot afford not to do.

Q: Would you be saying the same thing if Fermilab wasn't in your district? Would you even want to be on the science committee?

R.H.: That's a great question. It was helpful to get on the committee. Once I got on it, and got bitten by the bug, I started to see how important science is to the nation. Take NASA. I have no industry or parochial interest in what NASA does. But I see it as an essential part of who we are as a nation. It's more than my parochial interest in Fermilab, which I think is essential for the health of U.S. physics as a whole. It's also fighting for our future, and the role that science can play.

I've got kids ages 18 to 8, and my youngest is passionate about science. And I want him to be able to be a scientist in America.

Q: Is it easier for a nonscientist in Congress to be an advocate for science than a professional scientist like Bill Foster? Or do they question your expertise?

R.H.: In a way it frees me up. My constituent physicists are 10 times smarter than I am. And that's ok. My role is not to be a scientist. But I can see the importance of it, and I can be their advocate and champion what they are doing. I also can help them explain better what they are doing.

One thing I love to see, when I visit Fermilab, is the list of all the institutions that are involved in an experiment. We need to do a better job of describing that web, and how it extends around the world and into classrooms. I don't understand the science, but I think I can be effective in working with constituents who are scientists.

Q: What's the impact of the loss of [representatives] Biggert and Brian Bilbray [House Republicans from Illinois and California, respectively, who lost their seat in last week's election]?

R.H.: It's a great loss. Judy has been a great colleague, she's so passionate about Argonne [National Laboratory], and I'm sad to lose her. The same for Brian, who's been a great advocate for biomedical research.

I hope some of the new members will have an interest and spark a commitment in science. And that's part of the challenge for the science committee. We need to do a better job of being more vibrant and more compelling for our colleagues who don't serve on the committee. We can't just have everything stay in our committee room. We need to take what we are hearing and learning and spread it around.

Q: How can you do that?

R.H.: One thing we did that I think was a great success was a workshop called "Deconstructing the iPad." It helped them realize that, without government support for basic research, we would never have the iPad. It has improved the quality of our life, but they wouldn't have been able to do it, at least not as quickly, without government support for basic research.

Another thing we want to do is put together a national labs caucus. Maybe once a month we have somebody come in and talk about what they are doing and how it affects the entire country.

Q: Would you like to chair the technology subcommittee?

R.H.: I would love to have a bigger role on the science committee. But that's up to the new chairman.

Q: Do you think the committee will move an America COMPETES Act reauthorization bill, and does it need to be reshaped?

R.H.: It's too early to say if it will happen this year, although I will be pushing for it. We'll have to hear from the leadership.

I'd like us to move ahead, but I think there's more we can do. I want us to have a hearing on that and on the NASA reauthorization to map out a plan for the next 5 years. It's not our job to set out the vision, but we've been lacking the leadership to do that. We need them to help us write the next COMPETES act.

Q: Given that doubling [of the budgets of three key research agencies covered by the legislation] won't happen, should the next bill have a different focus?

R.H.: That's something we need to talk through. I think it's important to keep that commitment to basic research. But we are in a very different situation than in 2007.

Q: It was reauthorized in 2010, of course.

R.H.: Yeah, but it was hardly discussed then. So I think it's time to spend some significant time on it, and really dig into where the priorities should be. And we don't have the luxury of throwing money at all these programs. And my commitment is to basic research in the physical sciences. But it's not up to me.

Q: Biggert worried that the budget for ARPA-E [Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy] might grow at the expense of DOE's Office of Science. Will you pick up her mantle?

R.H.: I'm a strong supporter of the Office of Science [OS] and I will continue to champion those issues. But with all the changes in the economy and the deficit, the arguments will probably change. But I will continue to be a strong advocate for OS and NSF [the National Science Foundation] and other basic research agencies and make sure that they are working together.

Q: Do you think some agencies have gotten away from their core missions?

R.H.: It is part of the science committee's responsibility to make sure that they are headed in the right direction and that we help to set that direction. I hope we can work with the Senate and the administration to craft a plan and then make sure it's carried out.

The need for oversight in the past few years points to the fact that there's been confusion about our mission and goals in science. Once we do that, we can make sure it's being carried out.

Q: Do you expect the committee to be more active?

R.H.: I really do. I think it will be more active. I think we were active, but I don't know if it was as purposeful and compelling as I would have liked it to be.

Activity in and of itself isn't always telling of productivity. I also want people to understand the relevance of what we are doing.

Especially now, in the economic crisis, we need to remain vigilant. In the past we've had the luxury of fighting among ourselves, and I'd like to see us pulling together more and then reaching out to our colleagues.

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* 2:48 p.m.: Due to a software glitch, the congressman's name appeared incorrectly in the original posting of this item.