Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL)

Brian Kersey/AP Photo

Science ‘champion’ Dan Lipinski faces tough race in Illinois primary

(Update, 21 March: Lipinski narrowly defeated Marie Newman, who had hoped her pro-choice, progressive agenda would resonate in this solidly Democrat district. The 7-term incumbent, a former political science professor and staunch supporter of academic research, now has clear sailing in November.)

Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL)—an antiabortion Democrat who voted against the Affordable Care Act and who only recently has embraced a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—knows that he’s out of step with progressives on many social issues. Next week, Lipinski will find out whether voters in Illinois’s third congressional district on Chicago’s southwest side feel there’s still room for him in the Democratic Party. If the seven-term legislator loses his primary race to the more liberal Marie Newman, his defeat would also silence one of the most vocal and persistent advocates for research in Congress.

Newman, a business consultant and former advertising executive, represents Lipinski’s stiffest challenge since he succeeded his father, Bill, who retired in 2004 after serving 11 terms in Congress. Newman is backed by former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I–VT), as well as by abortion rights organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the National Organization of Women, and EMILY’s List.

Pundits have billed the race as a national referendum on the direction of the Democratic Party. Although Lipinski has raised considerably more money than Newman, the race is regarded as a toss-up. And in this heavily Democratic district, a victory in the 20 March primary is tantamount to winning the general election.

An assistant professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville before winning a House of Representatives seat in his first try at elective office, the 51-year-old Lipinski holds an undergraduate engineering degree and a Ph.D. in political science. That background, combined with his interest in issues affecting academic researchers, has made him a valuable member of the House science committee, says Bart Gordon, a former Democratic congressman from Tennessee who chaired the panel from 2007 to 2010. 

“He was one of the few Ph.D.s on the committee and very supportive of climate change, advanced manufacturing, and STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] education,” Gordon notes. “He was more conservative than the [Democratic] caucus as a whole, but that helped him make the case for what the committee was doing” among a group of members known informally as Blue Dog Democrats.

That coalition, however, is much smaller now than when his father and other centrist Democrats founded it in 1995. But it provides Lipinski, who now chairs the Blue Dogs’ policy committee, with a useful political base. He’s also one of the few Democrats who has been able to find common ground with Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the House science committee, and the Republican majority on the committee.

Seeking compromise

In 2013, for example, Smith proposed altering the definition of peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, to ensure that all its grants were addressing topics in the “national interest.” Academic leaders saw the phrase as a code word for restricting NSF’s ability to support the best science and launched an aggressive campaign against any changes in the agency’s criteria for choosing what grant proposals to fund.

During extended debates within the committee on various pieces of legislation designed to foster Smith’s goals, Lipinski was often a lone voice among Democrats in declaring that Smith had a legitimate point and that there was room for compromise. He turned out to be correct: NSF Director France Córdova eventually agreed with Smith that “national interest” should be an important factor in NSF’s funding decisions. Her concession allowed Smith to declare victory and forced community leaders to admit grudgingly that they could live with the new language.

In another committee battle, this one over Smith’s attempt to reduce support for the social and behavioral sciences at NSF, Lipinski used a parliamentary ploy to defuse tension between Republicans and Democrats. A House spending panel had already backed higher spending levels for NSF, and Lipinski suspected that several Republicans on the science committee might support that position on the House floor. But he knew that, out of deference to their chairman, they would be forced to oppose any Democratic move to beef up the social and behavioral sciences. So at the last minute, Lipinski withdrew an amendment he had proposed to do just that, avoiding an unnecessary partisan showdown.

Inside baseball, to be sure. But it illustrates both Lipinski’s understanding of the legislative process and his willingness to fight a small, but important battle to protect the research community.

In 2013, a coalition of the nation’s top research universities gave Lipinski its Champion of Science award, noting that he had “played a leading role in support of science funding and innovation policies that serve to strengthen the core missions of our universities and national laboratories.” The group also applauded Lipinski’s “depth of understanding and appreciation of the peer-review system.”

Lipinski says attention to detail sets him apart from many of his colleagues, who avoid tackling complicated issues like federal science policy because they can’t be easily summarized on a bumper sticker. “I understand the nuance of legislation and of issues,” he says. “As an engineer, I focus on getting things done. I don’t yell and scream, or act as if yelling and screaming is action.” That approach counters more rigidly ideological stances taken by some groups, he says, “whether on the right or the left. They believe the solution to the country’s problems are simple and that people prefer to vote for a slogan rather than for good policy.”

But science isn’t the front-burner issue in any campaign, and the scientific and engineering community isn’t large enough—or wealthy enough—to influence the results of a congressional election. “There’s only so much you can do to make [science] an issue in a campaign,” Lipinski says. “If you’re in office, you can try to help people understand its importance. But in some districts, even that takes a lot of work.”

A challenge from the left

Lipinki’s views on research aren’t playing much of a role in his current race, in which he is facing a potent challenge from the liberal wing of his own party. Newman, his opponent, says “Lipinski has consistently campaigned as a Democrat but governed as a Republican,” putting him out of step with the party’s core principles. In what was seen as an unusual rebuke to an incumbent, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)—an important party fundraising group—initially withheld its endorsement from Lipinski. This month, it broke its silence and backed him after several of Lipinski’s colleagues complained to DCCC officials.

Lipinski and his supporters say that having a range of views within the party is healthy. “I think that the Democratic Party prospers with diversity of thought and gender,” says Gordon, now a lobbyist in the Washington, D.C., offices of K&L Gates, an international law firm. “The more different views in play, the better outcome you get.”

Lipinski worries that the Democratic Party runs the risk of being captured by “the tea party of the left,” a reference to the activists who helped Republicans regain control of the House in 2010 by insisting on ideological purity from their candidates. “I guess they see the tea party and the Freedom Caucus [a group of legislators on the right wing of the Republican party] as having done some good for Republicans in Congress,” Lipinski says about his critics. “But to me those people are saying, ‘It’s our way or no way.’ Some Democrats seem to think that would be a successful strategy for winning office and for governing. But I think that would be a big mistake.”

Next week, Lipinski will find out whether his centrist, nose-to the-grindstone approach still resonates with voters. And he sounds a bit wistful in assessing his prospects. “There are still thoughtful legislators who really dive in and understand policy,” he says. But “the policy experts aren’t rewarded [by voters]. And I think that’s bad for [Congress] and for the country.”