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Political Science: Physicist Bill Foster Heads Back to Congress

If I may … . When he was in Congress before, Bill Foster took time during a 2009 press conference at Fermilab to explain—not ask—how a piece of scientific equipment works.

Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

You can't question Bill Foster's determination. After losing his seat in the House of Representatives two years ago, the Illinois Democrat snagged a different one as he trounced seven-term House veteran Judy Biggert (R-IL) in the contest to represent the state's newly drawn 11th district. An independently wealthy businessman and a particle physicist by training, Foster worked at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, for 22 years before leaving in 2006. When he takes office in January, he will be one of two Ph.D. physicists in Congress. [The other will be Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), a plasma physicist who will return for his eighth term in the House.]

With 3 years in Congress already under his belt, Foster is no rookie. As he prepared to head to Washington, D.C., he took time to discuss with ScienceInsider his priorities for the next Congress, the need for more scientists in politics, and the challenges that the scientific enterprise faces on Capitol Hill—including sequestration, the automatic budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Here is an edited transcript of his remarks.

Q: What are the big issues for science going forward in the new Congress?

B.F.: I think they're all budgetary. There's going to be a huge amount of stress. I think the election was a pretty clear indication that we're never going to pass the [austerity budget proposed by Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Republican nominee for vice president]. But even in sequestration, some versions of it, there's a 15 or 16% cut in science. How that lands on the various subfields is a very interesting question. The nature of the grand compromise is what everybody is trying to puzzle out at this time.

Q: In spite of the budget-cutting fervor in Washington these past 2 years, Congress has largely preserved the science budgets. What's the potential for protecting science in this even worse climate? Will it come down to horse trading or will it be possible to fence off science as a whole?

B.F.: That's a very hard question to answer right now. If you look at the politics of sequestration, for example, the big military cuts fall very heavily on the southern coastal Republican states. That's one of the reasons that there's a very strong partisan dynamic in this. And of course there is a strong partisan dynamic to clean energy research. The support for the rest of science is relatively free of strong partisan [dynamics]. It's more local, like protecting labs and NASA facilities and so on in my district, that sort of logic.

If someone in some coastal state has their choice of protecting a military base that the Pentagon doesn't really want so much or a NASA facility, then there will be some interesting tradeoffs there. Everything will be on the table and it often crosses the boundary beyond science to other considerations.

It's not too different from the way the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider [(SSC) in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1993] was viewed by many people as "Well, you can cancel the International Space Station or you can cancel the SSC." Very often there may be those sorts of tradeoffs that happen that will cross that boundary.

Q: Will you be trying for a spot on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology?

B.F.: I am going to be deciding that in the coming week, when I'm in Washington. At this point I'm still trying to hire a chief of staff, and usually committee decisions are downstream from that.

I'm having a large number of conversations with members that I know about what life is really like in the minority. The committees that operate in a more or less bipartisan manner are much more attractive.

Q: As we understand it, there are three people up for the chair of the science committee: representatives F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Will the chair selection affect whether you seek a spot on the science committee?

B.F.: Yes. The chairman has a huge effect, especially for a member of the minority. Some work in a very bipartisan manner and some don't.

Q: Will you know who will be chair in time for it to inform your decision?

B.F.: Possibly, yes. The time scales, they're a little bit shuffled up. Right now the Democrats have delayed their decisions on leadership elections for a couple of weeks past what's traditional. But I think the Republicans are proceeding rather quickly. But that's just a subjective impression that may be corrected by reality when I'm in Washington.

Q: You now have a colleague, Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL), who has Fermilab in his district, and he won recognition as a "champion of science" from the Science Coalition in part for his role in advocating for Fermilab. Scientists who supported you in this past election have also said that Hultgren has done a good job and turned out to be a pretty enthusiastic supporter of science. Do you see yourself working with Hultgren? He unseated you in his district in 2010.

B.F.: Oh yeah. There's no problem working with people. There's the political world and then there's trying to get something done for your area.

It would be nice if Representative Hultgren would stop voting for things like the Ryan budget. One of the things that I think was an important part in my election victory was the fact that you can't claim to be to be a supporter of science and then vote for something that cuts the science budget by 25% or 30%. So there's a fundamental difference. Many people present themselves back in their home districts as a champion of something and then vote against it in Washington, and science is not immune to that behavior.

Q: You're a self-described progressive. Back in 2008 when you won election, if somebody had asked me, I would have said, and I would say now, "Bill Foster is an Obama Democrat." Is that a fair thing to say?

B.F.: Yeah, I think that's fair to say. On most issues I find myself fairly well aligned with the president. There are all sorts of policy details on which we differ. In broad terms, I think it's difficult to characterize me as being left or right of what he's trying to accomplish.

Q: One of the real tensions for a place like Fermilab, the United States' sole particle physics lab, is that the type of research that scientists do there is not really seen as a priority within this administration, which has strongly emphasized research more directly connected to clean energy technology. Do you break with the administration and say, "No, no I'm going to advocate for Fermilab?" Is this an area of tension between you and the administration?

B.F.: Well, there are two things. One of your duties as a representative of an area is to advocate for the facilities there. The other thing is to guide the facilities on a path toward success, in the field of political realities. Both of those are very important. It does no good to encourage labs in and around your district to go down paths that are destined for failure. So teamwork is essential.

Q: But Fermilab needs a major new project. And they're working very hard to get the $789 million Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment in the next decade. Given that there is this gigantic budget mess going on, and given that the administration has staked its scientific interest on clean energy, what is the argument that you make for Fermilab?

B.F.: One of the most important things that you didn't mention, that is actually very important for the Department of Energy's Office of Science [which funds Fermilab], is another problem that it inherited from a previous administration, namely the cost overrun on ITER [the $23 billion international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France]. That is going to put tremendous stress on the Office of Science, and this is something that was more or less imposed politically. And we have to understand if there is a political solution for the added stress of having to deal with the ITER cost overrun. It's not clear what is going to happen to the European and Asian funding and what the real timescale of the project is. How does that play out into the Office of Science budget? That's one of the biggest elephants in the room.

Q: But what about the really fundamental physics, which, to be honest, may have little direct technological payoff? Obviously, Fermilab spun off the superconducting wire industry, and that's tremendous. But that is also in the past. And yes, there will be spinoffs from developing advanced detector technology, but it doesn't seem to me that you can really …

B.F.: There's a large class of research that you do either because of very long-term, very speculative payoffs, or because it's what they call curiosity-driven research. Take astronomy. It is unlikely that a lot of astronomy will have an economic pay off. But it's a cultural thing. Every great society, after they've fought the wars, and kept the financial system running, and fed the population, has spent some fraction of its wealth on curiosity-driven research. It's just something that our country should do. And you can't use science to calculate what that fraction should be. It's a problem that's always going to be with us, and what you need is the get the most eloquent spokespersons for every field to make the cultural argument for the importance of their fields.

You have to be very careful not to oversell the economic spinoffs from things that to my mind are nevertheless very much worth doing. I devoted most of my adult life to them.

Q: I've asked what big issues are for science going forward? What are the big issues for you going forward? You're coming back to Congress. What are the things you're looking to get your fingers into?

B.F.: Managing the economic recovery. Everything gets easier, including science, if the economy recovers as fast as is feasible. And that has to be the first priority.

We've seen that there's a huge difference between an economy that's managed well and one that isn't. And we just have to make sure that we've learned from the mistakes of the past and keep the recovery accelerating as rapidly as we can.

Q: You were involved in banking reform during your first stay in Congress. Is that the kind of thing that will continue to draw your interest? You seem to have a natural affinity for the quantitative side of economic regulation.

B.F.: Given the number of physicists that were involved in the design of structured financial products and so on, I think it's only fair that a physicist should contribute some effort to straightening out the mess.

It's only one of the possible areas that I may continue. And that's going to be decided in the coming weeks as I look at the committee assignments open to me.

Q: I think that's what I'd intended to ask you. Anything else you'd like to add?

B.F.: Yes, it is long past time for more scientists and engineers to get in the business of electoral politics. And that is another thing that I will continue to be working at, trying to recruit more people to take this up. It is not impossible. It is not easy. Success is not certain. But there's nothing more important to the future of science and to our country.