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

Lone physicist in Congress joins science panel

The U.S. House of Representative’s one-man physics caucus is joining its science committee—with the goal of restoring science to its rightful place in legislative discourse.

Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) holds a physics Ph.D. from Harvard University and spent 22 years as a particle accelerator designer at Fermilab, a Department of Energy national laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. When he arrived in the House in 2008, he was one of three members with a Ph.D. in physics. But the two others—representatives Vern Ehlers (R–MI) and Rush Holt (D–NJ)—have since retired, leaving Foster as the sole remaining member of that troika. (There are no doctoral-level physicists in the Senate.)

Foster didn’t join the House’s science committee as a rookie, instead focusing his legislative energies on reforming the nation’s tattered banking system after the 2008 financial meltdown. He also feared being pigeonholed as “the science guy.” But the world has changed, he tells ScienceInsider today in a phone interview after revealing he has been chosen to fill one of three Democratic vacancies on the science panel.

“Congress is now seized in gridlock, and that made the Financial Services Committee a smaller drain on my time and my staff’s time,” he explains. “And secondly, science has come under attack. Support for science, and even acknowledging that scientific thought is a useful way to operate our government, has come under increasing partisan attack. And the [House] science committee is one important platform to have that discussion about the proper role of science in government and in the economy.”

That committee, led by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), has become ground zero for Republican attacks on the National Science Foundation and other research agencies. Foster has watched those battles from afar, but he now feels a pressing need to defend his former profession.

“There are times when the science committee works in a bipartisan manner, and there are times when that bipartisanship is challenged,” says Foster, who as a teenager launched what became a very successful theater lighting business. “It’s my hope that being a consistent, calm, and rational voice for science will increase the amount of time that we spend discussing facts rather than offering partisan talking points.”

Foster says other House members regularly seek him out to discuss technical aspects of issues facing Congress and that party affiliation is no barrier. “I’ve had very good discussions with people like [Representative] Thomas Massie [R-KY]—I think he would not object to my calling him a right-wing, tea party Republican—who is also an MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] robotics graduate. So we have had very good technical discussions on the right policies for NSA [National Security Agency] data collection.”

Despite the value of such one-on-one interactions, he says that his time is limited. “I used to say I represented 33% of the strategic reserve of physicists in Congress.” But with Ehlers retiring in 2010, and Holt stepping down last month (and now CEO of AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider), Foster is “now, unfortunately … 100%. Rush’s departure has definitely put more of a scientific burden on me.”

Foster says he’s looking forward to joining the science committee, where he says the minority party has a chance “to bring constructive amendments. There are good conversations to be had on both sides of the aisle,” he adds. “But it’s important that those be fact-based.”