There’s a Science Advocate in the House (of Representatives)

17:00 minutes

U.S. Capitol building. Credit: Shutterstock
U.S. Capitol building. Credit: Shutterstock

It’s the first week of the 115th Congress and science is already in the hot seat. A bill introduced this week by House Republican Erik Paulson threatens to pull the plug on the medical device tax introduced under Obamacare, and which has already been suspended for two years. Many in the scientific community believe it’s an ominous sign of things to come.

This new Congress may turn out to be the most anti-science one yet, but science does have a few advocates left on the inside. One is Representative Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois and a former physicist. As a member of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Foster is the go-to guy for both parties when it comes to technical scientific matters, as he holds the unfortunate distinction of being the only remaining member of Congress with a Ph.D. in science.

Congressman Foster joins us to discuss what the 115th Congress may do for (or to) science in the year ahead.

Segment Guests

Bill Foster

Congressman Bill Foster represents Illinois’ 11th District in the US House of Representatives in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It’s been less than a week since the 115th Congress was sworn in and already science is in the hot seat. A bill introduced this week by House Republican Eric Paulson threatens to pull the plug on the medical device tax introduced under Obamacare. And while you may worry that this new Congress may strip funding for essential research in global warming, genetics, green energy, and medicine, science does have a few advocates on the Hill.

And one of them is Congressman Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois and former physicist at Fermilab. He’s also one of the only two remaining members of Congress with a degree in science, and he’s the last physicist there. You could think of him as sort of the other science guy named Bill.

Congressman Bill Foster represents Illinois’s 11th District. He sits on the committee for science, space, and technology. Welcome, congressman.

BILL FOSTER: Well, happy to be here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve sort of taken over the role that we used to have for Rush Holt on our program.

BILL FOSTER: Well, that’s right. I think, when I first came to Congress in the special election to replace Dennis Hastert, I was the third PhD physicist in the US Congress. And unfortunately, the other two have retired. And now, at this point, I think I am the only PhD scientist of any kind. We have some political scientists, I think a mathematician, but it feels sort of lonely.

IRA FLATOW: I was going to say that you sound as lonely as the Maytag repairman in the job there. Do you really feel that you don’t have others to talk to who share your interests?

BILL FOSTER: Well, no. There’s a lot of interest in science and a lot of support, well frankly, certainly on my side of the aisle. I think, at this point, most of Washington is preoccupied, just really trying to read between the lines of the Trump administration’s appointment and the midnight tweets and so on, trying to discern what the science policy might be in the coming administration. Back in the times of the Romans, they used to look at bird entrails to try to see into the future, and now we’re reduced to listening to the tweets from the president as sort of the bird entrails of the 21st century.

IRA FLATOW: Well, some of the tweets are actually announcements, sort of like the Secretary of Energy, the EPA. Do they bode well for science?

BILL FOSTER: It’s a mixed bag. Some of them, for example, James Mattis– you know, despite his appellation as Mad Dog Mattis– as the Secretary of Defense, he’s signed on to a report acknowledging climate change is a real threat to our national security. And as a very intellectual reputation as someone who is a deep thinker on this stuff. On the other hand, his EPA designee Scott Pruitt is a very strong climate denier, with a history of suing the EPA over environmental protections. You know, Tom Price, the designee for Health and Human Services, has repeatedly pushed and voted to cut science funding. And so that’s not so good news.

You know, Rick Perry is an interesting case. It’s easy to sort of poke fun at the fact that he’s now running the Department of Energy, that he couldn’t even remember its name during one of the debates. But in fact, the Department of Energy can and has survived with political appointees running it. And what’s important at this point is that the next level of appointees, below governor and soon to be Secretary Perry, be people with good technical credentials and a real understanding of the mission of the Department of Energy– its scientific mission, its mission to maintain the nuclear arsenal, and other things.

IRA FLATOW: And while he comes from a state that’s known for its oil production, it’s also one of the biggest wind energy producing states.

BILL FOSTER: That’s correct. And he was a very strong proponent of wind power when he was governor of Texas. So you know, we’re crossing our fingers here. You know, I think that people are perhaps most concerned about Mick Mulvaney, who’s the designee for the Office of Management and Budget. So he’ll be preparing the budgets for the Trump administration.

And I served with him on the Financial Services Committee, and he sort of became locally famous, I think, last September when he put out a post, questioning whether there was any need for any federally funded research at all, which hopefully will not represent his opinion when he’s actually in charge of preparing the Trump administration’s budget.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Because we know, from past experience, in all levels and all walks of life, when budgets get cut, a lot of times, science is the first thing to go. Science budgets.

BILL FOSTER: It just has to do with the fact that the damage– when you damage long-term scientific research, it damages the economy severely but not immediately. And so you can be a hero by balancing the budget this year and never acknowledge the damage that happens decades from now when we’re missing the sort of research that ultimately advances our society and saves the government a huge amount of money.

You see that in medical care, for example, where a third of all of our spending is in diabetes. And within a dozen or so years, another third it’s going to be Alzheimer’s. You could come up with a low cost cure for either one of those. It would solve the long-term fiscal crisis in Medicare. So cutting research in general is a very unwise thing.

IRA FLATOW: I found, over the years– and we’ve been on the air 25 years, I’ve been covering this a lot longer– is that when a member of Congress is against something, when they discover that a member of their family suddenly has come down with that kind of disease that might be saved by basic research, they sort of just turn around and start funding it. You hate to wish that on anybody, but that’s sort of been a history of some of this funding.

BILL FOSTER: Yeah. Well there’s also a danger of having Congress micromanage research budgets too, because even if you’re concerned about a specific disease, the best path towards getting a cure might be to do many years of fundamental research to understand the underlying mechanisms, instead of just immediately trying to go to clinical trial without any strong scientific basis. And so really, there is a right level at which Congress should manage the budget that doesn’t involve micromanaging.

IRA FLATOW: Does the 21st Century Cures Act fall under that micromanaging idea, where it’s going to say, we should be sending money here, sending money there?

BILL FOSTER: Well, in general, it’s a mixed bag. It’s almost everything Congress passes. First and foremost, it authorizes, I think, over $4.5 or $4.8 billion of new funding for the National Institutes of Health. But it authorizes it. That’s different than appropriated it, which sounds like technical Washington insider jargon. But what that means is that there’s a large number of members of Congress who say how much they love science and they will vote for these things that authorize the money to be spent. And then, if you ask how did they vote on budgets that actually provide enough money to fund these things, they voted against them. And so you have to look at both sides of this.

The 21st Century Cares Act, you had a bunch of good things. And in fact, it had $1.6 billion earmarked for Alzheimer’s, which is wonderful, assuming the budgets that will be passed actually support that level of funding.

IRA FLATOW: Are there any bipartisan issues in science you think Congress should work on this year or will be working on?

BILL FOSTER: Well, you know, I serve on the science committee. My two committees are financial services and the science committee. I guess, at some point, the leadership in Congress thought that, well, if we only have one PhD scientists, then maybe we should put him on the science committee. So that’s where I sit.

And it’s sort of issue by issue. There are some issues, you know, things like climate change, where we immediately just go into our partisan corners and start spewing the usual talking points. There are other ones where I found that we can have very thoughtful discussions across the aisle. An example of that was human genetic engineering, which is, due to the breakthroughs that have happened in the last several years, is no longer science fiction to contemplate making changes to the genetic makeup up of people and their children that will carry on through the generations.

And because of the importance of this, really, to the future of mankind, I was able to convince the Republican chairman of the House Science Committee that we should have a hearing on this, and I was told that it was one of the best ever attended hearings of the House Science Committee. And it’s because of the importance of this. And as a result of this whole push into trying to understand how we will deal with this from a legislative and legal point of view, there was actually the National Academy initiated a yearlong international study– it’s going to be reporting out, actually, in a couple of months here– looking at how we will regulate this internationally, because the number of issues that are really crucial to the long-term destiny of mankind here.

IRA FLATOW: But there have been some issues. We’ve actually had a researcher on our program who felt all his research was subpoenaed by the federal government, by Congress. FBI banged on his door. He told us they demanded all his laptops, computers, everything else, his records. He said, where’s your search warrant. They said, we don’t need one, we’re Congress. And that’s seen as intimidation. Wasn’t it the same committee you were talking that asked for those records?

BILL FOSTER: That is correct, and that’s one of the things that we’ve been– a battle we’ve been fighting continually, usually in the guise of something related to climate change. I think, if you Google my name, Bill Foster, and Greenland together, you’re led to a hearing that we had in the science committee– there’s a Washington Post story on it– and some video, where one of the Republican witnesses, a lawyer, was trying to convince me that it was a matter of scientific debate whether or not it was a good thing that the Greenland ice sheet was melting. I try to be as respectful as I can, but there are times when it’s a challenge.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about your history. You have a long and very successful history as a business person, and then decide to go into Congress, what, in your 50’s? What made you decide to do that?

BILL FOSTER: Well, as you say, I went in the well-trodden path from theatrical stage lighting to high energy particle physics to the United States Congress. I’m just another one of them, I’m sure you’ve had many, many of them on your show. But you know, when I was 19, my little brother and I started this company in our basement, at the dawn of the microprocessor era, to use microprocessors to make theater lighting controllers. And so the company now, through the long efforts of my little brother, he has now got about 70% of the US market for all theater lighting equipment.

And I guess, most significantly in a lot of people’s eyes, back when I was maybe 25, I designed and programmed the controller for the Disneyland Main Street electrical parade. And so that was my sort of first career, where I worked at that for most of a decade. Then I went back to Harvard grad school and became a– to my first love, I guess, which was physics. And got a degree and spent about 25 years as a high energy particle physicist, most of that at Fermi National Accelerator lab, where I was on the committee that– actually, the experiment– that discovered the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter, and then got into designing accelerators. And actually, the last of the giant accelerators at Fermilab was one that I invented and led the team that built the magnets for it.

So anyway. But you know, the question then, why on God’s green earth would someone with an interesting career in business and science go into politics? Well, my quick answer to that is that I fell prey to the family’s recessive gene for adult onset political activism, which sort of tragically runs in my family.

My dad was actually– he was a scientist. He got a chemistry degree from Stanford. And during World War II, designed fire control computers for the Navy. And most of the way through the war, started getting these reports of how many people had been killed by his team’s equipment this week and became very unhappy with the idea of his technical skills being used to hurt people. And so he came back from the war, thought about it for a while, and decided that he would become a civil rights lawyer. And actually ended up writing much of the enforcement language behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

IRA FLATOW: Let me interrupt you just for a second. Great story. Remind everybody that this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m Ira Flatow, talking with Congressman Bill Foster from Illinois. And so he then went into the Civil Rights movement?

BILL FOSTER: So he stepped away from his career in science and became a civil rights lawyer, which he saw as the great moral challenge of his generation. And so it was actually reading his papers, after he passed away not so long ago, I started thinking about this fundamental question that everyone has to answer, which is what fraction of your life you spend in service to your fellow man. It’s a question that science does not help you with at all.

IRA FLATOW: That’s why we’re here. Let’s go to the phones. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Cynthia in Burr Ridge, Illinois Hi, Cynthia.


BILL FOSTER: Hey, Cynthia. A constituent.

CYNTHIA: Absolutely, and a teacher. I was just going to make a plug for two of our Argonne scientists here. Doug Sisterson and Seth Darling wrote a really good book, if you’re trying to talk to people. It’s actually titled How to Change Minds About Our Changing Climate. Very accessible, very articulate. Very short too, which makes it probably better for some of our congressional leaders to read.

My question, and I’ll take any answer you have off here, politically, given all of the appointments made by Donald Trump– I don’t need to mention them– and his friendship with Vladamir Putin, how do you think the motivation of driving and keeping oil prices high– obviously, that’s what Russia would prefer– will impact the acceptance, support, and future investment for alternative energies and climate change research? And is anyone looking at these associations close enough and with enough alarm?

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Cynthia. We only have a minute to go, so we’ll see if we can get that in.

BILL FOSTER: Yeah. Well, there’s no quick answer to that. The jury is still out on that. Whenever a new administration is formed, usually, the people that form that administration have a variety of positions. And ultimately, incoming President Trump is going to have to decide which of those really reflect his long-term priorities. And I hope he sees the value of homegrown energy and green energy as really an advantage to the United States.

IRA FLATOW: I have one last quick question for you. We’ve been on air 25 years, and we’ve had on, many times in the past, Dr. Leon Letterman. And I know you probably know who he is.

BILL FOSTER: Oh, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: I was wondering if you know how he’s doing?

BILL FOSTER: Well, he’s actually been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

IRA FLATOW: Right, I knew that.

BILL FOSTER: When I first ran for Congress, Leon Letterman was a huge help. When I first ran for Congress, my campaign was endorsed by 31 Nobel prize winners. That was because Leon Letterman went and, on my behalf, he spammed the entire Nobel Laureates distribution list, which actually is something that exists, on my behalf and said, when this guy, Bill Foster, calls you up, take his phone call him. And so that resulted in a couple of days of my life, calling up 31 Nobel prize winners to endorse my campaign. And so, you know, Leon has been great. He is slowing down, but he’s one of the great American scientists.

IRA FLATOW: I go way back with him also. Congressman, thank you for taking time to be with us today. And good luck to you and everybody else in Congress.

BILL FOSTER: All right, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Congressman Bill Foster, US House of Representatives. Sits on this committee for science, space, and technology.

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