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Those smart kids are now your congressmen

Aug 31, 2013
In The News

Remember those kids you went to school with who were so smart you knew they’d wind up being scientists or engineers?

Two of them are now representing the Joliet area in Congress. U.S. Reps. Bill Foster (D-11th) and Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) have impressive science pedigrees.

Lipinski, who represents northeastern Will County, including Lockport and parts of Joliet, has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University, a master’s in engineering-economic systems from Stanford University and a doctorate in political science from Duke University. He’s one of only 12 engineers in Congress.

Foster, who represents most of Joliet, has a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. He worked as a high-energy physicist and particle accelerator designer at Fermilab, where he was involved in the discovery of quarks and led teams that designed and built a particle accelerator. He is one of only two physicists in Congress.

Past U.S. representatives I’ve known had less lab-oriented careers. They were mostly lawyers or business executives. But Foster and Lipinski, both multi-term congressmen, are different.

I recently cornered the two at an event at Argonne National Laboratory to ask why, with their advanced degrees and scientific training, they chose politics.

Lipinski said he always had a dual interest in science and government policy. When he was 12 or 13, he urged the Japanese government stop tuna fishermen from killing dolphins.

“I always go back to that as my first sort of political policy,” he said.

He majored in engineering in college because it was “practical.” But when he decided to become a college professor, he thought long and hard about what he really loved and majored in political science.

Foster said he was not politically active when he created a lighting company at 19 and went on to become a physicist.

“Sometimes I say that at roughly the age of 55, I tragically fell prey to the family’s recessive gene for adult-onset political activities,” he said.

Foster’s father was a scientist who became a civil rights lawyer. And Lipinski’s dad, William Lipinski, was a congressman for 21 years. So both men may have inherited their interest in government service.

Lipinski and Foster said their technical training has helped them as Congressmen.

“Engineering is problem solving, which means I look at things step by step,” Lipinski said.

Foster said there’s a big difference between science and politics.

“The political attitude toward things is not always what’s true but what can we convince people is true,” he said. “And a scientist or an engineer ultimately has to build systems that work. So that means they have to be logically consistent and the parts have to fit together and they have to function together.”

Foster said scientists and engineers also like to attach numbers to problems.

“And so if you get even a rough estimate of the numbers, the policy decision is clear,” he said. “But the first instinct of a politician is not to look at the numbers. They look at the polling or the sound bites and how they think they can convince people.”

Lipinski, who is the ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, agreed.

“Scientists and engineers are really driven to understand what the issue is, what’s going on and look at the numbers when you can,” he said. “To say it kindly, that doesn’t always go on among members of Congress. There isn’t that kind of drive to get to the bottom of an issue.”

The two said their science backgrounds can be a problem when they’re being pushed to follow a certain path.

“I think that we probably ask more questions than a lot of people want to hear because they don’t want to delve that deeply,” Lipinski said.

Foster said the hallmark of science is a willingness to change your mind when you look into the facts.

“In Congress, so many people are ideologically wedged into a certain position, and they are not going to reconsider that ideology under any circumstances,” he said. “And that’s almost the exact opposite of science where you say, ‘what are the facts?’ and let opinions be guided by the facts.”

Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne and a physicist, appreciates the quirk of congressional redistricting that pushed Foster’s 11th District and Lipinski’s 3rd District together to split Argonne between the two. Other representatives have been supportive of the lab, Isaacs said, but talking to Lipinski and Foster is a bit easier.

“You don’t have a lot of word definitions to worry about,” he said. “You get to the point.”

Isaacs said he gets why both men entered the political arena. It’s the same reason he’s directing a lab instead of running his own company.

“You get to have much broader impact,” he said. “... You’re dealing with issues that make it possible for science to happen.”

And maybe the general public gets that, too. I met a woman recently who brought her two children to a Fab Lab mobile science laboratory event that Foster attended at Joliet Junior College.

“Both my kids like science, especially my son,” Sarah Kaducak, of Plainfield, said, adding that she appreciated Foster’s background. “I just like to see interesting people ,as opposed to political people, being in office. It’s refreshing.”