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From Particles to Politics: Congressman Foster discusses scientific background, political present during Woodridge Rotary luncheon

May 29, 2013
In The News

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-11th, traveled an uncommon path on his way to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Foster talked about his journey from working as a particle physicist to serving as a national politician during the Woodridge Rotary’s weekly luncheon Tuesday at Seven Bridges Golf Club. That journey, Foster said, has given him a unique perspective when dealing with many of the issues he faces in Washington.

“As a scientist, I’m always amused by the fact that both parties tend to talk about things in ways that, if you look at the numbers, are not true,” Foster said. “So as a scientist, I’ve learned to always look at the numbers.”

Foster discussed everything from education to economic recovery during Tuesday’s lunch, but he underscored each of those topics with an emphasis on the valuable lessons he learned throughout his scientific career.

Before winning a special election in 2008 to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Foster had earned his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard in 1983. In 1984, he moved to Illinois to work at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, where he remained until 2006. While there, Foster was involved in several noteworthy physics experiments and in the development of a new type of integrated circuit used to measure particle collisions.

Foster’s parents were deeply influential in his decision to run for office. His mother and father were both politically active, and after the death of his father, Foster decided to pursue a career in politics.

“It was actually reading his papers, after he passed away a few years ago, that was one of the things that got me thinking about this fundamental question: ‘What fraction of your life should you spend in service to your fellow man?’” he said. “That’s something that science is absolutely no help with, and that’s one of the reasons why I like Rotary so much, because it answers that question.”

Foster’s talk was short. He discussed his early political career as a volunteer in the 2007 congressional campaign of Patrick Murphy, D-Pa.; the process of campaigning throughout Illinois; and the important function of serving as a congressman.

“Most of the time, you’re voting on some sort of garbage, but sometimes, you’re voting on things that will change the lives of everyone in this country,” Foster said.

Foster was most recently elected to represent Illinois’ 11th district, beating out longtime Republican Congresswoman Judy Biggert.

After his presentation, Foster took several questions from members of the Woodridge Rotary.

One member asked Foster about the economy and the rate of economic recovery.

“When people ask me, ‘How’s the economy doing?’ I try to reduce it to a single number, and that’s household net worth,” Foster said. “That’s the value of everything that’s owned by families in the United States.”

In the 18 months prior to President Obama’s election, Foster said American families had lost about $17 trillion in household net worth. Under the Obama administration, Foster said that household net worth has fully recovered and is now above where it was at the time of the crisis.

“This is a historic achievement,” he said. “I believe it had to do, in large part, with a very strong intervention that we undertook after the changing of the guard in Washington.”

Foster said the Great Recession was significantly more destructive to the economy than the Great Depression. In the 1930s, household net worth dropped by only 12 percent, compared to 25 percent during the most recent economic recession. That’s why Foster said he is working to put mechanisms in place to prevent housing bubbles from developing and busting in the future.

The congressman was also asked about the state of scientific education in light of sequestration and government spending cuts.

Foster recently introduced legislation that would create a competitive grant program for school districts, higher education institutions and employers to work together to design programs in the STEM field. The goal, he said, is to connect STEM coursework with a future career by providing students with STEM curriculum in high school, internships or apprenticeships in a STEM field, and dual credit that can be applied towards college.

He explained that budget cuts are having an adverse effect on scientific grants and research, but that the real impact of those cuts will not be felt for years to come.

“These are things where the economic damage plays out decades from now,” Foster said. “It’s a fundamental problem with democracy that all of the political incentives are about getting elected two years from now. And, this causes us to underinvest in things like basic scientific research or early childhood education, where the economic pickup is not in two years but 10 or 20 years.”

Foster said the way to fix this aspect of national politics is to elect people who think about the long term.

Woodridge Mayor Gina Cunningham also spoke briefly during Tuesday’s lunch. Cunningham, who was elected mayor in April, also serves as the president of the Woodridge Rotary. She thanked Foster for speaking and for his work in the FEMA flood-remapping process, which assisted Woodridge residents affected by the April floods.