A Conversation with the Only Scientist in Congress
Before being elected to Congress in 2008, Representative Bill Foster of Illinois, a Democrat, worked for more than 20 years as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. Now, as the only member of Congress with a Ph.D. in science, he says there is an urgent need for more scientists in politics. At least eight candidates with science backgrounds—though not necessarily doctorates—will be on the ballot for seats in the House or Senate in November. Foster sat down with Scientific American to discuss science’s role on Capitol Hill amid the current divisive political climate. An edited excerpt of the conversation follows.
How does it feel to be the only scientist in Congress?
Lonely. I was actually the third Ph.D. physicist when I came to Congress. We had then representative Rush Holt of New Jersey (a Democrat), who is now running the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the late representative Vern Ehlers of Michigan—a very moderate Republican and a thoughtful guy. We still have a Ph.D. in mathematics, Representative Jerry McNerney of California (a Democrat). But in terms of physics, chemistry, et cetera, I’m all that’s left.
Does this background affect your role as a politician?
Almost every issue that comes up has a technological edge to it. For example, with the Iran nuclear deal, I found that members of Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—would just come to me, asking me to serve as an interpreter on the purely technical aspects of it. There’s only one of me, and there are 434 other members of the House, so I simply couldn’t provide the diffusion of technical knowledge that is missing here. I spent a long time in classified briefings with the experts at the weapons labs and asked all the “what if” questions and “Would we be able to detect something under the agreement?” Then I had to translate all that technical information.
Does partisan politics limit your ability to raise scientific issues?
In a typical hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology or Financial Services Committee—both of which I am on—you will get three Republican witnesses and a single Democrat. These committee policies are largely at the discretion of the chairman. When you look at simple reforms that would make [Congress] work in a more bipartisan, fact-based way, just having an equal number of witnesses from both sides would be a real step forward. I think it’s incumbent on us, if the Democrats do take over again, that we go out of our way to make sure the rules are not so winner-takes-all.
Politics is very different from science—in science, if you stand up and say something that you know is not true, it is a career-ending move. It used to be that way in politics. It has taken me a while to adjust to politics where, for many who practice it, the question is not “Is it true?” but “What can I convince the voting public is true?” That psychology has bled into politics more than it should.
What is the most important science-related issue now facing Congress?
Aside from evidence-based political debate, I think it is understanding that technology is changing our society, our country and our world at an unprecedented rate. It has already upended labor markets. We should have a dedicated tech committee. I think there are six or seven House committees that claim they are doing information technology. We should consolidate tech and get a core competence in that.
What are some of your specific technology concerns?
If the U.S. started issuing digital cash [meaning virtual currency that would pass between individuals with no transaction fee], immediately people would use that instead of credit cards. That would affect a huge source of revenue for banks large and small. Other countries are already moving in that direction. And if we just say, “No, we’re going to stick with our way of doing things”—and the European Union starts issuing digital euros, for example—you would find that the whole world will just walk away from the U.S. dollar. I don’t think that’s a recipe for making American finance great again.