The Hill: We still need to march for science

BY REP. BILL FOSTER (D-ILL.), OPINION CONTRIBUTOR

Today, thousands of people will once again take to the streets to march for science. For many Americans, science makes us think of test tubes in high school chemistry classes or a cool space documentary on Netflix. But science and logic have impacted our lives in ways that we often do not notice. That’s why as the only PhD physicist in Congress, I have spent my time in Washington fighting back against the Trump administration’s attempt to dismantle the scientific progress we have made due to decades of sustained federal investment in scientific research and education.

Our country has benefitted from lawmakers and political leaders who took their duty to the American public seriously and were willing to listen to technical experts who understood the facts and the importance of scientific research. First, investment in science greatly contributes to economic growth. Since World War II, science and technology were responsible for over half of the economic growth in the United States. Second, regulations based on scientific research have made American lives healthier and protected our water and air from harmful substances. Third, experts in scientific fields allow our government to prepare for potential future crises in national security and public health.

In the past year, we have seen the Trump administration attack science at each of these levels with proposed cuts to federally funded research, the dismantling of important regulations, and unfilled top-level government positions that require an advanced scientific degree. The Trump administration has moved to censure and politicize science to turn scientific research into a field that only exists to confirm their political truths or – worse yet – completely dismantle our scientific infrastructure altogether.

Many of the positions that require an advanced degree in science are still unfilled. After over a year in office, the president has yet to nominate a top science and technology advisor. The director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy helps to coordinate our country’s research agenda. It is currently held by a political appointee with an advanced degree in political science.

These developments might sound like nothing more than Washington chatter, but there are serious implications for Americans if we fail to have leadership with the qualifications they need for their positions. Each of these positions plays a critical role in our country’s response to national disasters, disease outbreaks and national security crises.

This administration has also gone to great lengths to censor scientific research and findings. Last December, policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were forced to remove words like “evidence-based” and “science-based” from budgetary language. The Environmental Protection Agency has taken great care to remove references to climate change and underplay the human role in global warming. These actions threaten to undo any chance we have to respond to climate change and other long-term problems.

Unfortunately, this administration has forgotten or simply does not care that science has improved the standard of living for millions of Americans and allowed us to confront technical and public health crises. The Environmental Protection Agency has moved to repeal numerous regulations that keep Americans safe, including rules that prohibit emissions from power plants and a rule that extends clean water protections from waterways and streams. These changes have occurred under the leadership of Scott Pruitt, whose tenure at the EPA has been marred by constant stories of corruption and the misuse of taxpayer money.

There is, however, some good news. The Fiscal Year 2018 spending agreement that Congress passed last month is an emphatic rejection of Trump’s proposed deep cuts to science budgets and funding. The National Science Foundation will receive a nearly $300 million increase, and the Department of Energy Office of Science will also receive an increase of $868 million.

We must continue to tell this administration that leaders cannot ignore scientific facts when it is politically convenient for them. Science is the foundation of a society whose innovation has made this country great and will lead the way to a more prosperous and safer country. That’s why I will join Americans across the country on Saturday to march for science.

Congressman Bill Foster represents the 11th District in Illinois. For over twenty years, he worked as a high-energy physicist and particle accelerator designer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and was a member of the team that discovered the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/383070-we-still-need-to-march-for-science

New York Times: Scott Pruitt’s Attack on Science Would Paralyze the E.P.A.

By Gina McCarthy and Janet G. McCabe

Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has announced that he alone will decide what is and isn’t acceptable science for the agency to use when developing policies that affect your health and the environment.

It is his latest effort to cripple the agency. Mr. Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general described himself as “a leading advocate against the E.P.A.’s activist agenda,” said in an interview published in The Daily Callerlast week that he would no longer allow the agency to use studies that include nonpublic scientific data to develop rules to safeguard public health and prevent pollution.

Opponents of the agency and of mainstream climate science call these studies “secret science.” But that’s simply not true. Peer review ensures that the analytic methodologies underlying studies funded by the agency are sound.

Some of those studies, particularly those that determine the effects of exposure to chemicals and pollution on health, rely on medical records that by law are confidential because of patient privacy policies. These studies summarize the analysis of raw data and draw conclusions based on that analysis. Other government agencies also use studies like these to develop policy and regulations, and to buttress and defend rules against legal challenges. They are, in fact, essential to making sound public policy.

The agency also relies on industry data to develop rules on chemical safety that is often kept confidential for business reasons.

For instance, foundational epidemiological research into the effects of air pollution on health by scientists at Harvard and the American Cancer Society established a clear connection between exposure to fine particles and increased mortality. This research led to further studies that supported the development of air quality standards and rules requiring industry to reduce pollution, improving health and reducing costs for millions of Americans.

Yet, because the personal health data associated with individuals participating in the studies were obtained with guarantees of confidentiality, Mr. Pruitt apparently would have argued for those studies to be tossed out had he been at the helm then.

The E.P.A. administrator simply can’t make determinations on what science is appropriate in rule-making without calling into question decisions by other federal agencies based on similar kinds of studies, including on the safety and efficacy of pharmaceuticals, and research into cancer and other diseases. All rely to some extent on data from individual health records. If one agency rejects studies based on that sort of data, it could open up policies by other agencies based on similar studies to challenge.

Mr. Pruitt — who is a lawyer, not a scientist — told The Daily Caller: “We need to make sure their data and methodology are published as part of the record. Otherwise, it’s not transparent. It’s not objectively measured, and that’s important.”

We don’t have the details of the new policy. But don’t be fooled by this talk of transparency. He and some conservative members of Congress are setting up a nonexistent problem in order to prevent the E.P.A. from using the best available science. These studies adhere to all professional standards and meet every expectation of the scientific community in terms of peer review and scientific integrity. In the case of the air pollution studies, a rigorous follow-up examination was done by the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit research group that studies air pollution. The institute corroborated the findings.

In taking this action, Mr. Pruitt appears to be adopting the policies of the Honest and Open New E.P.A. Science Treatment Act, a bill aimed at the agency. Conservative lawmakers have tried to pass versions of this bill before to shackle the agency’s rule making. That law would prohibit the E.P.A. from taking any action “unless all scientific and technical information relied on to support” it is “specifically identified, and publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

An analysis of a similar bill introduced in 2015 by the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost $250 million a year over the first few years to carry out because it would require new “data collection, correspondence and coordination with study authors, construction of a database to house necessary information, and public dissemination” of the information.

The analysis, which did not appear to take into account the cost of redacting details like trade secrets or personally identifiable medical information, also predicted the agency would reduce by half the number of studies it relies on in developing policies and regulations because of the cost of complying with the law.

“The quality of the agency’s work would be compromised if that work relies on a significantly smaller collection of scientific studies,” the analysis found.

This approach would undermine the nation’s scientific credibility. And should Mr. Pruitt reconsider regulations now in place, this new policy could be a catalyst for the unraveling of existing public health protections if the studies used to justify them could no longer be used by E.P.A.

So why would he want to prohibit his own agency from using these studies? It’s not a mystery. Time and again the Trump administration has put the profits of regulated industries over the health of the American people. Fundamental research on the effects of air pollution on public health has long been a target of those who oppose the E.P.A.’s air quality regulations, like the rule that requires power plants to reduce their mercury emissions.

Mr. Pruitt’s goal is simple: No studies, no data, no rules. No climate science, for instance, means no climate policy.

If a tree falls in the forest, we know it makes a sound, even if people aren’t there to hear it. When people are exposed to mercury, lead or other air- and waterborne pollutants, we know their health is affected, whether or not E.P.A. is allowed to use the scientific studies that confirm those health impacts.

This policy no doubt will become a matter of litigation. It will be interesting to hear the agency defend Mr. Pruitt’s view that peer-reviewed studies that meet every standard for proper scientific method and integrity should not be considered in drafting policies and regulations that regulate threats to the environment.

Representative Bill Foster, a physicist and Democrat from Illinois, has argued that “scientists should set the standards for research, not politicians.”

We couldn’t agree more. Scientific research provides factual support for policies that reduce exposure to pollution and protect the American people from costly and dangerous illnesses and premature deaths. Under Mr. Pruitt’s approach to science, the E.P.A. would be turning its back on its mandate to “protect human health and the environment.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/26/opinion/pruitt-attack-science-epa.html

 

AAAS: “Where’s the science?” asks Congress’s only PhD scientist

AAAS Center for Public Engagement Visiting Scholar Karen Akerlof is studying they ways in which Congress uses science. In October 2017, she hosted a workshop on how to promote evidence-informed policy in Congress. The report from the workshop will be released next week. She also sat down with Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL) to learn more about his views on science in policymaking.

Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL) —a former high-energy physicist who designed particle accelerators for Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)—jokes that he “tragically fell prey to [his] family’s recessive gene for adult-onset political activism.” When he first arrived in Congress in 2008, representing the 14th District of Illinois, he was surprised to find how little technical and economic analysis was done for even the biggest legislative initiatives. “They were sort of operating by the seat of their pants,” he said.

Declines in congressional staffing and in-house expertise at the legislative support agencies like the Congressional Research Service are part of the problem, Foster said. “It’s a reflection of the fact that they are simply understaffed. For example, any corporation dealing with decisions of that large amount of money would have a much larger support staff analyzing that decision than occurs in Congress.”

“I think it’s really a false economy that Congress has gotten into by cutting staff, and particularly technical staff,” he added. “If you are looking for an even-handed look at an issue, it’s very valuable to have a report from the Congressional Research Service, or ideally the Office of Technology Assessment.”

Refunding the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which closed after being defunded by Congress in 1995, should appeal to politicians on both sides of the aisle, said Foster. “Democrats and Republicans both are realizing that they simply don’t have time to process everything that they believe they should,” said the Congressman. “They see that their individual staff sizes, which are certainly not what they used to be, are inadequate to deal with all the incoming information and really feel that organizations like the OTA used to be, would be a valuable asset.”

And it is not just lack of staff capacity, the deficit in STEM backgrounds runs all the way to the top. Other countries have better representation of people with scientific credentials in high levels of government than the U.S., Foster said. “If you look at other countries, in Europe and Asia, there’s a much larger fraction of people who are engineers, scientists, and so on, than there are in the United States.”

Foster urges scientists to get involved in government whether at the federal level, or local and state. “There’s a value to having technical competence on the school board or in city councils or in mayor’s office or state legislature. Getting more scientists and engineers involved in that is a helpful activity as well.”

WANT TO REACH OUT TO YOUR REPRESENTATIVE?

ONE CONGRESSMAN’S ADVICE

  1. Contact your district office at home—not the office in DC
    “It is often a better tactic to meet with representatives in [your] home district,” Rep. Bill Foster says. “There’s a danger if you just come to the Hill as part of a vague organized lobby day effort that you’ll be mistaken for just another interest group. Whereas if you can arrange and individual meeting in the home district with a constituent of theirs as one of the representatives of your organization, I believe that’s often much more effective.”
  2. Keep conversations with elected representatives short; fill in staff on the details
    “If, [you] hand the member of congress 40 pages to read, it’s unlikely to work,” says Foster. “The staff is the place where you put the 10-page white paper in their hands and have a longer discussion with them because very often they will be key to determining the member’s position on something.”

https://www.aaas.org/blog/public-engagement-reflections/where-s-science-asks-congress-s-only-phd-scientist

Foster Endorsed by Sierra Club

Naperville, IL – The Bill Foster for Congress campaign today announced the endorsement of the Sierra Club for the 2018 election cycle. Since its founding in 1892, the Sierra Club has protected America’s wild places and wildlife and fought for public health and communities free of toxic air and water pollution. The Sierra Club has more than 3 million members across the country.

“I’m proud to receive the endorsement of the Sierra Club. As the only Ph.D. scientist in Congress, I know firsthand the effects mankind is having on the environment and the changing climate,” Foster said. “While President Trump and his Republican allies have used every opportunity to attack our environment and undo important regulations, I know that we must work harder than ever to protect our world for us and future generations. With the support of the Sierra Club, I can continue that fight.”

 

Foster Endorsed by IL AFL-CIO

Naperville, IL – The Bill Foster for Congress campaign today announced the endorsement of the Illinois AFL-CIO for the 2018 Primary Election. The Illinois AFL-CIO represents 1,500 local unions and nearly 900,000 union members across the state of Illinois.

“I’m proud to receive the endorsement of the Illinois AFL-CIO. Workers and organized labor are under attack like we’ve never seen before. Now, more than ever, we must fight to protect organized labor. Strong unions make the middle class and the country stronger.”

 

Scientific American: A Fix for the Antiscience Attitude in Congress

By The Editors of Scientific American

The White House and Congress have lost their way when it comes to science. Notions unsupported by evidence are informing decisions about environmental policy and other areas of national interest, including public health, food safety, mental health and biomedical research. The president has not asked for much advice from his Office of Science and Technology Policy, evidently.

The congressional committees that craft legislation on these matters do not even have formal designated science advisers. That’s a big problem. Take the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Its leader, Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, clearly misunderstands the scientific process, which includes assessment by independent peer reviewers prior to publication. The result has been a nakedly antiscience agenda. The committee has packed its hearings with industry members as witnesses instead of independent researchers. Democratic members have felt compelled to hold alternative hearings because they feel Smith has not allowed the real experts to speak. Smith’s misinformed leadership has made it clear that congressional science committees need to be guided by genuinely objective experts.

So far this year, Smith and fellow committee member Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma have each introduced bills that would seriously weaken the Environmental Protection Agency. Lucas’s bill would help stack the EPA’s Science Advisory Board with industry representatives and supporters. Smith’s—the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act—would make it harder for the EPA to create rules based on good research. As Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a former representative and a nuclear physicist, said of an earlier version of the bill, this sort of legislation is nothing less than an attempt to “fundamentally substitut[e] a [political] process for the scientific process.”

This is lunacy. We should not allow elected officials—especially the heads of congressional science committees—to interfere with the scientific process, bully researchers or deny facts that fit poorly with their political beliefs. Instead of seeing science as a threat, officials should recognize it as an invaluable tool for improving legislation.

To educate members about the best available research, both the House and Senate science committees should create independent groups of impartial researchers and policy specialists to advise them on science and technology issues, including those related to energy, genetically modified foods, and clean air and water. (Industry representatives would still have a voice, but they would counsel the committees separately.) The advisers could provide counsel without advocating specific courses of action. The scientific community—perhaps the heads of the National Academy of Sciences—could select the advisers, who would serve limited terms. Policy makers would still make the decisions, but with help from experts, those decisions would at least be based on facts.

Congress used to have a body of this kind—the widely respected Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The OTA was an office of Congress: it served members and committees, and a bipartisan board of senators and representatives oversaw it. Until 1995, the OTA created reports on scientific issues ranging from alternative fuels to cancer and presented Congress with options it could pursue to reach different goals. Then the Republican-controlled Congress axed its funding during budget cuts. Many have advocated for the OTA’s return, including Scientific American. Last year Representative Bill Foster of Illinois introduced a resolution calling for its revival.

Whether it comes from a resurrected OTA, a new, dedicated advisory panel or some other body, independent, evidence-based advice on scientific matters would provide a strong counterbalance to the opinions of special interests. Science would get a voice, no matter who was in power. This voice could not force members of Congress to accept scientific truth over alternative “facts.” But at least it would give them the opportunity to do so.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-fix-for-the-antiscience-attitude-in-congress/

Physics World: Serving the public

Taken from the September 2017 issue of Physics World

Particle physicist Bill Foster has served in the US Congress for almost a decade. He calls on more physicists to get involved at all levels of government and politics

It is hard to read the news these days without a degree of trepidation over the future of enlightened democracy. With the rise of Donald Trump in the US, the increase of right-wing parties around the globe as well as the general decline of rational and civil discourse, we need everyone to stand up for rational and fact-based debate. In the US, budget cuts and conservative ideology threaten to undo the progress that decades of scientific research has made in the quality of life and standard of living that we currently enjoy.

Scientific and technical competence is our best defence against these threats, especially from individuals with a scientific background who are willing to serve in elected office. For this reason, I often tell researchers my own story, so that other scientists might consider spending part of their career in public service.

When I was 19, my brother and I started a company in our parents’ basement that now makes most of the stage lighting equipment in the US. I then returned to my first love and entered graduate school at Harvard to study physics. My PhD thesis involved searching for proton decay through the construction, instrumentation and data analysis of the Irvine–Michigan–Brookhaven detector that was located at Fairport mine on the shore of Lake Erie. Although our experiment did not discover proton decay, it scored a significant unanticipated success when it was one of three experiments to observe the burst of neutrinos from SN1987a.

After receiving my PhD in 1983, I spent the next 23 years at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. I spent the first decade designing, building and analysing data from giant particle detectors. I was a member of the team that discovered the top quark – the heaviest known form of matter, and quite possibly the heaviest particle that will ever be discovered. So when we had the Congressional reception celebrating the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, I had the honour of congratulating many of my former colleagues for discovering the second heaviest form of matter.

I spent my second decade at Fermilab designing and building particle accelerators such as the Fermilab Antiproton Recycler Ring, which was used to greatly increase the number of collisions and keep the physics programme at Fermilab’s Tevatron competitive until the end of its lifetime. With a large team of collaborators, I also helped design and build prototype elements of future, large hadron colliders.

Tackling technical issues

Why did I decide to enter the US Congress? My quick answer is that I tragically fell prey to my family’s recessive gene for adult-onset political activism. My parents met on Capitol Hill in the 1950s when my mother worked for US senator Paul Douglas. Like me, my father was trained as a scientist, and during the Second World War he designed fire-control computers for the navy. During his service, he started receiving reports on how many people were killed each week by the equipment his team built. He became very unhappy at the idea of his scientific skills being used that way. When he came back from the war, he became a civil-rights lawyer and wrote much of the enforcement language behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After he passed away, I began to read his papers, and they prompted me to begin contemplating a question that science cannot really answer: what fraction of your life should you spend in service of your fellow citizens? That is why I decided to run for Congress in the special election to replace Dennis Hastert, former speaker of the US House, in 2008. On the campaign trail I learned that there is a long list of neurons that you have to deaden to convert a scientist’s brain into a politician’s. When you speak with voters, you must lead with conclusions rather than complex analysis of underlying evidence – something that is very unnatural to a scientist.

As a sitting member of Congress, I have been able to lead on important technical issues. On the science, space and technology committee, I have helped bring issues to the committee’s attention that require us to act. For example, the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology discovered in 2012 raises the prospect for cures for diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia, but also has the potential to disrupt society. At my urging, the science committee held a hearing on this topic, and I have been told that it was one of the best attended in the committee’s history.

As the only PhD physicist in Congress, my background became important during the debate of the Iran nuclear deal. During this time, I had more than a dozen classified briefings, many of them individual briefings by the technical experts at the Departments of Energy, State and Treasury, and the intelligence agencies. Because of the technical complexity of the agreement, members of both parties would routinely ask my opinion on aspects of the proposed agreement. Ultimately, my support was based on verification and science, not trust of the Iranian regime.

Defending the science budgets during the annual appropriation cycle is an ongoing challenge. Many members of Congress make the mistake of seeing science as an enterprise that can be stopped and restarted at will – like road construction or equipment purchases. They do not appreciate the damage that can be done to a scientific enterprise in a single budget cycle, where projects and careers that take decades to build can be irreversibly destroyed in a single fiscal year.

In the US and across the world, we need people with strong scientific backgrounds in all levels of government and politics. We need scientists and engineers on our school boards and city councils just as much as we need them in Washington. I hope anyone who reads this will take the time to consider spending a fraction of their life in service to their fellow citizen.

Bolingbrook holds Will County Resistance Fair

About 100 local political activists, organizations and some elected officials came out to the Holiday Inn and Suites in Bolingbrook on Saturday for the Will County Resistance Fair.

The free event came about to connect several progressive organizations and causes to Will County residents as sort of a one-stop shop of political networking. The event was organized by Will County Board member Jackie Traynere, D-Bolingbrook, and Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville.

“I think there are a large number of people that are unhappy about what they’re hearing and seeing out of the [Donald] Trump administration,” Foster said. “That was true before the election and even more true now, and I think they’ve come to realize that if they want to protect the best values of our country and a functioning democracy, they have to stand up for truth, justice and the American way.”

Foster spoke to the group and encouraged attendees to get involved, especially in electoral politics, with midterm elections coming up next year and municipal elections in 2019. He praised the efforts of all involved in the event, saying they exhibited “democracy at work.”

There were a number of organizations centered on progressive causes in attendance that were recruiting new members or attracting the attention of curious attendees. They included Planned Parenthood, the Democratic Women of Will County, the Citizens Climate Lobby, the Will County Progressives and the Bolingbrook United Party.

There even was a group called Friends Who March, a grass-roots organization that came out of the Women’s March in January, the day after Trump was inaugurated. Their members came dressed entirely in pink, including angel wings.

Representatives from J.B. Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign and Marie Newman’s campaign for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District – which includes all or parts of Crest Hill, Romeoville, Lockport and Lemont – were in attendance.

Aside from the different organizations, there also were a series of talks about everything from misogyny in the 21st century to running for office, and from social and mainstream media to climate change.

Some locals, such as Pat Artman, a Romeoville resident, have been much more politically active since the 2016 presidential election, and have been looking for opportunities to get more involved. Artman, 70, said she has been quite worried about the direction of the country, and she wants more people to get involved and participate in local elections.

She said this was a good outlet to meet new people and maintain connections with like-minded concerned residents, but mostly to not just sit around and complain about what’s going on in the country.

“I wanted to see what else was out there for me to get involved with,” Artman said. “I feel like every day there’s something new to do because it’s so important.”

http://www.theherald-news.com/2017/08/26/bolingbrook-holds-will-county-resistance-fair/a7ewk2a/

Foster Statement on Illinois Budget Veto Override

Illinois has gone three years without a budget. I am grateful that more than a dozen Republicans in the General Assembly joined with Democrats to override Governor Rauner and produce a true compromise.

I am distressed, however, to see the Governor’s continued intransigence. Illinois has tremendous challenges that can only be met when we are all working together. I hope Governor Rauner puts aside his partisan agenda and works to undo the damage he’s done.

Foster Statement on Failure of Illinois Budget

Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Foster (D-IL) issued the following statement on the Illinois budget failure:

Illinois is the first state in eight decades to go without a budget, and Springfield’s continued failure to pass a budget has caused irreparable damage to our schools, roads, and medical assistance facilities in our state. This budget failure will continue to hurt school children, seniors in nursing homes, the disabled, and any taxpayer who is fed up running the state on a high interest credit card.

I am particularly disappointed that this failure seems largely driven by Governor Rauner’s complete inflexibility on any proposed budget deal. We already have a President in the White House who seems to lack an understanding of the legislative and budgetary process. Unfortunately, Governor Rauner also shows no appetite for reasonable compromise that true leaders need in order to do their job.