Pacific Standard: What It’s Like to Be a Scientist in Congress: Bill Foster

Doctorates in research-based fields offer an inside view of the outlook for science under President Donald Trump.

It’s a fraught time for science and the American government. In his first few weeks in office, President Donald Trump appointed climate change deniers to his cabinet, promised to cut $54 billion from the part of the budget that funds research, and, for a little while, barred the Environmental Protection Agency from communicating with the public. In response, some scientists organized to copy government climate data, track federal websites, and plan an Earth Day march in Washington, D.C.

How has all this activity affected lawmakers who also happen to be scientists? To find out, Pacific Standard sought the few members of Congress who have doctorates in research-heavy fields. They offered us an inside view of the outlook for science funding and evidence-based policy in America over the next four years. (You can read our first conversation, with California representative and mathematician Jerry McNerney.)

Below, we talked with Representative Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois and former physicist with Fermilab. Foster serves on the Science, Space, and Technology and Financial Services committees.

What’s the feeling like in Congress for science concerns right now?

Science is finding itself under attack both at the level of funding and of basic support for scientific facts. On the funding level, the proposal from the Trump administration to increase the military budget by $54 billion at the expense of the rest of the budget is almost certainly going to land heavily on areas including science. In fact, the guy who will be writing the Trump administration budget, Mick Mulvaney, recently became sort of famous, in the scientific community, for publicly suggesting that there may not be a need for any federally funded scientific research at all.

I hope that cooler heads will prevail when it comes time to actually make a budget proposal and that cooler heads in Congress will understand the long-term value of scientific research.

The best argument that works well on both sides of the aisle is simply the economic one. Since World War II, over half of our economic growth has come from technological innovation, with a large fraction of that coming from federally funded research. People forget that the integrated circuit industry and a lot of biotechnology had its birth with federal contracts.

When you look forward, the biggest single cause of stress in our nation’s budget is the tremendous cost of diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s. If we could use scientific research to come up with a low-cost cure for either one of these, there would not be a long-term budgetary crisis for Social Security or Medicare. When we shortchange fundamental research, it’s something where you could be a hero this year by balancing the budget, by cutting things, and then when it does economic damage, decades from now, you just blame the other party.

Has the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology changed since Trump became president?

It’s certainly emboldened those who just fundamentally question the unbiased search for scientific truths and facts generally.

I was talking with Jerry McNerney and he thought that the Science Committee used to be more bipartisan.

I think that there’s probably some truth in that. It’s sort of issue by issue. There are some issues where we continue to work in a bipartisan manner. For example, there’s good bipartisan support for NASA.

It’s only when the near-term economic considerations come in, like when we argue about next year’s budget, that we really retreat into our separate, partisan corners.

How do hearings like this translate into policy that the average American would notice?

When you hold hearings like this, they do diffuse into the consciousness of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. For example, there was a very influential report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” that came out several years ago. It was a discussion of how the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in science education and it resulted in something called the America COMPETES Act, which got strong bipartisan support and has done a lot toward improving the focus of the U.S. on both education and research.

Did you come into the Congress with the explicit plan that you were going to stand up for science?

No, I came to Congress with the understanding that issues would probably develop in an uncontrolled way. For example, when I entered Congress in March of 2008, I was put on the Financial Services Committee and I was there during the financial collapse.

Are people in Congress aware of the upcoming March for Science? What do you think of it?

Among Democrats, certainly, yes. It may be that Republicans pay less attention.

Do you have any advice for scientists interesting in getting involved in politics?

Get involved in politics with whatever party you’re most aligned with and at any level. Having scientific and engineering competence in the local school boards is every bit as important as having scientific and technical competence in Congress.

https://psmag.com/what-its-like-to-be-a-scientist-in-congress-bill-foster-b1bf03f37e9a#.5ouh3ykg9

Los Angeles Times: Concerned about Trump, scientists are leaning into politics

Like many scientists, Aaron Parsons doesn’t have a history of political engagement.

Instead of focusing on earthly concerns, the UC Berkeley radio astronomer spent most of his time scanning the outer reaches of the cosmos, searching for the earliest stars in the universe.

“We’re looking for when the lights turned on,” he said.

But after Donald Trump became the leading Republican candidate for president, Parsons turned his attention closer to home.

As someone who has lectured about the atmospheres of distant planets, he was dismayed by Trump’s dismissive attitude toward climate change and his claim that the science on global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

He became distraught when he heard that the new Trump administration was considering pulling out of the Paris climate agreement to curb greenhouse emissions.

And he watched with increasing despair when Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, said at his Senate committee hearing that there is no clear scientific consensus that global warming is caused by human activity.

“I had to do something,” Parsons said. “I felt like I couldn’t ignore what was going on anymore.”

So he sent an open letter to Trump explaining the widespread consensus among experts that human-caused climate change is real and that its consequences are already being felt.

“The science of how greenhouse gases trap heat is unimpeachable,” he wrote.

He passed it around Berkeley’s astronomy department to see whether his colleagues would sign on. Within a few weeks, 2,300 researchers and academics from across the University of California and Cal State University systems had added their names to the letter.

“When facts become politicized, then scientists have to speak up,” Parsons said. “We are fighting for what is knowledge, and how we know it.”

In ivory towers across the country, scientists are leaning in.

Spurred by a flurry of executive orders and presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway’s references to “alternative facts,” certain researchers are venturing beyond the safety of the lab and into the murky political fray.

Four hundred scientists took to the San Francisco streets at an American Geophysical Union conference in December to denounce Trump’s position on climate change. A larger “March for Science” in Washington is being organized for Earth Day in April.

Researchers have spoken out against new restrictions on how government scientists at the EPA and other federal agencies communicate with the public. Others have been collecting and storing the government’s copious climate data for fear that it may soon become unavailable to the public or deleted entirely. Many have lamented that nearly a month into his presidency, Trump has still not selected a science advisor.

Perhaps the biggest outcry came after the White House announced that travelers from seven primarily Muslim countries would be blocked from entering the United States. Hundreds of research institutions, hospitals and scientific organizations expressed grave concerns for how it would affect the future of research in the United States.

“It doesn’t matter if you were born in Pakistan or Somalia or whatever— scientists like to work with scientists,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Rafael Reif. ”If you are after facts and truth and what’s real, then it doesn’t matter who can help you.”

James Appleby, head of the Gerontological Society of America, echoed that sentiment.

“There is a saying that all politics is local, but I think it’s fair to say all science is international,” he said. “There is this image of the lone scientist toiling away in the laboratory to come up with the next big advance, but in reality, many of the biggest leaps come from our ability to sit down with other scholars from around the world.”

The burst of activity has been particularly gratifying to Rush Holt. As a physicist, he helped lead the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory for more than a decade. Then he was elected to Congress, representing the New Jersey district that includes Princeton University for 16 years. Now he leads the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, the largest organization of scientists and engineers in the world.

Holt said that when his group penned a letter to President Trump decrying the travel ban, 171 other institutions quickly signed on.

“In my relatively long career I have not seen this level of concern about science,” he said. “This immigration ban has serious humanitarian issues, but I bet it never occurred to them that it also has scientific implications.”

Among them: Researchers from overseas are threatening to boycott meetings held in the United States. Already, Sudanese-born Mohamed H.A. Hassan, co-leader of a group of scientific academies from around the world, has said he won’t travel from Europe to attend the AAAS annual meeting in Boston next week.

Bill Foster, a physicist-turned-congressman from Illinois, said the political awakening among researchers is not solely a consequence of the rapid series of executive orders coming from the Oval Office.

“In science, if you stand up and say something you know is not correct, that’s career-ending,” said Foster, a Democrat. “It used to be that way in politics, but not anymore. To see how far we have fallen, that is particularly disturbing to scientists.”

Holt agreed.

“Some of us have been saying for years now that ideological assertions have been crowding out scientific evidence in public debate,” he said. “But the willful disregard for facts is worse now than it’s ever been.”

To counteract this trend, some researchers are considering their own experiments with politics.

The recently formed 314 Action PAC had 2,500 people with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math sign up for training on how to run for office. Thousands more have volunteered to help with their campaigns.

“What has motivated them? Donald Trump,” said founder Shaughnessy Naughton, a trained chemist from Pennsylvania who lost two campaigns for Congress. “But the bigger picture is the feeling that science is under attack.”

Jamie Tijerina of Highland Park is one of the scientists who signed up for 314 Action’s workshop. She works in Caltech’s cytometry lab and is a member of her local neighborhood council.

“It’s important for people with a scientific background to have a seat at the table,” she said. “The taxpayers deserve to have someone knowledgeable about the scientific literature to offer their expertise.”

UC Berkeley evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen has announced on Twitter his plan to run for U.S. Senate in 2018.

He hasn’t filed formal papers yet, and he has no fundraising apparatus in place, but he says his campaign is not a stunt.

“I’d been thinking about issues of science and politics for a long time, and a lot of people felt like things were coming to a head with the new administration,” he said. “The moment seemed to call for more engagement, so one morning I just said … this is what I have to do.”

Eisen said the whole thing is kind of like one of his science experiments.

“It’s clear that there is a lack of empirical decision-making in our politics,” he said. “Our hypothesis is that having more scientists involved in politics would reverse that trend. It’s an untested hypothesis, but one we should test.”

As a realist, he doesn’t expect to win. But he said he hopes his campaign will help spark a conversation about the relationship between science and politics, and possibly inspire other scientists to run for office as well.

Foster, the sole physicist in Congress, said he hopes more scientists will join him there.

“Scientists want to know the evidence behind a statement; they want reproducible tests and verifiable facts,” he said. “There is a big difference in the thought process of a trial lawyer who is interested not in what’s true, but what he can convince a jury is true.”

Parsons, the astronomer who penned the letter about climate change, said scientists have a moral obligation to speak out.

“I wish we lived in a world where science could live outside of the political sphere,” he said. “But we didn’t bring this battle to them; they brought it to us. And we have to fight back.”

http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-scientists-politics-trump-20170209-story.html

The Atlantic: Professor Smith Goes to Washington

In response to the new president’s stances on a range of issues, more scientists are preparing to run for political office.

For American science, the next four years look to be challenging. The newly inaugurated President Trump, and many of his Cabinet picks, have repeatedly cast doubt upon the reality of human-made climate change, questioned the repeatedly proven safety of vaccines. Since the inauguration, the administration has already frozen grants and contracts by the Environmental Protection Agency and gagged researchers at the US Department of Agriculture. Many scientists are asking themselves: What can I do?

And the answer from a newly formed group called 314 Action is: Get elected.

The organization, named after the first three digits of pi, is a political action committee that was created to support scientists in running for office. It’s the science version of Emily’s List, which focuses on pro-choice female candidates, or VoteVets, which backs war veterans. “A lot of scientists traditionally feel that science is above politics but we’re seeing that politics is not above getting involved in science,” says founder Shaughnessy Naughton. “We’re losing, and the only way to stop that is to get more people with scientific backgrounds at the table.”

Naughton, a chemist by training and a former breast cancer researcher, ran for Congress herself in 2014 and 2016, but lost both times in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primaries. She puts those losses down to her inexperience with politics and her outsider status, which locked her out of traditional donor circles. In creating 314 Action, she hopes to provide other scientists with the money and mentorship that would have helped her. “Partly, we’re making the case for why they should run—and Donald Trump is really helping us with that,” she says. “Then, we’re showing them how to run, and introducing them to our donor network.”

Early signs are promising. In just two weeks, more than 400 people have signed up to the recruitment form on the organization’s site. They include Jacquelyn Gill from the University of Maine, who studies how prehistoric climate change shaped life on the planet. “If you’d told me a year ago that I would consider running for office, I would have laughed,” she says. “I always fantasized about serving an administration in an advisory capacity, but we now have explicitly anti-science people in office and in the Cabinet. Waiting passively for people to tap me for my expertise won’t be enough.”

Since the election, many scientists have made forays into politics, from signing open letters to marching in open protest. “I think most scientists view their work as pure and noble, and politics as a dirty game. It’s almost like selling out or going to the dark side,” says Frances Colón, who until recently was Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State. But, since Trump’s victory, “many more scientists are realizing why their voices are needed. I’ve had numerous coffees with people who are considering ways to run.”

Even if only a few are successful, they would significantly bolster the limited numbers of Congressional representatives with scientific backgrounds. A few have undergraduate degrees in science, including Seth Moulton (D-MA; physics), Jacky Rosen (D-NV; computer science), and Louise Slaughter (D-NY; microbiology). Others have doctoral degrees: mathematician Jerry McNerney (D-CA), psychologist Timothy Murphy (R-PA), and physicist Bill Foster (D-Il), who once said that he “inherited the family’s recessive gene for adult-onset political activism.”

“I think government works better when we have people with lots of professional backgrounds,” says Kate Knuth, who trained in environmental science and served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives between 2006 and 2012. “Scientists bring a unique perspective in how they look at data and think about problems. They’re trained to value evidence, and to change their minds in the face of evidence. Right now, in a lot of our governance, we have people who just say this is the way it is, in the face of huge evidence to the contrary. That makes it hard to make good policy.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that scientists are so poorly represented in government. Younger researchers—perhaps the demographic most eager to leave the ivory tower for the halls of congress—also face the steepest costs for abandoning academia. Scientific careers are built on continuity and perseverance: Years as a graduate student give way to years in postdoctoral positions, which bleed into professorships. If you step away, it can be hard to step back.

“My role models did good science, rose up the ranks, and then went to serve our country,” says Gill, referring to people like Jane Lubchenco, who was Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under Barack Obama. “In an ideal world, I’d do this from the comfort of being a full professor. And yet, it’s not something I feel can wait. What I really want to know is: Can I do this without abandoning my career in science?”

Even if scientists do decide to run, they face an intense culture-shock. “In science, your colleagues want to know you have expertise and approach problems through legitimate methods,” says Knuth. “In politics, people first want to know that you care about them and their problems before they care about whether or not you have realistic answers. Those are very different values.”

“They seem to be some of the least likely people to be thinking about running for office,” adds Joe Trippi, a political strategist and campaign manager. “They haven’t been spending the last 16 years planning their run for Congress. You have to help them understand how you run a campaign, get seed money, find a campaign manager, put a team together.”

That’s where 314 Action comes in. With over 80,000 donors and mentors including Trippi and climate scientist Michael Mann, Naughton hopes that it will help scientists to make good on any newfound political ambitions. To start, they are scheduling a webinar for March 14th—Pi Day, naturally—to go over the basics of successful campaigning. Following that, they’ll focus on boosting particular strong candidates.

“In my interactions with them, I’ve had my eyes opened,” says Gill. “There’s all this insider knowledge. And to be told that if you decide to run, you’d have support and financial backing, is tremendously empowering.”

For now, 314 Action will only back Democratic candidates. I wonder if that risks turning science into yet another partisan issue, but Naughton argues that it is already on that road. “When we’re talking about climate change, there’s a clear distinction between the two parties,” she says. Knuth agrees. “It’s hard to say if it would politicize science even more than it already has been,” she says. And at the very least, if 314 Action succeeds, it would expose congressional representatives from both parties to a scientific mindset.

Knuth also argues that this shouldn’t just be about shoving science into government, as if the former will save the latter. It works in reverse too. “When I ran, I spent two to four hours a day, five to six days a week, knocking on doors and listening to people,” she says. “I never felt like I knew more about how people were thinking about the problems in their community, what they wanted from government, and their hopes and dreams for the future. Is that scientific information? No. Is it vetted through peer review? No. But it was invaluable. Scientists need to learn and appreciate the value of other ways of knowing about how the world works.”

“If you believe that the scientific method alone is going to solve the world’s problems, I don’t think you’re going to be a good politician,” she adds. “A politician’s job is to understand how the world works and then make hard decisions about how we should move forward together. Evidence can make those decisions better and it helps us to understand the consequences of different decisions. But it doesn’t tell us what the right decision is.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/thanks-to-trump-scientists-are-planning-to-run-for-office/514229/