Marketplace: Scientists exit the warm embrace of research for politics

By Jed Kim

On a recent Friday, Jess Phoenix was scheduled to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at the home game of the minor league Lancaster JetHawks. In the hours before the game, however, she was canvassing streets in the Southern California district she hopes to win in the upcoming midterm election.

Her pitch to potential voters highlighted her uniqueness as a candidate.

“I’m a volcano scientist, actually,” Phoenix told one homeowner. “I study active volcanoes, run a nonprofit that does environmental science research, and I just was pretty upset about what they’re doing to science funding and education funding. So, yeah, I thought, ‘Let’s bring evidence and facts into government.’”

If she were elected, she’d be a rarity on the Hill. Among the current Congress, more than 200 people hold law degrees. The hard sciences are much less represented. One representative, Bill Foster (D-Ill.), holds a Ph.D. in physics.

Starting Tuesday, candidates for the midterm elections are being decided in primaries around the country. A lot of the people running this year are political newcomers from the science community. That’s because many fear that the current political powers-that-be are discounting science in their policy making. These people are running to re-prioritize facts in government. But running a lab, and running a campaign are two very different things.

Phoenix is running for the seat currently held by Republican Representative Steve Knight in the 25th District. She feels his voting record has been too in step with President Donald Trump’s agenda.

“We need to have people in office who not only believe that climate change is real, but also understand the steps we need to take to adapt and adjust our society for the changing climate,” Phoenix said.

A few other science-minded candidates are running for Congress in Southern California. They include a doctor, a stem cell researcher and a former technology adviser to President Barack Obama. They’re all part of a wider push by political organizations to get science-friendly candidates to run in races all around the country.

For those trained in scientific rigor, a political campaign can be very unsettled territory.

“To win my first election was harder than to get my Ph.D., so you have to really want to do this,” said New Jersey state Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker.

Zwicker, who has a background in plasma physics, recently won reelection to his seat. He said his first campaign focused on facts, to which he said voters responded.

“They were just so interested to hear about my one and only promise, my platform, which was to use evidence to make decisions,” Zwicker said.

Still, he barely won his first election, edging out his opponent by less than 100 votes. Running is a lot of work. Patrick Madden, who teaches computer science at Binghamton University, briefly threw his hat into the ring for a congressional seat in New York this year.

“You know it’s not going to be fun, but wow, it was, it was way less fun than I ever expected,” Madden said.

Madden hated asking for money, but he was able to raise $25,000 in six weeks. Even so, when a stronger Democratic candidate with a history announced he was running, Madden did the math and dropped out.

“I would like to see more scientists and engineers in Congress, but if I have to get to a million dollars to get past him, that’s not a smart way to spend my time or to set up a fight for him that doesn’t do either of us any good,” Madden said.

Like Madden, Jess Phoenix is running up against serious competition from other Democrats. The primary is about a month away, and two of her opponents have raised a lot more money than she has. As of now, she said this is the only time she’ll run.

That means throwing out the first pitch on Friday night might have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As she took the mound, the wind was blowing straight out to right. She was confident she could get it to the plate, because she’s played competitive fast-pitch softball.

Would she try throwing a curve or zipping something in with heat? She said she was going for something nice and easy, right over the plate.

Gizmodo: Congress’s Only Physicist Explains What’s at Stake for Science This Year

By Dave Levitan

In March, Congress passed a massive spending bill, averting (further) government shutdowns. Though he threw a minor tantrum about it, President Trump signed the bill into law. Among the various things that might have spawned the whining was the complete reversal of the White House budget requests when it came to science. The bill was, to most everyone’s surprise, a victory for science nearly across the board.

The National Institutes of Health, the country’s primary source of biomedical research funding, got an 8 percent bump, to $37 billion; Trump had proposed cutting it by 22 percent. The National Science Foundation received an extra four percent, and the Department of Energy’s science office jumped by 15 percent, among various other victories.

“We’ve had now two rounds of really draconian budget cuts to science proposed by the Trump administration, and we’ve battled back on both them,” said Congressman Bill Foster, Capitol Hill’s lone science PhD, when we spoke recently. But this was no victory lap from Foster. “[Funding levels] are safe for the moment,” he said. “There will be another budget cycle coming up, and Trump’s director of [Office of Management and Budget], Mick Mulvaney… is going to be coming after science with a meat cleaver, every time they give him the opportunity.”

Foster is a physicist, and spent 22 years at Fermilab before running for office. A year ago, I spoke with him in Washington, as he enjoyed a minor celebrity turn at the massive March for Science. This year, we spoke as he prepared to return home to Illinois, where he planned to march with his constituents. His focus on science-related budget items has not wavered, and in spite of the victories on NIH, NSF, and elsewhere, he noted several spots where Democrats did not get what they wanted.

“In some areas like environmental science, even preserving a constant level of funding was a victory,” Foster said. For example, NASA’s earth science program—meaning, essentially, research on climate change—will receive the same amount of money as the previous budget cycle, in spite of a $1.1 billion increase to NASA’s coffers in total. NOAA’s climate research program also was flat funded. Any reasonable human would at this point be in favor of pouring resources into climate change research, so these budgets weren’t so much victories as exasperated sighs. The Trump administration has proposed drastically reducing spending on earth science at both NASA and NOAA, so just keeping the lights on represents substantial pushback from Congress.

On climate more generally, Foster said: “If we were offered a bargain of just maintaining the status quo throughout the remainder of the Trump administration, I think we would take that bargain. We are fighting a defensive action.”

He noted that the regulatory arena is particularly dangerous; Congress seems at least mildly capable of acting as a check when it comes the budget, but conducting meaningful oversight of the Scott Pruitts and Rick Perrys of the government does not seem to be on the majority’s agenda. “What we’re seeing actually is the third branch of our government, the courts, stand up and really do their job to prevent the worst of Trump’s proposals from proceeding.” As a number of recent stories have pointed out, Pruitt’s regulatory zealotry isn’t exactly working smoothly, with all sorts of legal challenges and stays holding up many of his worst ideas.

For Congress’s part, Foster sees some bright spots in very strange places. He has lamented before how his colleagues would acknowledge the need to act on climate change in private but feared a primary challenge too much to vote for any related policy—a situation that the wave of Republican retirements may actually be changing.

This is even true for some of Congress’s most ardent attackers of science. House science committee chairman Lamar Smith, who recently announcedhis retirement, opened a hearing on fusion energy by saying: “[Fusion] would obviously reduce carbon emissions by a significant amount with major implications for climate change…. While we cannot predict when fusion will be a viable part of our energy portfolio, it is clear that this is critical basic science that could benefit future generations.”

This from the man who as recently as last year spoke at the fossil fuel-loving Heartland Institute’s conference of climate-change deniers. “The Democrats on the committee just looked at each other and said ‘Who is this guy, and what alien life form has taken over his brain to make him finally see the light on this,’” Foster said. “It’s remarkable. That is an example of when the political pressure from their base of supporters has been released.”

Aside from the budget, Foster had a few thoughts on Congressional priorities on science, especially given the White House’s inability to confront them with any semblance of nuance or expertise. (We have passed the 15-month with no science advisor to the president, nor any nominee on the horizon.) For example, he thinks it will be up to Congress to push the adoption of medically assisted treatment for those addicted to opioids. These treatments, for which there is now a substantial body of evidenceindicating their efficacy, often don’t come cheap.

“Frankly I think our government owes it to the families who are going through the opioid crisis,” Foster said. “We’re going to have to establish standards for federal funding to recovery centers, that indicate the availability of medically assisted treatment, simply because it is the best arrow in our quiver at this point.”

Foster also has started to bang a new drum, calling for an information technology committee in Congress. This is obviously related to the recent revelations regarding Facebook, but he thinks such dedicated oversight could play a big role in less well-trod areas. For example, the debate over genetics privacy—how to keep your DNA out of anyone else’s hands, essentially—is at a certain level an IT discussion. “One of the real worries is, if someone opts in to have their genetic information collected, what sort of cybersecurity issues are there on that? Because that means there is a big server out there, a big database, open to cyberattack,” Foster said. He added that he doesn’t know of any specific plans in Congress to address genetics privacy, but he has had informal discussions with both Republicans and Democrats on the idea of an IT committee that could at least begin to address such issues, and there is at least preliminary support.

But for most of Foster’s science-oriented ideas, it will take a Democratic swing in the November midterms before things can be set in motion. A Democratic majority in the House could mean increased oversight of the regulatory efforts, potential reorganizations of how Congress addresses science, and maybe even some minor, batting practice-like swings in the direction of climate change mitigation. Part of this change could be a new wave of scientists who are vying to give Foster some company in Congress.

The political action committee known as 314 Action, which helps people with science backgrounds run for office, estimates that about 60 such candidates are competing for federal positions, with another 250 aiming for lower offices. “This year I am marching for science back in Illinois, in the suburbs, where the battle for control of Congress will be fought,” Foster told me. “This is what has to happen. Candidates both with scientific backgrounds and those who are willing to listen to the scientists have to step up and make it part of their campaign.… Science should not be a partisan issue.”

Science Alert: The Only PhD Scientist in Congress Was Marching For Science This Weekend


It may come as a surprise, but there is at least one person in Congress who has a firm grasp of science: Representative Bill Foster – and you can bet that this weekend, he was marching for science.

As the only PhD scientist in Congress, Foster has been a champion for science over the past year, and in many ways he has been an unsung hero in the March for Science movement.

On the very same day that President Trump was sworn into office, all references to climate change were removed from the White House website. The March for Science movement was created shortly after, and Foster was one of its earliest and most vocal proponents.

Last year, in an op-ed published in The Hill, Foster announced that he would be attending the march – not as a Congressman, but as a concerned citizen.

“The president’s anti-science policies began on the campaign trail when he called climate change a hoax, directly contradicting decades of climate science data and research and instilling a falsehood as fact to millions of Americans,” wrote Foster.

“As president, Mr. Trump has stacked his Cabinet with individuals who have either actively worked to undermine the agencies they now lead or have demonstrated a willingness to wipe out federal funding for science entirely.”

The piece ended with a simple: “See you at the March.”

This year, at the 2018 march, Foster was back. Last week, Foster announced he would once again be marching in another op-ed for The Hill titled, “We still need to march for science.”

The article is a terrifying read, simply because it lays out the extent to which the Trump administration has devalued, silenced, censored and politicized science.

“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,” wrote Foster.

He’s not wrong. In just one year, the Trump administration has proposed massive cuts to science agencieshidden climate change information, promoted climate change conspiracies, left key science advisory positions unfilled, and moved to dismantle important environmental regulations.

And, every step of the way, Foster has been there to condemn the Trump administration’s dismissal of science and evidence-based policy making.

Earlier this year in an interview on C-Span, Foster said he was most afraid by the Trump administration’s “disinterest” in science.

In particular, he cited President Trump’s failure to nominate a chief science advisor to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In last week’s op-ed, Foster brought the issue up once again.

“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,” he wrote.

“Each of these positions plays a critical role in our country’s response to national disasters, disease outbreaks and national security crises.”

Still no matter how much Foster tries to stand up for science, the Trump administration is not interested in what one, lone physicist has to say. Although, with more scientists running for office in 2018 than ever before, Foster could soon have some company in Congress.

“We must continue to tell this administration that leaders cannot ignore scientific facts when it is politically convenient for them,” wrote Foster.

“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.”

This article was originally published by Science As Fact.

The Hill: We still need to march for science


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.

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.”


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.”



  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.”

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.

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.