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

Monday, April 30, 2018

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.”

Paid for by Bill Foster for Congress