About an hour before pouring rain started to pummel the thousands of attendees at Saturday’s March for Science in D.C., Congressman Bill Foster of Illinois was hanging outside of the media registration tent, taking photos with science enthusiasts (and security guards). While there are a few mathematicians and doctors in Congress, Foster is the only formerly practicing scientist with a PhD in physics, which gives him a pretty unique perspective on the increasingly increasingly relevant intersection between science and politics. Foster and I chatted briefly about the state of science literacy in Congress, and whether any Republicans are nerdier than we think.
So do you hang out with the math people and the doctors in Congress?
Oh yeah, we sit there and make math jokes from time to time. But it’s a serious business. The attacks on science and the scientific method and just generally the disrespect for scientific truth is something that has all scientists on edge. That’s why we’re here—this is a day for wet scientists and bad humor.
And bad puns, right?
That’s right. But also a very serious opportunity for scientists to stand up and look the dragons in the eye.
You spent time in a lab before coming to Congress, right?
Oh, I spent almost 25 years as a high-energy particle physicist. I was on the experiment that discovered the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter, and I actually designed and led the construction of one of the last of the giant particle accelerators in the United States.
So what’s the difference between the mood in the lab and the mood in Congress?
Well there’s a big difference between scientific facts and political facts. Because a political fact is whatever you can convince people of. And in science, you’re debating what the logically possible answers are to a question, and what experiments you can perform to figure out which one of those logical possibilities is actually represented in the universe.
In politics, I think partly because due to the fact that we’re dominated by lawyers, the question is always what can you convince people of, rather than what is true.
The people that you work with in Congress, do you think any of them care about what’s happening today?
I think they do. And I think we’re likely to see a lot more public support for the budget at the National Institutes of Health. Because everyone knows someone who’s suffering from cancer, and is aware of the incredible breakthroughs that are happening as we speak and the fact that they’re due to decades of federally funded basic research. Because it turns out, Republicans get cancer as well as Democrats.
Putting climate change aside, do you think your colleagues in Congress are generally scientifically literate?
There’s a wide spectrum. There’s a lot of enthusaism for the economic benefits of science. And unfortunately that sometimes doesn’t get reflected in the budgets.
Is there anyone in Congress who is maybe more scientifically nerdy than we know?
Oh, [Colorado Democrat] Ed Perlmutter. He is always sending me emails with things he’s found in the science blogs.
Yes, I have a very good email conversastion going with [Texas Republican] Lamar Smith, the chair of the science committee on which I serve. [Note: Smith is one of the most notorious climate deniers in Congress.] We talk about human genetic engineering and what that means for humans.
My conversations with Lamar resulted in the first-ever science committee hearing on human genetic engineering, which I have been told was one of the best-ever-attended hearings on the science committee.
So you guys don’t fight all the time about climate change then?
No. And when we had that hearing, Democrats and Republicans asked very thoughtful and probing questions, and generally behaved themselves, which does not always happen when fossil fuels and climate change gets brought up.
So you think aside from the climate debate, the state of science literacy in Congress is maybe not so dire?
That’s right, but the way to understand what a politician really believes is to look at the budgets they vote for.