News Focus2012 Election

For Once, Science Is an Issue in Race for a Seat in Congress

Science  26 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6106, pp. 463-464
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6106.463

A physicist takes on a longtime friend of science in a tight Illinois race in which research matters.

Gloves off.

Biggert and Foster have sparred over science this fall in a campaign marked by attack ads.

CREDIT: JOHN J. KIM/MCT/LANDOV

Candidates for Congress rarely fight over how fervently they support science. But it's happening in Illinois's newly redrawn 11th district, a contorted swath of Chicago's southwestern suburbs. The election for a seat in the House of Representatives pits Democrat Bill Foster, a physicist who served in Congress from 2008 through the start of 2011, against Republican Judy Biggert, the seven-term incumbent who has served on the House science committee for her entire career.

Science features in the race because the district includes part of Argonne National Laboratory, a multipurpose lab owned by the Department of Energy (DOE). It also runs just south of DOE's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), the sole U.S. laboratory specializing in particle physics. Polls show Biggert, 75, and Foster, 57, in a dead heat, and the votes of scientists probably won't decide the contest. But the at-times-nasty campaign raises the question of whether it's better for researchers to have a longtime ally or one of their own on Capitol Hill.

The candidates are trading potshots over science. In a recent debate, Biggert, whose old district encompassed Argonne, all but accused Foster of abandoning his colleagues: “My opponent couldn't get on the science committee even though he's a scientist.” After the debate, Foster told Science that if elected, he'd prefer a seat on the appropriations committee, where he could directly influence science funding.

But during the debate, Foster counterattacked on science. “You voted for the Ryan budget,” he began, referring to the cost-cutting federal budget proposed by Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who chairs the House of Representatives Budget Committee. “You claim to be a supporter of science, and yet the Ryan budget has been analyzed and it provides for a 30% cut to federal research budgets.” (An analysis by AAAS, the publisher of Science, estimates that nondefense research spending could drop by 27% under the Ryan budget.)

Scientists clearly prefer Foster. Records from the Federal Election Commission show that hundreds of researchers from all over the country have donated nearly $400,000 to his campaign. Only two donors who identify themselves as scientists show up on Biggert's tally. “If you think about the problems facing the country, most of the solutions involve science at some level,” says Michael Turner, a Foster donor and a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, which manages Argonne for the DOE.

But Washington insiders say scientists often overestimate the influence that one of their own might exert in Congress, which is home to only a handful of scientists and engineers. “Personally, I would not vote for or against somebody because they were a scientist,” says David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He served as chief of staff for the science committee under Republican leadership from 2001 through 2006.

Goldston and others say a nonscientist friend on the Hill may be more productive. And that's what Biggert has strived to be. A lawyer, she won election to the House in 1998 and says she immediately sought a spot on the science committee so she could advocate for Argonne. That decision paid off right away, she says. “President [Bill] Clinton cut $20 million from the electrometallurgical project at Argonne,” she says, referring to work on a technology for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, “but I got the money back.”

By all accounts, Biggert played a leading role in drumming up Republican support for the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which authorized increases aimed at doubling the budgets for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and DOE's Office of Science over 10 years.

On the job.

As a member of Congress, Bill Foster (right) went to Fermilab in 2009 to trumpet $60 million in new funding; Judy Biggert (left) helped break ground last year for a new facility at Argonne.

CREDITS (LEFT TO RIGHT): ARGONNE/FLICKR; FERMILAB

Biggert says she strongly favors basic research over applied efforts. For example, COMPETES also established the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), a program to quickly develop promising ideas from energy-related research. But Biggert worried that ARPA-E, which stresses more applied science, would take money away from DOE's fundamental research programs. So she lobbied successfully for language in COMPETES that said ARPA-E would receive money only after DOE's basic research efforts were fully funded. ARPA-E launched in 2009 with a one-time allocation of $400 million from the massive stimulus package. Its budget this year is $275 million, compared with $4.9 billion for the Office of Science.

Foster argues that his scientific expertise will make him a more effective advocate for the labs. He worked at Fermilab for 22 years before leaving in 2006. As a teenager, Foster and his younger brother started a theater lighting company that has made them wealthy. So Foster describes himself as “a scientist and a businessman.”

In March 2008, Foster won a special midterm election to represent a district that was home to Fermilab and gained a full term 8 months later. But in November 2010 he lost his seat to Republican Randy Hultgren.

Foster takes an explicitly quantitative approach to politics. “A scientist or an engineer has a natural instinct to attach a number to a problem,” he says. “Very often, even having an approximate number gets you to the correct policy choice.” Foster says his scientific bent served him well on the financial services committee when it took up reform of banking regulations. A numerical approach, he says, helped clarify which factors were of greatest importance in regulating complex financial instruments.

But some Washington insiders have doubts about such a science-as-policy approach. The few scientists who are in Congress don't always see eye to eye, Goldston says. On many issues there just isn't a “scientific position,” he says.

Some observers say that Biggert's support for science has flagged since the conservative Tea Party gained influence within the Republican Party. The shift was evident when it came time to reauthorize COMPETES in 2010, says one congressional staffer. “She was a big champion of COMPETES in 2007,” the staffer says. “2010 was a different story. … She was more cautious.”

Biggert says she was unhappy that the reauthorization did not contain the clause ensuring full funding of basic research before funding of ARPA-E, but she eventually cast an “aye” vote. And the Ryan budget doesn't reflect her stance on science, she says: “I will fight as hard as I can so that there aren't cuts in basic research.”

Fermilab's uncertain future has also become a campaign issue. Foster has blamed Biggert for the lab's inability over the past decade to snare a major new federally funded project, such as the proposed $800 million Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment.

But the real hurdle has been DOE's Office of Science, which has held funding for particle physics flat while boosting spending on clean energy research, the Obama administration's priority. So if Foster wins and Obama remains in office, Foster would face an uphill battle to win new money for Fermilab. Still, Foster says that being a scientist makes him more credible in advocating for the value of such research: “There isn't a substitute for having people with real technical competence making those arguments all the way up the command chain.”

The race to represent Illinois's 11th district will be decided on issues such as taxes and health care reform, not federal funding for research. But for the moment, the topic has become part of the public debate. And the discourse seems as rough as that on any other issue.

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