Bill Foster

During the election campaign, Republicans ridiculed your science background. Is being a physicist a political asset or liability?

It certainly has been an asset so far. The times that this country gets itself into trouble, particularly of late, are often times when we ignore demonstrable facts. Iraq comes immediately to mind. And I think people understand that Washington would work better if we had less ideology-based discussion and more discussion where the starting points were the facts. And that’s the natural stance of the scientist.

Your campaign was more about Iraq and economics than energy and climate science. Do scientists overestimate how important their projects and issues are with the public?

No, I think the public understand the value of science. They just aren’t always willing to pay for it right away. The structural problem that science, particularly basic research, has in a democracy, is that it doesn’t provide benefits that are visible in the next election. The benefits come 10, 20, 40 years downstream. And so, at least in this country, the politicians tend to systematically neglect basic research the same way they systematically under-invest in education.

Where will your technological knowledge be useful?

Essentially every issue you can name has a technological edge to it, whether you’re talking about electronic border fences for immigration, almost anything with armed services — and so on down the list. So there’s a benefit to having a scientist many places in Congress, and not just on the pure science-policy side.

Fermilab is a major source of jobs in your district and was protected by your Republican predecessor, retired House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Now the lab is experiencing lay-offs, how can you help it?

The spot to fix the problem will be on the appropriations committee — which you also don’t get on as a freshman. I’m relying on the fact that a scientific voice in Congress, and one speaking for the interests of his constituents, is one that is listened to by the leadership.

How do you rate the chances of high-energy physics (HEP) securing supplemental funding this year?

Some mid-year funding relief, through a supplemental appropriation or an attachment to some bill, is one of the avenues we’re looking at. My suspicion is it will have happened, or not, by the end of the summer. I’ve been told by everyone that it will be extremely tough. On the other hand, I like tough challenges.

Your political future may lie in reinvigorating science at Fermilab. What could be done there if the International Linear Collider continues to have technical or political problems?

Fermilab has never had a problem coming up with good ideas for future projects. I was very encouraged to see the flowering of new ideas that is happening there. Most are smaller, intermediate-scale projects that can happen on a faster time scale. I certainly sense a shift in the general opinion of the HEP community that we would do well to no longer put all our eggs in one basket.

You are now one of three PhD physicists in the House, joining Vernon Ehlers (Republican, Michigan) and Rush Holt (Democrat, New Jersey). Are you going to start a new physicist caucus?

I’m stealing Rush’s joke — because he congratulated me by telling me how excited he was that we now had a Democratic majority in the physics caucus. However, we’ve discovered we have to be very careful of sitting together, the three of us, because people start referring to it as the nerds’ table.

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