Profiles in Versatility
After the Particles, it’s Power to the People for Physicist-turned-Politico Bill Foster
By Alaina G. Levine
Congressman Bill Foster
“It’s very important for scientists to inject themselves into the bureaucracy,” the freshman Representative from Illinois says, “and for the scientists who choose to do that to be given full respect by the scientists in the academic world.”
Congressman Foster (D-IL) can talk. A physicist who worked at Fermilab for 22 years, he propelled himself head first into the bureaucracy earlier this year when he ran for Congress in a special election after the seat in his district (which includes Fermilab) was vacated by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
Four days after being elected and literally one day after being sworn in, he was asked to cast the deciding vote in favor of House ethics reform. “This had been stuck in Congress for most of the year and passed by a single vote after I joined,” he explains. “So afterwards I was being slapped on the back by House leadership saying, ‘Bill, this is fantastic–we could not have passed this without you.’”
So Bill, 52, got his first reward for having selected a new career in politics–the joy of knowing he made a difference. “Experiences like that make it hard for me to feel useless,” he says. He wants to know that he is a “useful cog in the machine,” and in just a few short months in office, he has gotten that chance. Recently, he cast a vote in favor of establishing Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) standards for explosive dust. “As a result of that vote, I am fairly confident that 10 years from now there are going to be many people that are alive because of that vote,” he says.
But he has also felt joy from his other career as a physicist, and before that, as a businessman and entrepreneur. At age 19, as an undergraduate major in physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he and his younger brother started a company that now produces about 70% of the theater lighting equipment in the US. After graduating, he ran the firm full-time for a while, and eventually got his PhD in physics at Harvard under the mentorship of Lawrence Sulak.
As a scientist, Bill was driven by his conviction that when he saw the first result of an experiment, he had “looked at something that was only known to the creator of the Universe and me,” he says. He had the privilege of experiencing this phenomenon twice in his life. The first was while in graduate school, when he noticed that the proton decay data he was analyzing showed that it was not happening at the rate predicted by a “cadre of Nobel Prize winners.”
The second time was when he played a significant role in the experiment that resulted in the discovery of the quark known as Top.
As a team leader and project manager at Fermilab, Representative Foster designed and built vital sections of the equipment that ultimately detected the particle. He ran groups of between five and 200 people doing various projects, from software data analysis of physics events to construction management of the accelerators. His moment of Zen occurred when he “looked at candidates of events that might indicate evidence of the Top Quark,…and I realized that the Top Quark mass was so heavy it could not be discovered at CERN, only at Fermilab,” he recalls.
Of course, the Fermilab data did establish the presence of the Top Quark, and as Congressman Foster puts it, “At that moment you get this wonderful feeling of discovery.”
As it happened, the skills he honed in physics, particularly his knack for computer programming and general problem solving, have already served him well in politics. Before he ran for Congress, he spent the 2006 election cycle volunteering full time for the campaign of Patrick J. Murphy (D-PA). “For the last two months or so (of the campaign) I camped out in a Ramada Inn across from the headquarters,” he says. “I did every possible job for the campaign.”
One of the tasks he undertook was writing a computer program that helped determine which homes the campaign staff should visit. Called “Get out the Vote”, the program streamlined the campaign because it analyzed which district residents were most likely to react favorably to a knock at their door from a Murphy supporter.
The team “knocked on 240,000 doors in the last 72 hours and we ended up (beating) the incumbent by 1500 votes. It got me a standing ovation from a couple of busloads of volunteers,” he says.
With his confidence elevated from the role he played in the win, Congressman Foster turned his attention to his own campaign, which he won in March 2008 with 53% of the votes.
He is certain that physics provides a practical platform upon which to build leaders, especially in politics. His belief is that physicists whose careers involve a diversity of projects and experiences are especially well equipped. “One of the advantages that physicists…have is that they are forced to deal with a wide range of things from the purely theoretical to the hands-on technology to working with groups of people,” he says. To have all of those “bits and pieces of experience” when you go in, provides an advantage.
Representative Foster has a few warnings and pieces of advice for physicists who want to throw their hat in the ring, either as an elected official, or as a staff member of Congress or a federal agency. First, you have to have an understanding that “the political system you’re going into is something that very smart people have worked on for a very long time, most of them with their hearts in the right place trying to make things better,” he says. “The places where you bring a unique perspective are places where facts and numbers can be usefully injected into the debate, which is an increasing fraction of our public debate.”
A physicist may tend to spend too much time contemplating “technically interesting things”, warns Foster. “The nature of the job here is…you’re juggling a very large number of balls and you have to choose a very limited number of issues on which you’re going to become an expert.”
But he stresses the strategic role scientists do play in managing, improving and advancing our nation. “The best starting point for any debate on public policy is the facts and the numbers,” he argues. “There’s plenty of time afterward to inject opinion, biases, and visions for the future, but the times we’ve gotten ourselves into trouble as a country were when we didn’t pay attention to what the real facts were.” And of course, it is a platform of numerical truths that serve as the “the starting point for debates for whether or not our system can improve,” he says.
Congressman Foster wants to inspire other scientists to serve their country as he has. He offers that a first step for both emerging and established physicists is to seek a fellowship (such as the Congressional Fellowship Program in which APS participates) that affords scientists the opportunity to spend a year or two in DC working for the feds.
“I want to encourage [scientists] to get involved,” he says. “It is a tremendous amount of work, but most scientists I know already work very long hours. So far, it has been as rewarding as anything I’ve done in science, and I encourage them to take a shot at it. If they are serious about it, I’d be happy to give them advice and practical assistance in getting involved in politics.”
And to ensure more physicists are empowered to work for the people, Congressman Foster says that he is “seriously talking to the physics community and the scientific community at large to encourage you to send your best and brightest students into the federal bureaucracy,” and, he requests, “salute them when they do choose that career path.”
© 2008, Alaina G. Levine. Alaina G. Levine can be reached through her web site.