Hon. Bill Foster of the 11th District of Illinois is the only member of Congress to hold a Ph.D. in science. On November 5th, Congressman Foster visited Duke’s Initiative for Science and Society to discuss his unconventional path to politics and his consequent unique perspective. He lightheartedly delivered what he called a “recruiting speech” to a room full of scientists, hoping to persuade students with scientific background to become involved in public policy.
Bill Foster started his first business with his brother at the age of 19 out of his family basement. His earnest, innovative efforts to use computers to control lighting manifested in the company Electronic Theatre Controls, which powered Disneyland and Disneyworld’s Parade of Lights in the 1980s, the 2012 London Olympic Stadium, Chicago’s Millenium Park, and a large portion of shows on Broadway.
Foster then transitioned into his career in physics. He undertook the IMB Proton Decay Experiment for his Ph.D. thesis under Larry Sulak; Foster did not observe proton decay, but he did observe neutrinos from a supernova. Foster continued his physics career at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in suburban Chicago, where he smashed protons and anti-protons together at high speeds and later worked on the particle accelerators themselves.
In the midst of discovering Big Bang particles, Foster also fell into politics by maintaining an active civil engagement. He volunteered for Patrick Murphy’s campaign in 2006, where he says he “learned business on the factory floor,” a philosophy he has maintained since his days at Electronic Theatre Controls. He began the 110th Congress as an intern for Rep. Patrick Murphy, and ended it sitting as a Congressman.
Since winning his seat in 2012, Foster has introduced a scientific perspective to Congress, even if he’s careful not to conflate that with his political stance. He makes a point to clarify technical details of issues like the Iran nuclear deals, human genetic engineering, and public key cryptography on cell phones, to ensure that Congress makes the most informed decisions possible on highly complicated ethical issues. On genetic engineering, he noted, “Our ethical paradigm is not set up for it,” as the notion of “All men are created equal” fundamentally cannot handle humans whose genetic traits are pre-picked. Clearly, scientific expertise will be invaluable in such consequential issues.
Life in Washington, Foster stated, is unromantic. Foster lives in efficiency apartments and grounds himself by holding “Congress on your Corner” events, where he answers any constituent questions, like why grout isn’t working on a driveway.
Political customs, such as the dilemma of which tie to wear to promote his campaign, still bewilder his scientific mind. Most of the votes he makes, like renaming a post office, or voting on an issue the President will inevitably veto, don’t really matter, he said.
But what makes politics worth it for him, Foster explained as he passed around his voting card, is the power to make a positive difference in issues that impact millions of people. Such ambitions transcend the boundaries between science and policy.