This week there was also reception on Capitol Hill for Bill Foster (D-IL), who won a special election held in March, 2008 to replace retiring Republican representative Dennis Hastert, former Speaker of the House. The reception was to honor him as the newest physicist elected to Congress. Which made me ask: just how many Congress(wo)men are scientists? Is that important?
Luckily for me, someone else had already blogged about that very question in the not too distant past – it’s reported on the Blue Mass Group. There are three PhD physicists in Congress, counting the new guy, Foster. The others are Vern Ehlers (R-MI) and Rush Holt (D-NJ), both of whom showed up at the reception. After brief introductory remarks, the talk was very pointed. “Don’t settle for crumbs,” advises Vern Ehlers, when asked how to improve the state of science funding at the federal level. You can read in his own words why Ehlers thinks Congress should have more scientists in this recent interview. Rush Holt has also gave specific examples of how his science background has helped him in Congress, some of which are reported in this recent Popular Science article about him.
But the comments by Foster himself were what everyone came to hear. He first ‘fessed up that his given name is not Bill, but George William Foster. At the time he ran for his seat in Congress, it just didn’t seem wise to run as “George W Anybody” – hence “Bill.” His other remarks were quite candid, about the importance of scientists visiting their representatives, making their concerns vocal in their local districts, as well as on the national scene. While the recent Supplemental Bill includes some additional money for NSF and NIH, science funding is still dismally low compared to needed/wanted/promised levels.
But here’s my take on the importance of scientists on the Hill – and it has to do with the decision-making process. Science proceeds by gathering evidence, testing ideas, proving (actually disproving) hypotheses and creating theories that represent the most parsimonious explanation of data at any given time. Ideas can, and often do, change over time as new evidence is discovered, or new tests developed.
How do we see decisions made in Congress? Largely by reference to precedent (usually stripped of important contextual information), through a process of argument and bartering of favor for favor. Where does this come from? Does it reflect the dominant background of most of the legislators in law or business? What do you think?
Want to see the background of the rest of your legislators? Additional information about current House and Senate members can be found in this profile of the 110th Congress.