Physicist brings love of science innovation to Congress

By Hannah Hess | 03/02/2016 07:14 AM EST

The only member of Congress with a doctorate in science will visit the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit at the National Harbor in suburban Maryland today, but he sent a “spy” in advance.

The only member of Congress with a doctorate in science will visit the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit at the National Harbor in suburban Maryland today, but he sent a "spy" in advance.

Rep. Bill Foster asked a venture capitalist friend to "scope out" the most interesting ARPA-E-funded project teams demonstrating transformational energy technology at the summit showcase. The Illinois Democrat is hoping to find "at least one or two home runs" before sitting down for a discussion on Congress — a subject that excites him slightly less than particle physics.

"There’s a long list of neurons that you have to deaden to convert a scientist’s brain into a politician’s," Foster joked yesterday during a sit-down chat with E&E Daily in his congressional office.


The Harvard University-educated congressman left a successful career at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago to come to Capitol Hill in 2008. He was ousted in 2010. Since returning in 2012, Foster has been an outspoken advocate for the crucial role the federal government plays in funding long-term research (E&E Daily, Dec. 14, 2012).

But convincing the lawyers and career politicians who are now his colleagues of the need to prioritize such spending isn’t always easy.

"The necessity of coming up with a relatively simplified political message and repeating it again and again and again is something that does not come naturally to a scientist. You tend to say, ‘OK, I will come to my scientific conclusions, write them down on paper and the world will take note of that — or not.’ And that’s not a formula for success in politics," Foster said.

Foster also has a business background.

At 19, he merged his love of computing with his brother’s interest in theater stage lighting equipment to form a small business. The brothers co-founded Electronic Theatre Controls Inc., a company that now manufactures more than half of the theater lighting equipment in the United States.

Visitors to Walt Disney World may be familiar with their work. The company helped design the theme park’s famous Main Street Electrical Parade.

When advocating for ARPA-E funding, Foster blends his career at the national labs with anecdotes from the business world.

The government has an "indispensable role" when it comes to investing in long-term, high-risk research, Foster said. It fills the gap created by venture capital projects that often have a "four- to seven-year time frame to showing a viable product."

He applauds the emphasis on science in the Obama administration’s fiscal 2017 budget.

"Technological development is just crucial for the economical development of our country," Foster said.

This year, the Department of Energy’s $32.5 billion budget requests a 21 percent rise in clean energy research and development, including a large increase for programs like ARPA-E. The innovation office is at the center of President Obama’s plan to confront global warming (Greenwire, Feb. 24).

"The probability of success of some of these is small — and yet, if it works, could be transformative, maybe not to the whole energy economy but to a specific piece of the energy economy," Foster said of ARPA-E projects.

Foster hopes to talk about some of the early successes of the program, including technology on display at the summit, during the 30-minute panel, beginning at 9:40 a.m. today. Foster will sit opposite Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who brings a similar blend of entrepreneurship and industry knowledge to Congress (E&E Daily, Feb. 9).

Foster acknowledges that his trajectory "from theatrical stage lighting equipment to high energy particle physics to the halls of Congress" is not traditional. But he’s keen on recruiting more Ph.D.-holders to Congress.

A talk he’s presented "everywhere from junior high to the Yale physics department" is full of anecdotes about what life is like for a scientist in Congress. Foster credits his father, a chemist-turned-civil rights lawyer, for inspiring his career in politics and likes to invite other scientists to reflect on what "fraction of your life you spend in service to your fellow man."

The answer, he said, is not scientific.