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Foster’s Win Jump-Starts House Science Experiment

It’s revenge of the nerds on Capitol Hill, where scientists enjoyed a meteoric rise after the election of Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) this month. With Foster’s victory and added brainpower, a science club could take to the halls of Congress with guns, er, quantum microscopes blazing.

“We’re going to ooze the House with science and engulf them with our knowledge,” pledged Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), noticeably excited at the membership drive as he adjusted his eyeglasses.

Although Foster won a reliably Republican district previously represented by former Speaker Dennis Hastert, Ehlers, the first physicist elected to Congress, viewed the Democrat’s election as a win for science. Along with Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a plasma physicist, Ehlers might still need a few more lab partners before overcoming the formidable team of lawyer-politicians that dominates Capitol Hill.

“With all the lawyers around here, it’s good to have another science geek on hand who can complement Mr. Holt and Mr. Ehlers,” said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Science and Technology Committee and a former lawyer. “I’m looking forward to Mr. Foster being able to provide me and the committee with sound counsel on scientific policy.”

In his swearing-in speech, Foster, straight-faced and with little emotion in his voice, gave every reason for Gordon and scientists nationwide to expect that he would carry their Bunsen-burning torch in Congress.

“Madam Speaker, fellow Members of Congress, I am a scientist, not a politician,” Foster declared. “When it comes to the issues that we face in this nation, I plan on approaching them as a scientist, and that means examining the facts, listening to both sides, and doing what is right for the people of Illinois and America.”

Peter Agre, a Nobel Prize winner and professor at Johns Hopkins University who promoted Foster’s campaign, expects scientists to be inspired by his colleague’s election. He hopes a few roll up their lab-coat sleeves and get into the political game, pushing issues and running for seats in their local communities.

“His election shows in fact that there’s an allegiance of scientists who found this important,” Agre said, already fantasizing about the issues the science club could push in Congress. “Hydrogen as an alternative fuel source. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Though the term “rock star” is typically applied to another member of the Illinois delegation, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, Foster is considered no less inspiring in the science community. The political neophyte campaigned with the support of 28 Nobel Prize winners and $65,000 in campaign contributions from Energy Department employees. If he continues to rally the politically sleepy science community behind him, Foster could become the Bono of his field, drawing crowds of chemists and surges of scientists.

“Bill is in the area of high-energy physics, which is a field that attracts young scientists,” said Michael Lubell, the American Physical Society’s public affairs director, adding those magic words that techies dream of: “He can even weigh in on the sexier topics of energy and defense.”

Lubell has high hopes for the yet-to-be-formed Capitol Hill science club, which he suggested could take up alternative energy, nuclear forensics and nonproliferation as pet causes.

“Foster raises the profile of science in the House,” Lubell said, and, calculating the math, added: “We’ve gone from two physicists to three, so that’s a 50 percent increase.”

Robert Abboud, who like Foster is a Democratic scientist running in a ruby-red Illinois Congressional district, aims to swell those numbers even more with a win in November. Abboud, an engineer with a background in nuclear reactor development, said he is taking a page out of Foster’s lab book in his uphill race against Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.).

“I find it encouraging, absolutely,” Abboud said of Foster’s cosmic campaign. “We have not elected representatives with technical skills to Congress, so [Foster] will be very valuable.”

With good candidate recruiting, even more scientists could emerge. After all, “They do have a great track record,” a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman quipped.

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