by Karen Akerlof
AAAS Center for Public Engagement Visiting Scholar Karen Akerlof is studying they ways in which Congress uses science. In October 2017, she hosted a workshop on how to promote evidence-informed policy in Congress. Read the report from the workshop. She also sat down with Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL) to learn more about his views on science in policymaking.
Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL) —a former high-energy physicist who designed particle accelerators for Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)—jokes that he “tragically fell prey to [his] family’s recessive gene for adult-onset political activism.” When he first arrived in Congress in 2008, representing the 14th District of Illinois, he was surprised to find how little technical and economic analysis was done for even the biggest legislative initiatives. “They were sort of operating by the seat of their pants,” he said.
Declines in congressional staffing and in-house expertise at the legislative support agencies like the Congressional Research Service are part of the problem, Foster said. “It's a reflection of the fact that they are simply understaffed. For example, any corporation dealing with decisions of that large amount of money would have a much larger support staff analyzing that decision than occurs in Congress.”
“I think it’s really a false economy that Congress has gotten into by cutting staff, and particularly technical staff,” he added. “If you are looking for an even-handed look at an issue, it’s very valuable to have a report from the Congressional Research Service, or ideally the Office of Technology Assessment.”
Refunding the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which closed after being defunded by Congress in 1995, should appeal to politicians on both sides of the aisle, said Foster. “Democrats and Republicans both are realizing that they simply don't have time to process everything that they believe they should,” said the Congressman. “They see that their individual staff sizes, which are certainly not what they used to be, are inadequate to deal with all the incoming information and really feel that organizations like the OTA used to be, would be a valuable asset.”
And it is not just lack of staff capacity, the deficit in STEM backgrounds runs all the way to the top. Other countries have better representation of people with scientific credentials in high levels of government than the U.S., Foster said. “If you look at other countries, in Europe and Asia, there’s a much larger fraction of people who are engineers, scientists, and so on, than there are in the United States.”
Foster urges scientists to get involved in government whether at the federal level, or local and state. “There’s a value to having technical competence on the school board or in city councils or in mayor’s office or state legislature. Getting more scientists and engineers involved in that is a helpful activity as well.”
Want to Reach Out to Your Representative?
One Congressman’s Advice
- Contact your district office at home—not the office in DC
“It is often a better tactic to meet with representatives in [your] home district,” Rep. Bill Foster says. “There's a danger if you just come to the Hill as part of a vague organized lobby day effort that you'll be mistaken for just another interest group. Whereas if you can arrange and individual meeting in the home district with a constituent of theirs as one of the representatives of your organization, I believe that's often much more effective.”
- Keep conversations with elected representatives short; fill in staff on the details
“If, [you] hand the member of congress 40 pages to read, it’s unlikely to work,” says Foster. “The staff is the place where you put the 10-page white paper in their hands and have a longer discussion with them because very often they will be key to determining the member’s position on something.”