In Tight Race, $cience Paying Off for Congressman-Physicist Foster

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

No congressional candidate running in next week's election has received more in campaign contributions from civil servants than Representative Bill Foster (D–IL). And most of those dollars have come from scientists.

The Center for Responsive Politics says $99,002 from public servants/officials has flowed into Foster's campaign—topping the list. Of that amount, $75,050 came from employees at the Department of Energy's Fermilab National Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, where Foster spent the bulk of his career. Current polls suggest that he needs all the help he can get to retain his seat against businessman Randy Hultgren in a historically conservative district.

Scientists have always been a key constituent and contributor for Foster, whose King County district not only includes Fermilab, the top U.S. particle physics lab, but also sits close to Argonne National Laboratory in nearby Lemont and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In the 2008 election, for his first full term, Foster got over $160,000 from scientists. He featured himself as a working "scientist and businessman" in television ads, eventually calling his win a "successful experiment."

Foster's current crop of election ads cultivate his nerdy persona—in one he appears with a periodic table of the elements on the wall behind him. But they're also more hard-hitting, quoting newspaper stories attacking his opponent, an Illinois state senator.

Foster's colleagues—167 of whom have donated to his campaign this time--speak highly of the physicist, who founded a successful lighting company. "There's no question he's doing a good job. It was a no-brainer last time, and it's a no-brainer now," says Fermilab physicist Mark Fischler, who worked with Foster during the scientist's 22-year career at the laboratory. His supporters include dozens of inventors and scientists from around the country, including Nathan Myhrvold, a current adviser to Bill Gates and former top official at Microsoft. Myhrvold's company, the enigmatic invention firm Intellectual Ventures LLC outside of Seattle, has given $56,900 to the congressman.

Searching the donor databases only yields two Fermilab scientists who have supported Hultgren. "I'm a conservative and I support his views," says Lee Lueking, a Fermilab scientist who has given the republican $200. He knows having an ally in science is valuable for the laboratory, which is facing considerable budget challenges. As for why so many colleagues are giving to Foster, Lueking says: "They may be thinking it's in the lab's best interest."

Posted in Funding Election2010