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Bioethics Forum Essay

The Only PhD Scientist in Congress Speaks About Truth, Politics, and Human Flourishing

At a time when facts are distorted, disregarded, and ignored in policy making and political discourse, the need in Washington for seekers and defenders of truth has perhaps never been greater. I discussed the state of affairs with Representative Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois who prides himself on being the only PhD scientist currently serving in the U.S. Congress.

Foster serves on two congressional committees: the Financial Services Committee and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Our conversation wound through discussions of the Trump administration’s approach to science policy and a variety of issues of interest to bioethicists, such as human gene editing, the opioid epidemic, artificial intelligence, and addressing social determinants of health. I got a healthy dose of political reality. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Truth and the Trump Administration

When asked what worries him most about the Trump administration’s attitude toward science, Foster responded that his greatest concern is the lack of respect for truth and logic in the way disputes are resolved in politics and policymaking. “People expect that politicians will not tell the truth, and they don’t notice the difference when people do tell the truth,” he said, adding that political talk and scientific facts need to be separated. Hyperbole and rhetoric get in the way of fact-based political discussions, including discussions about science policy.

When asked about ways to enhance scientific understanding and improve dialogue about science policy in this country, Foster referenced Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, which proposes that the human mind has two systems for thinking: a fast system, which is emotional and intuitive, and a slow system, which is more deliberative and logical. “So much of our politics is being handled by the fast system, especially in the electronic age,” he said. He would like people to understand that their fast system will make a quick first decision, and that they owe it to themselves, and to the country and the world, to use their slow system to make important decisions. This involves investigating any statement that they think might be true or false and using logic, statistics, and facts to support their opinions and decisions.

Foster would also like to see more scientists participate in political life. He said more than once, “I feel lonely” as the only scientist currently in Congress, but he seemed heartened that several scientists are running for office in November 2018 at local, state, and national levels.

Questions About Human Genetic Engineering

Foster shared some anecdotes from a 2015 Congressional hearing on the science and ethics of genetically engineered human DNA, hosted by the Research and Technology Subcommittee. Scientists and ethicists briefed members of Congress on the state of the science, ethical concerns, and the potential for applications in research.  “We had a very thoughtful discussion,” he said. Human gene editing seemed to be a subject on which people across the aisle could speak to each other. But that is not the norm. “If we start having discussions in other areas, for example fossil fuels, we almost immediately just pull into our partisan corners,” he said.

When I noted that biomedical research is one area where there seems to be bipartisan support, Foster voiced some skepticism. “Watch disparities between how [members of Congress] speak and how they vote, and particularly how they vote on budgets” he said. “Budgets are fundamentally moral documents because they’re about your priorities as a nation.” He said that some members of Congress claim to stand for certain things, such as biomedical research, but vote in ways that demonstrate the opposite. He expressed frustration in what he sees as some policy-makers’ hypocrisy when it comes to the opioid epidemic. All politicians claim to be working on solutions, but, he said, “it is very hard to get any significant money being spent on this.”

Privacy, Artificial Intelligence, and the Social Determinants of Health

I expressed my frustration that there are certain issues that deserve congressional action but are not getting it, especially privacy protections in the world of big data, machine, learning, and artificial intelligence, and investment in the social determinants of health. I learned two lessons about politics and policymaking.

One lesson is that no matter how important a problem is, it will not get attention if there are no clear solutions. As we discussed new possibilities for surveillance, made possible by the products we carry in our pockets and install in our homes and communities, Foster warned of threats to democracy and freedom. Citing reports that China is using cameras and sensors aided by facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor ethnic minorities, Foster said: “This is not something that’s expensive with modern technology, and it’s going to be very tempting for autocratic regimes to use. The narrative in the West that democracy will eventually triumph because autocracies will suffer rebellions because of their own mistakes–that may have to be reexamined. We may be facing the possibility of stable autocracies reinforced by very cheap and pervasive surveillance hardware.”

Foster seemed ready to have a dialogue about the impact of technologies on our lives, jobs, and nation–and what we can do to stop them from undermining democracy. Yet, I was warned, “Politicians tend to run away from any problems for which there are no obvious solutions,” like the tracking of all of our internet searches, or the replacement of human laborers with robots. Foster, to his credit, is paying attention.

Other members of Congress have also started paying attention since I talked to Foster in March. They were forced to by the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal. But we’re still seeing other countries outpacing the U.S. on data security and privacy protections, most recently the European Union’s privacy law, which went into effect on May 25.

The other lesson I learned concerns the ways in which members of Congress think about money. “Probably the most important things that we deal with in Washington are the budgets,” Foster told me,” because if you direct money towards high payoff activities, you have the ability to really alleviate a lot of human suffering.” But the difficulty is that for many activities, the highest payoff comes in the long term.

Foster acknowledged that the social determinants of health and wellness are essential to a healthy nation and that these issues, along with, e.g., the opioid epidemic, fall into the class of “large number of very high payoff activities that it is just hard to get our political system to invest in.” The reason is that the payoff takes too long to emerge, and congressional elections happen every two years.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from my conversation with Bill Foster is that creating a nation of healthy, flourishing citizens will require significant reform on many fronts: educational, social, and economic, as well as political.

Carolyn P. Neuhaus is a research scholar at The Hastings Center.

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