Foster says the switch from physics to politics came naturally, thanks to a "strong recessive gene for political activism." His mother and father met in the early 1950s in Washington, D.C., where they both worked for Democratic senators. His father, who had studied chemistry but switched to law after World War II, helped draft guidelines for school desegregation in the 1960s that were adopted by the federal government in its enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"I grew up in a family that was always talking about politics," Foster says. (His sister's middle name is "Adlai," after the diplomat and liberal icon Adlai Stevenson, a onetime governor of Illinois and two-time Democratic presidential candidate.)
During his years as a physicist, however, he had to put politics on the back burner. "You read the newspaper and see things you don't like," he says, "and you fold up your newspaper and you go and you do your job all day." In 2006, when his daughter Christine, now 20, left home for Stanford University (his son Billy, 24, is a software engineer in Madison, Wisc.), Foster saw his opportunity. "I said, okay, I'm going to try to make a difference."
To learn the ropes, he volunteered to work on the campaign of Democrat Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war veteran running for Congress in Pennsylvania. Foster, served as a "get-out-the-vote" coordinator, writing software that pinpointed swing voter homes that were believed crucial to Murphy's narrow victory.
Foster, like Murphy, ran as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district. His campaign platform called for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, seeking clean energy alternatives, strengthening immigration controls, and providing comprehensive health care coverage. Armed with an endorsement from his state's popular Democratic junior senator and presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, Foster won by a 53 to 47 percent margin.
In addition to Obama, Foster also attracted the backing of many scientists. He secured endorsements from dozens of top researchers, including 28 Nobel laureates. Physicist Gordon Watts of the University of Washington in Seattle announced on his blog that he had contributed $250 to Foster's campaign.
Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, one of those who endorsed Foster, says he would like to see more science PhDs in Congress. "We need to at least raise the awareness that there's a connection between science and technology to these issues of the environment, [to] national defense, to energy production, etcetera," he says. "And it's great to have some people in Congress with some [scientific] literacy … who hopefully can provide some perspective."
Foster was elected at a crucial moment for U.S. physics. Congress in December slashed the high-energy physics budget, forcing labs to cancel or curtail ongoing projects such as the design of the International Linear Collider, a planned particle accelerator that would follow up on discoveries made at the LHC. Fermilab announced that, as a result of the federal funding cuts, it would have to lay off about 200 of its 1,940 employees, who are already taking unpaid one-week furloughs every two months for the rest of the fiscal year.
As a freshman in Congress, there may be little Foster can do to help his Fermilab friends, now his constituents. He says he will urge colleagues to provide relief for the lab to prevent layoffs, but he is not optimistic. "I understand clearly as a freshman in Congress you don't get to steer the bus," says Foster, who secured a seat on the House Committee on Financial Services, which deals with issues such as credit card abuse and predatory lending.