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December 17, 2007 was dubbed “Black Monday” by the scientific community in America. National laboratories across the country learned that day that the federal Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds the majority of physical-science research at the 21 national laboratories and technology centers, would be subject to unprecedented budgetary slashes: to the tune of $400 million for the fiscal year. In the short term, the cuts would entail the shelving of upcoming projects, the premature shutting of some facilities, and the dismissal of around 200 employees, about 10 percent of the workforce, at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL, or Fermilab), which the University of Chicago has managed under a Department of Energy (DOE) contract since 2007.

But the long-term costs of the budget cuts, as leading scientists from across the country forcefully argued, would rip across space and time. Despite promises from President Bush and Congress that Fermilab’s budget would to grow to $372 million that year, Fermilab, the sole remaining laboratory in America devoted to high-energy physics, instead saw its annual funds suddenly shrink to just $320 million. And the cutbacks couldn’t have come at a more vulnerable moment. Leon Lederman, the former director of Fermilab and a Nobel Prize–winning physicist, described the moment as when “prospects for major discoveries in energy have rarely been higher” in a letter to The New York Times lambasting the cuts.

Before Black Monday, Fermilab had been on track to beat out European competition in the race to host the International Linear Collider (ILC), the proposed $15–20 billion, 31-kilometer particle accelerator. Building on the findings of Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, this new cosmic doorway would enhance studies of the Higgs boson particle and further elucidate the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter, which constitute about 95 percent of the universe. But under the new DOE budget, overall research and development funds would be chopped by 75 percent, putting Fermilab in jeopardy as a possible site for the ILC. The project shutdowns had a cascading effect; paving the way to hosting the ILC was Project X, a $500 million linear accelerator scheduled to be operational by 2015. This too, was delayed indefinitely. Black Monday’s repercussions would be felt for years to come.

Fermilab’s share of the federal cuts bore immediate, international, and universal dimensions. At stake, and existentially so, was much more than the individual projects and livelihoods of Fermilab’s researchers; it was seen that our nation’s edge in high-energy physics research was on the line, and that our knowledge of the origins of the universe would hit its ceiling, thanks to finagling in Washington.

In scientific and academic circles across the nation, the gravity of this crisis impelled these relatively apolitical communities to action. Writing on behalf of “the business and academic communities in Illinois and our nation,” President Zimmer and James Crown, a member of the Board of Trustees, wrote a letter on January 17, 2008 to Nancy Pelosi, then the Speaker of the House of Representatives, urging that she increase funding for research in the physical sciences. According to Young-Kee Kim, a UChicago physics professor and, at that time, the deputy director of Fermilab, President Zimmer also hosted a luncheon later in 2008 to spread awareness of this crisis outside of academic and scientific circles.

“Zimmer certainly helped connect the lab to the political scene…there was a big lunch that Zimmer hosted for Argonne [National Laboratory] and Fermilab. I attended; he gave a speech. There were a lot of sort of powerful Chicago people,” Kim said.

As Kim remembers it, such an event was then unusual for Fermilab. Even its senior management, including Kim and the then-Director Pier Oddone, had little to no political engagement prior to the budget bill shock first felt on Black Monday. But after 2007, Kim and her colleagues came to believe that in order to protect physics research in this country, they would have to better convey to the public the societal importance of their work.

“We believe that for any society to advance, science plays an important role…. In our field, the real outcome of physics that really impacts society can sometimes be in 30, 40 years, right? So the public doesn’t know. So their immediate thinking is, ‘What are we even supporting, because we don’t see it,’” Kim said. “So our role [as scientists] is to try to make the public see that, because we believe in that. It’s almost religious.

“You want to tell that story to the public; and politicians are part of the public.”

Yet Fermilab’s necessity to tell this story would not be the mother of invention. Instead, pragmatism would occupy the cradle. From December 2007 onwards, political advocacy by the University of Chicago and Fermilab would ascend a steep upward curve, taking forms both explicit and implicit. “It’s very delicate area,” Kim said. “Certainly, we don’t want to be part of politics. We don’t want science being political. As soon as we get across a boundary then we are losing our [sincerity]; then, who are we?”

 

* * * * *

 

George William “Bill” Foster had just ended his 22nd and final year at Fermilab when the 2007 fiscal year budget was announced. The accomplished particle physicist had worked on the project at Fermilab that discovered the top quark, the heaviest form of matter, in 1994. Foster had collaborated on this research with Kim, the project leader. While working together, the two became friends.

“Before he became busy and I became busy, a few of us—he and his wife, me and my husband, and other couples—we would go to the Koreatown and have a nice Korean meal. Then afterwards we’d go to a German pastry store and have some dessert,” Kim said.

The two were close. Which made a phone call from Foster to Kim all the more shocking: Kim learned that promptly after Foster had retired from Fermilab, he had thrown his hat into the ring to run for the United States House of Representatives in Illinois’ 14th congressional district, where Fermilab is located.

A lifelong physicist, Foster entered the congressional race on May 30, 2007, with no political background besides the year prior, when he had worked as a “get-out-the-vote” coordinator for a Pennsylvania congressman’s campaign. The House seat that Foster, a Democrat, was gunning for was located in a solidly Republican district, a community that had sent a Republican to the House every single election for just shy of 70 years. The previous occupant of the seat was Dennis Hastert, who not only had firmly held the district for 20 years, but also served as no less than the Republican Speaker of the House from 1999–2007. Hastert resigned in 2007, but left big, Republican-red shoes to fill.

Kim couldn’t believe the news.

“I said, ‘What!?’” she said. “I just thought that he didn’t have the patience [to run for office] because he is so bright. I don’t mean it in a mean way at all.”

Foster’s campaign platform spanned from seeking clean energy alternatives to strengthening immigration controls, withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, providing comprehensive health coverage, and advocating for funding for basic scientific research. But for Kim, one of his early donors (she pledged $3,000 in 2009 alone), the rationale behind her political donations was uncomplicated: It would be useful to have more scientists in Congress.

“I like to have some scientific injection in the [political] system. So that’s what I’m believing in. I don’t know how he [Foster] votes on gay marriage, for instance; well, he’s liberal and I like him [am] liberal, so that is also important.”

Kim took pains to not appear as an advocate for Foster in the lab itself, instead participating in and hosting fundraising dinners and luncheons with other prominent physicists from the University and Fermilab community, mostly in Hyde Park.

“There were quite a few early supporting activists—there were luncheons, dinnertimes, we hosted in our house one luncheon once,” she said. “But Jim Cronin, a Nobel Laureate, had a couple of them…. There was a team of professors [who] were kind of sponsoring him.”

Although overt political advocacy was prohibited in the national laboratory itself, Kim recalls a widespread sense of support for “some congressman or some policymakers with some science or logic background.” Over the course of Foster’s congressional career, affiliates of Fermilab pledged at least $190,103 to his campaigns, ranking the lab as the second-largest contributing body.

In addition to scientific thinking in the political system, Kim conceded that her vote for Foster—and her financial backing—was heavily motivated by her desire to ensure that federal funding for the sciences, specifically high-energy physics, would be reliably fought for on Capitol Hill.

“Every year is a struggle. Every day, every month. Any kind of influence can change one project, which can become, all of a sudden, zero. There’s no clear understanding of what’s really happening behind the door. So having somebody who can speak for us, is very, very crucial,” Kim said. “Bill, no matter where he goes, he’ll support Fermilab.”

On March 8, 2008, the first physicist from Fermilab ran for Congress in the 14th district special election.

And by a six-point margin, for the first time since 1939, a Democrat won.

 

 * * * * *

 

Jack Levin, a lecturer at the law school and a partner at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, also heard about Bill Foster’s 2008 congressional bid through a personal phone call. But unlike Kim, Levin had never before met, or heard of, the candidate.

“When he was first running for Congress, somebody called him to my attention. And told me he was a very bright and able person.” Levin said. “I just remember someone, I don’t remember who it was, called him to my attention because he was a well-known scientist. So after I met him, and after I talked to him for a while, I came to the conclusions that I just explained to you about why an accomplished scientist would be a good legislator…. So I was very impressed with him, and I did indeed support him when he first ran. I’ve been supporting him ever since.”

Supporting Foster took multiple forms for Levin. In addition to pledging $1,000 to his 2008 campaign (and $19,450 throughout his political career), Levin served on Foster’s financial committee, attended meetings of the finance committee with Foster’s political advisers, and held multiple fundraisers at Kirkland & Ellis, a law firm downtown that made big-ticket investments in many Democratic candidates that year. (More than three quarters of the political contributions made by the firm’s attorneys went to Democrats during the 2008 election cycle, though this is not a consistent trend.) Kirkland & Ellis also has close ties with UChicago’s Law School, having given more than $7 million to the Law School to fund intellectual programs—the largest known gift by a law firm to a law school. The top five percent of UChicago law students each year are honored as Kirkland & Ellis scholars.

But despite this significant commitment to a candidate who was running to represent a district outside of where Levin lived or worked, the law professor knew that the race was “a long shot” and didn’t know why Foster himself first decided to run.

“No, I don’t remember having a conversation about why he was thinking of running, and I just thought, ‘How nice that a person of his high-ranking qualities would be willing to take fairly modest pay for what is a successful person and take all the disadvantages of having to serve in Washington…’ You have to fundraise 52 weeks a year, every year.

 

“Constantly raising money! That’s a terrible thing. To constantly be raising money, and to constantly be running for reelection,” he said. “How can you get the time to legislate, to understand all the issues before you if you can’t analyze them if you are constantly raising money and running for election? And Bill Foster seems to do it, which is a wonderful thing.”

 

Foster, or Foster’s campaign team, was certainly adept at raising campaign dollars. Second only to Barack Obama, Bill Foster is the top recipient of campaign donations from individuals affiliated with the University of Chicago, both for the 2007–08 cycle and in the University’s history. Over the course of Bill Foster’s political career, contributions from affiliates of the University of Chicago place the University as his third-largest donor ($132,584); Fermilab is his second-largest ($161,117), and Kirkland & Ellis his sixth ($96,900).

In the 2008 election, Foster raised the eighth-highest amount of all House candidates that year—$4,908,019, more than $2 million of which came from individual contributions. His opponent in the race, James Oberweis, raised just half that amount from individuals. In the 2008 cycle, Foster raised approximately three times the average amount raised by House members. Between campaign contributions from individuals from Fermilab, affiliates and trustees of the University of Chicago, and Kirkland & Ellis affiliates, $173,574 was contributed to Bill Foster’s first election bid.

Notably, Howard Krane, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis and an emeritus member of the University’s Board of Trustees, also contributed a small sum to Foster in 2008. Krane, who declined to be interviewed in person but responded to e-mailed questions, denied that his support or awareness of Bill Foster were in any way prompted by his affiliation with Kirkland & Ellis or the University.

As Krane and Levin maintain, while campaign support for Foster was rallied at Kirkland & Ellis, there were no discussions of the candidate with affiliates of the University, the Board of Trustees, or Fermilab that they themselves were engaged in or aware of. Similarly, Kim said that while there were private fundraising events with Fermilab employees and UChicago professors, she does not recall non-scientific crowds ever being in attendance.

Whatever the degree of institutional awareness there may or may not have been, the cumulative impact holds: Through campaign dollars, fundraising events, and spreading awareness, organizations and individuals substantially connected to the University of Chicago measurably endorsed a Democratic House candidate in a staunchly Republican congressional district. A critical mass of key decision makers of this institution aided the success of a 22-year Fermilab physicist’s winning congressional campaign.

An institution which is, in fact, politically neutral.

 

* * * * *

Levin isn’t the only one charting campaign dollars and cents.

The Maroon received a leaked database from an employee in the University of Chicago’s Office of Federal Relations (OFR) in Washington, DC. The database is a comprehensive log of all political contributions made by all past and present University Trustees dating back to 1993.

The Office of Federal Relations, established in 2008 in order “to be more actively engaged with federal legislation and developments affecting research and higher education,” is a physical office in DC.

While OFR did not respond to requests for comment, President Zimmer confirmed that the lobbying office does track the political contributions of University trustees.

“It’s [to manage] relationship issues. So there may be a time where you have a certain issue connected to the University or funding for science or funding for financial aid. It’s really a question of who might have a relationship to be able to be an effective advocate,” he said in an interview last December.

The significance of OFR’s database is that it besmirches the University’s commitment to institutional neutrality, as prescribed by the Kalven Report. Written in 1967, the Kalven Report reified the University of Chicago’s adherence to institutional neutrality on political and social issues.

President Zimmer cited the Kalven Report itself as a defense of trustees’ unregulated political giving.

“So, for the Board it is very much like how it is for the faculty and students. If making a gift is an individual act, is an individual statement, they give to whoever they want, we have nothing to say about that any more than we have to say anything about faculty and who they give money to,” he said.

Zimmer conceded that there are “exceptional circumstances” wherein trustees are asked to use their political relationships to further causes that benefit the University as an institution.

“Now just to get to your question around political advocacy, there’s occasionally some of that when there are issues that directly would affect the University of Chicago in a direct way,” Zimmer said.

“Funding for the DOE [Department of Energy] Office of Science, which is part of managing the Office of Science; it’s the single largest supporter of physical-science research in the country. For things that are directly connected to the University, there might be a moment where they would be actively doing that. But I would say that we look at the weight of what happens much more than a form it takes.”

Indeed, the Kalven Report does make some special allowances for “extraordinary circumstances,” such as when “society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the University and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the University as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values…. Here, of necessity, the University, however it acts, must act as an institution in its corporate capacity.” The detrimental funding cuts to science research posed by the 2008 budget persuasively constitute an exceptional circumstance.

But in the wake of the 2008 federal budget slashes, the University of Chicago and the national laboratories that it manages have crossed into unchartered waters—the Kalven Report, it seems, no longer serves as a tenable compass.

 

* * * * *

As it turns out, Fermilab was not entirely crippled by the 2008 budget bill.

Within six months of Black Monday, capital infusions from the federal government and the University of Chicago came to the lab’s rescue, curtailing some of the most severe cuts.

In May 2008, the University of Chicago received a $5 million donation from an anonymous donor to be used to support Fermilab. A month later, Congress passed the Supplemental Appropriations Bill, which included $62.5 million for the Department of Energy to avoid further layoffs and restart science projects at Fermilab and other national laboratories. In addition, on July 2, 2008, Fermilab received about $29.5 million in supplemental funds for that fiscal year. The lab avoided the involuntary layoffs of about 90 employees, and was able to operate in its normal capacity through 2009.

Still a freshman congressman, Foster was widely credited as the critical facilitator of the short-term funding secured by the Supplemental Appropriations Bill.

 

Despite losing his seat in the 14th district in the 2010 election to Republican Randy Hultgren, Foster has proven himself to be a staunch advocate of basic science funding, and a reliable ally of Fermilab.

In 2012 Foster launched a successful election campaign in the redistricted 11th Illinois congressional district, which he currently represents. The redrawn district abuts, but does not encompass, Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, and following a campaign that stressed the importance of science to America’s economy, Foster won the new district with 56 percent of the vote.

“Well actually, [in] my old district and my new district the anchor city is Aurora, the second-largest city (in Illinois),” Foster said. Fermilab is a 20-minute drive from downtown Aurora, where the majority of Fermi employees live, according to the lab’s website. “You know it was people in Aurora contacting me more than anyone else urging me to run again. Then I realized, ‘Here’s the second-largest city and they’re still on my side, they still remember me, and want me.’”

While campaign contribution totals from Fermilab affiliates decreased by 28 percent, from $86,250 in 2010 to $62,317 in 2012, sources of campaign funding followed Foster through to his new district. UChicago affiliates increased their contributions to Foster by 50 percent, from $36,702 to $55,431. Kirkland & Ellis also increased their support for the transient candidate—from $31,350 to $39,000, a 24 percent uptick.

And in his new district, where Foster is up for reelection this November, he has continued to advocate not only for the sciences but specifically for Fermilab and high-energy physics on the Hill.

 

* * * * *

 

Levin and Kim both claim that they do not know the precise impetus for why Foster initially ran in ’08, nor did any of his supporters contacted for the reporting of this article.

Speaking between meetings from Washington, DC, Foster explained on the phone that his bid for public office was a long-brewing part of his career plan informed, in part, by his father’s own transition from science into to politics.

“Well, sometimes I say that I fell prey to my family’s recessive gene for adult-onset political activism. My father was actually a civil rights lawyer, who wrote a lot of the enforcement language behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he was, like me, trained as a scientist. He got a degree in chemistry from Stanford,” he said.

“Then in World War II he started getting these results [on]…how many people were killed this week by his team’s equipment; he became very unhappy with the idea of his technical skills being used basically to kill people. So he came back from the war. He had grown up in the South and saw civil rights as the real challenge of his generation and so he came back, thought about it for a few years, and decided to become a civil rights lawyer.”

“Actually, reading his papers after he passed away two years ago”—in 2012, four years after Foster first ran for Congress—“that made me first think about this question about what fraction of your life do you spend in service to your fellow man. And this is the question…that was some of the triggering that made me to decide to spend part of my life in service to my fellow man.”

The full picture as to why Foster decided to run in 2008 remains incomplete. And after losing his seat in the 14th in 2010, Foster stressed what he considered his own replaceability in an article in Science Magazine that year. What matters, he said, was simply that there are scientists in Congress.

But while the physicist knew that that initial ’08 race “was going to be tough,” many pointed out that in some ways he may have been the right candidate—a political outsider—at the right moment. Presented as an anti-politician with business savvy, the self-described “Obama Democrat” was bolstered by an endorsement from then-Senator Barack Obama. The success of Bill Foster’s 2008 electoral campaign—and his 2012 bid—can’t be wholly explained away by campaign dollars.

“It’s not that he didn’t have the money to support…his campaign,” Kim said. “Money cannot buy you certain things.”

The financial pledges to Foster’s campaign, which remained fairly constant irrespective of the district he was representing, reveal more about the donors’ interests than than the candidate himself.

* * * * *

Since 2007, the University of Chicago has built a permanent lobbying presence in Washington, DC and seeks to host the Obama Presidential Library. Since 2007, that lobbying office has tracked the political contributions of University trustees, and used this information to facilitate political relationships in Washington. And in 2012, Foster received more funding from the University of Chicago then any House of Representatives candidate from a single university in that year.

But despite this, Zimmer, who has not personally given money to Foster, did not feel that the University of Chicago’s political advocacy has significantly increased since the 2008 budget.

“I don’t actually feel that there was a shift in how we needed to act politically. I think that the University has always been an active advocate for funding for basic research; that certainly preceded 2008, followed 2008 through today,” Zimmer said in an interview in March. “There were particular situations then that needed to be addressed…but I think the general approach was not particularly different.”

Piecemeal politicking on the parts of Fermilab, Kirkland & Ellis, and UChicago do not implicate institutional support: The University of Chicago has not and, as per the Kalven Report, could not explicitly endorse a congressional candidate, even one who is a sure bet to fight for our institutional interests, such as funding for high-energy physics. In this regard, the University of Chicago is a neutral institution.

But by the scientific method, a different hypothesis surfaces. Taken as the sum of its parts, the University of Chicago—as a community of networks and a stockpile of dollars—is political in consequence.

In Foster, both Kim and Levin sought a beacon of objectivity in a divided Congress, a quagmire of gridlocked partisanship. “I do not think that it had previously occurred to me that scientists would make particularly good legislators because they approach things objectively rather than politically,” Levin said. “After working with Bill Foster, my views on that became much more clearly solidified.”

But as any good physicist will tell you, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

“The political logic is, ‘What I can get away with saying that people will believe?’…. The scientific logic is, ‘What are the best estimates for the relevant numbers?’” Foster said in an interview with The New York Times in 2011.

“When the two collide, the political logic is overwhelming.”

 

Additional statistical analysis by Kay Li. All financial data cited is publicly available on www.opensecrets.com. Checkout the consolidated spreadsheet here, or the full spreadsheet here.

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