It is hard to read the news these days without a degree of trepidation over the future of enlightened democracy. With the rise of Donald Trump in the US, the increase of right-wing parties around the globe as well as the general decline of rational and civil discourse, we need everyone to stand up for rational and fact-based debate. In the US, budget cuts and conservative ideology threaten to undo the progress that decades of scientific research has made in the quality of life and standard of living that we currently enjoy.

Scientific and technical competence is our best defence against these threats, especially from individuals with a scientific background who are willing to serve in elected office. For this reason, I often tell researchers my own story, so that other scientists might consider spending part of their career in public service.

When I was 19, my brother and I started a company in our parents’ basement that now makes most of the stage lighting equipment in the US. I then returned to my first love and entered graduate school at Harvard to study physics. My PhD thesis involved searching for proton decay through the construction, instrumentation and data analysis of the Irvine–Michigan–Brookhaven detector that was located at Fairport mine on the shore of Lake Erie. Although our experiment did not discover proton decay, it scored a significant unanticipated success when it was one of three experiments to observe the burst of neutrinos from SN1987a.

After receiving my PhD in 1983, I spent the next 23 years at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. I spent the first decade designing, building and analysing data from giant particle detectors. I was a member of the team that discovered the top quark – the heaviest known form of matter, and quite possibly the heaviest particle that will ever be discovered. So when we had the Congressional reception celebrating the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, I had the honour of congratulating many of my former colleagues for discovering the second heaviest form of matter.

I spent my second decade at Fermilab designing and building particle accelerators such as the Fermilab Antiproton Recycler Ring, which was used to greatly increase the number of collisions and keep the physics programme at Fermilab’s Tevatron competitive until the end of its lifetime. With a large team of collaborators, I also helped design and build prototype elements of future, large hadron colliders.

Tackling technical issues

Why did I decide to enter the US Congress? My quick answer is that I tragically fell prey to my family’s recessive gene for adult-onset political activism. My parents met on Capitol Hill in the 1950s when my mother worked for US senator Paul Douglas. Like me, my father was trained as a scientist, and during the Second World War he designed fire-control computers for the navy. During his service, he started receiving reports on how many people were killed each week by the equipment his team built. He became very unhappy at the idea of his scientific skills being used that way. When he came back from the war, he became a civil-rights lawyer and wrote much of the enforcement language behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After he passed away, I began to read his papers, and they prompted me to begin contemplating a question that science cannot really answer: what fraction of your life should you spend in service of your fellow citizens? That is why I decided to run for Congress in the special election to replace Dennis Hastert, former speaker of the US House, in 2008. On the campaign trail I learned that there is a long list of neurons that you have to deaden to convert a scientist’s brain into a politician’s. When you speak with voters, you must lead with conclusions rather than complex analysis of underlying evidence – something that is very unnatural to a scientist.

As a sitting member of Congress, I have been able to lead on important technical issues. On the science, space and technology committee, I have helped bring issues to the committee’s attention that require us to act. For example, the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology discovered in 2012 raises the prospect for cures for diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia, but also has the potential to disrupt society. At my urging, the science committee held a hearing on this topic, and I have been told that it was one of the best attended in the committee’s history.

As the only PhD physicist in Congress, my background became important during the debate of the Iran nuclear deal. During this time, I had more than a dozen classified briefings, many of them individual briefings by the technical experts at the Departments of Energy, State and Treasury, and the intelligence agencies. Because of the technical complexity of the agreement, members of both parties would routinely ask my opinion on aspects of the proposed agreement. Ultimately, my support was based on verification and science, not trust of the Iranian regime.

Defending the science budgets during the annual appropriation cycle is an ongoing challenge. Many members of Congress make the mistake of seeing science as an enterprise that can be stopped and restarted at will – like road construction or equipment purchases. They do not appreciate the damage that can be done to a scientific enterprise in a single budget cycle, where projects and careers that take decades to build can be irreversibly destroyed in a single fiscal year.

In the US and across the world, we need people with strong scientific backgrounds in all levels of government and politics. We need scientists and engineers on our school boards and city councils just as much as we need them in Washington. I hope anyone who reads this will take the time to consider spending a fraction of their life in service to their fellow citizen.