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by Beryl Lieff Benderly

Political Scion, STEM Champion

A lawmaker trained in engineering chairs a key subcommittee.

UP CLOSE image of Daniel Lipinski. Quote: 'I still see what I do now as problem solving.'Rep. Daniel Lipinski, the third-term Illinois Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education of the House Science and Technology Committee, belongs to a couple of exclusive Capitol Hill clubs. First, he is one of fewer than a dozen representatives with degrees in engineering — in his case, a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Northwestern and a master’s in engineering economic systems from Stanford, followed by a Ph.D. in political science from Duke.

Second, he belongs to the even smaller group of five House Democrats who changed their healthcare votes from yes on the initial bill to no on the final one that became law. The switch reportedly angered the White House and congressional leaders. But Lipinski doesn’t believe it weakened his ability to advocate effectively for what he calls a “personal passion” — scientific innovation and education in the STEM fields.

“There’s an understanding in the administration and the congressional leadership that this is something important for the future of our country,” he tells Prism.

Elected by the generally socially conservative, mostly white ethnic, voters of southwest Chicago and adjacent suburbs, Lipinski opposed the healthcare bill because he doubted it could prevent federal spending on abortion. He has a strong anti-abortion record and also voted against allowing or expanding embryonic stem cell research.

But Lipinski just as firmly favors the expansion of other kinds of scientific research and of STEM education. He worries that once the 2009 economic stimulus money runs out, “there will be a drop-off in funding for STEM education and promotion of STEM,” which got generous sums in the package.

His subcommittee has played a key role in crafting parts of new America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) legislation, intended to guide funding for major government research agencies for the next few years. Lipinski backs keeping the National Science Foundation on track to double its budget by 2017.

There’s no doubt that here he’s aligned with the president and House leadership. All favor “more funding for these areas, even though it may not be the politically most expedient thing to do…in these tough budgetary times,” he says. Reauthorization of NSF, which cleared his panel in mid-April, includes provisions to improve STEM education, K-12 through graduate school, and to provide what he says are added incentives for grad students to get “specific education for teaching.”

Though active on numerous science-related issues, Lipinski is even more strongly identified with transportation, serving on three subcommittees of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. His district includes a large number of railroad crossings and freight yards, plus two ship channels, major interstate highways, and Midway airport. “For the last 60-plus years, the representative from my district has been on the Transportation Committee.”

But his engineering background, including a summer working for a highway engineering company while a student, gives him special insight into many issues, Lipinski says. “We need more people with backgrounds in science, engineering—all the STEM fields—in government and politics,” he says. The result, he adds, would be an improvement in government policies.

While he truly enjoyed studying engineering, Lipinski admits that his “first passion” was always “government and politics” – perhaps not surprising for the son of 11-term Illinois Rep. Bill Lipinski. Dan was elected to his father’s seat in 2004 when the elder Lipinski withdrew his candidacy after winning the Democratic primary. Dan, who at the time was teaching political science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, returned to Illinois to replace his father on the ticket.

He says engineering’s systematic approach has served him well as a political scientist and later as a congressman. His doctoral dissertation, on the use of franked mailings in congressional communication, won a prize named after the late House Speaker Carl Albert. As a congressman, “I still see what I do now as problem solving.”

Beryl Lieff Benderly is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C.




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