John Porter was a U.S. Congressman from Illinois for 21 years, serving on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. All government health agencies and programs, except military and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and all government education agencies and programs were under the jurisdiction of his subcommittee. Before his election to Congress, he served in the Illinois House of Representatives. Today, Mr. Porter, named by a magazine as one of Washington’s “top 50 lobbyists”, serves as a partner in the Washington, DC, law firm Hogan & Hartson. This interview focuses on John Porter’s thoughts about science.
You describe yourself as an advocate for science. What do you consider the greatest scientific achievement in your lifetime?
The polio vaccine. My father contracted polio when he was 18 months old. Of course, they didn’t know what to do back then. So, he had an operation on his leg. That [operation] failed, and, throughout his life, he walked with a brace on his leg. The Salk vaccine was discovered [by Dr. Jonas Salk] at the University of Pittsburgh when I was 15—and all those people with polio, like my father, including those who had to exist in iron lungs, would cease to be affected with that terrible disease. Since that time, the United States has gone practically everywhere around the world and vaccinated people—in India and Africa—[against polio], so that was a great scientific achievement, one which personally affected me.
Do you remember Dr. Salk’s discovery being regarded as important throughout society?
Yes. I remember it because my father had the effects of polio, but I remember it for another reason. You see, my mother was Baptist, my father was Episcopalian, and my grandmother had been a Roman Catholic but had converted to Christian Science—and we all lived in the same house. Because my parents weren’t especially religious, they put my grandmother in charge of our religious upbringing. When the Salk vaccine [was discovered], many [students] in my [Christian Science] Sunday school class refused to get the [polio] vaccine [because the religion forbids medical treatment]. I chose to break from the Christian Science belief that disease does not exist, that it can be overcome by prayer. I got the polio vaccine.
What do you wish scientists would achieve in your lifetime?
I’m not a scientist. I have a little bit of an appreciation because part of my education was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I tend to stay away from scientific areas where I really don’t know what’s realistic or possible, but I believe that if we invest in scientific research we will continue advances that improve health—we have reduced the death rate for cancer and heart disease and we have learned how to keep people alive and working. I’m now 73. I feel healthy and I take statins, which prevent cholesterol levels from rising [as long as I] keep a low-fat diet, so I simply believe that we are on the cusp of personalizing medicine—that [someone] will soon discover the genetic basis for medical disease and that we will discover what will work for the individual on a personal basis. The human genome mapping that was done during the time I was chairman of the House health subcommittee led to huge advances. For example, we now can use physical science tools to look at proteins. America needs to retain our leads in scientific research—you cannot get innovation and technology without the advancements we have made so far—and we need to train our children to become scientists and educate them to work in technology, jobs that pay well.
Doesn’t that require capitalism?
Is the profit motive compatible with medical and scientific research?
Sure. In the past, the research which has been funded by government is available to the public. Everything done by [the government's National Institutes of Health (NIH)] is available to anyone. It’s put online and then [made available to] the scientific community. They can build upon that. You’ve got to be very careful about conflicts of interest in this area. We have to make sure science is based on evidence.
Is there any downside to government’s domination of scientific research?
I completely dispute the premise of the question. Take [NIH], for example. Yes, it’s out in Bethesda, [Maryland] and it has 19,000 people who work there—but that is about ten percent of what is spent by the federal government to do medical research. 80 percent [of federal funds are] sent out across the country to research institutions and universities that submit proposals, which are then peer reviewed by scientists. They are rated and then funded. So, about 80 percent of the research isn’t being [directly] funded by the government; it’s done by the private sector. Of the highly rated proposals that NIH receives, under 20 percent are accepted.
Early in your career, you worked in the Kennedy administration at the Department of Justice. What was the basic principle of President Kennedy’s administration?
I was at the University of Michigan Law School and it was getting toward the time when I would have to get out and earn a living. I had an opportunity to interview for a program by the Eisenhower administration. I was accepted and my wife and I got on the train to Washington, DC, and, soon, I was working for [Attorney General] Robert Kennedy at the Department of Justice. There wasn’t so much a basic principle under Kennedy. People were inspired by our leader. They saw the possibilities of addressing our problems through work in [President Kennedy’s administration of] government and it applies today, too. It’s a very exciting time.
While you were a University of Michigan law student, Ayn Rand appeared on campus. Did you attend her lectures?
I did not. Though I had read three of her novels—Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and We the Living—and I was interested in her philosophy, I was not able to attend one of her lectures. I had my head in law books.
Do those who advocate creationism—they call it “intelligent design”—pose a threat to the advancement of science?
The American people are vastly undereducated in science and, in a sense, it is shocking that over 50 percent [of the public] doesn’t believe in [Charles Darwin’s Theory of] Evolution. Is that a threat to science? It could be. I thought it was pretty well settled in the mid-1920s but, apparently, we have not sufficiently understood the science of why evolution is provable—and, incidentally, I don’t think there’s an inherent disconnect between an understanding of science and a belief in God. It’s up to the individual.
Do you consider yourself a deist, like many of the nation’s founders?
Yes. I certainly believe in separation of church and state. Religion is a matter that should be kept private. The state should not attempt to impose it upon others.
You’ve said that your admiration for the scientist began while you were a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Who is your favorite living scientist?
It’s very difficult to choose a favorite. I admire many scientists. It used to be that we would have a scientist working with a laboratory technician finding a discovery. Today, you have a scientist and a bio-engineer, a computer specialist, a lab tech, a chemist—it’s much more efficient. I think the individual scientists themselves are the people who inspire young people. But they have to go out and talk about what they do—they have to show their passion for the research that they’re doing.
Are you concerned that President Obama, who overturned the ban on embryonic stem cell research, sanctioned a staunch opponent of science, evangelical Rev. Rick Warren, by asking the preacher to pray at his first official government occasion?
No. What this president is doing is truly refreshing. He's saying, let's sit down and make good judgments and I'm going to include everyone and, in fact, we have to have everyone's opinion. That said, we all have to be very vigilant about these things.
What is the key to preventing childhood obesity, a goal in which you’re also engaged?
From my work on an Institute of Medicine committee, I’ve learned that it is a much deeper subject in many ways. Lack of physical activity and diet are two key areas. We sit our kids in front of the TV set when they’re young. Then, they get into [playing] video games and they don’t get out and play and burn calories. Also, people are very busy, so they use fast-food places. How do you change behavior—because we’re not going to tell people what to eat. During my last year as chairman of the subcommittee, NIH came and said obesity is a major risk factor in cancer and heart disease. Then, I’d have [the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)] come in and say our kids are becoming more obese and I figured we had to do something. So, we put the burden on the CDC to do this and I [proposed] $125 million to create VERB [this is the name of the program, not an acronym]. VERB encouraged kids from ages nine to 13 to be physically active. Then, President Bush zeroed it out. That was a great disappointment to me because the CDC really felt it was an effective program.
You have a long and distinguished career in Illinois politics. How do you explain the widespread corruption in Illinois politics?
I’m afraid, if you look back, we have problems that have existed for a long time and the record is horrible. In Chicago, back in the Bill Thompson and Richard J. Daley days, we have had a system of cash-based politics—it was cash and carry—and it has pervaded our culture. It used to be that people got away with this. Now we are prosecuting them. We have to keep putting bad people behind bars.
Is federal prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who indicted former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for corruption, comparable to Chicago’s law enforcement hero Eliot Ness, as some claim?
He’s trying to be.
You’re a law partner at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, DC. Do you practice law?
Not anymore. I loved practicing law while I did it. I work for non-profits for impacting federal government policies on health and education.
Which law are you proudest to have supported?
Doubling the funding for biomedical research.
Are you saying that life is the standard of value—that scientific progress is measured by whether it’s reducible to enhancing a single, human life—like your father benefitting from the vaccine discovered by Dr. Jonas Salk?
Yes. Money alone doesn’t do it. The whole point is to improve human life.
Author’s Note: I volunteered and worked for former Rep. John Porter for seven years, including as staff member of his 1982 congressional campaign and, later, during an internship at the U.S. Capitol.