Zwicker is sole N.J. legislator whose ‘day job’ is in STEM

The Interview Issue

By Anjalee Khemlani
Princeton/Trenton | Dec 26, 2017 at 12:04 pm
From our print edition

Assemblyman and Princeton University physicist Andrew Zwicker is the only elected official in the State House with a STEM career. There are others with degrees or backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and a handful of members in the medical field, but none with the science or engineering backgrounds that are driving the economy today.

Zwicker (D-Skillman) began his work life in New Jersey at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory under Rush Holt, who later went on to win a seat in Congress representing New Jersey’s 12th District.

Zwicker is completing his first term in the Assembly and was re-elected to a second term in November.

Zwicker spoke with ROI-NJ about his life in science and politics:

ROI-NJ: What is it like to spend time in both science and politics?

Andrew Zwicker: I think going between the worlds of science and politics and legislation is such an odd thing to do because they are such completely different worlds. One is completely fact-based, that’s science, and the other, in the world of politics, facts are a part of what makes a political decision. But, there is so much more that goes into politics, and it’s all about relationship building.

ROI: We’ve seen the scientific community increasingly on the defense from political attacks and budget cuts — the most recent of which was the Trump administration’s mandate to remove the use of words like “evidence-based.” How has that made you feel?

AZ: Earlier this year, I spoke at the New Jersey March for Science. I had to get up and say I believe in science, which is a ridiculous thing to say, because there’s no such thing. Science is just facts and what we do with it — it doesn’t care who believes. So, in the last year, it’s even more critical (to have more STEM-affiliated politicians).

ROI: How has it affected your work?

AZ: I’ve become a better scientist because of my legislative experience. Because politics is all about relationship-building, scientists are people — believe it or not — so, the ability to bring people together to work on really hard problems is useful. Scientists tend to be dismissive, but, now, I tend to ask more and find out what’s behind an idea. I think that has made me a better member of the scientific community.

ROI: You’re a lone wolf in the state as a politician, and there are few elected officials in Congress with similar backgrounds. Is there growing interest among scientists?

AZ: There has been interest in whether scientists or engineers or analytical thinkers should be more involved. At all levels of government, there are groups that are popping up who have called me up and asked how I did it and how I got involved, and what it would take for them to (get involved in politics) as well.

I would argue scientists and engineers need to get involved. I would even go as far as to say we have a moral obligation to be part of the public policy process. At all levels of government, we need people who can break down policy to small pieces of facts. We are at an enormous disadvantage, because our ability to champion public policy is incredibly limited. We are fighting over fake facts or alternative facts, as opposed to what the common, standard knowledge is.

ROI: What about in New Jersey, specifically? Can a new administration at the top change anything?

AZ: I’ve only been here for one term, but some really interesting things are happening to acknowledge New Jersey’s strengths. I’m on the Biotechnology Task Force, Manufacturing Caucus, on the board of the Research & Development Council of New Jersey. I’m often at the New Jersey Tech Council and attend BioNJ sometimes. There are a couple of things going on. While I may be the only legislator, New Jersey has all the pieces. Gov.-elect Phil Murphy has talked about how the innovation economy is critical and acknowledged that is one of New Jersey’s greatest underutilized strengths.

ROI: How do we change that?

AZ: How do we return to being an innovative center? We know it used to be. We’ve lost it, like you see in biopharma. We need to make public policy so we are on par with Cambridge, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Silicon Valley. One way to do that is incentivize the industry. The previous administration has focused on large companies. We need to incentivize and give tax credits to incubators, and small and medium-sized businesses. Because job growth in New Jersey comes from small and medium-sized businesses, as opposed to moving jobs and locations (of larger firms) — it doesn’t create jobs. That’s just moving jobs and (addresses) the threat of removing jobs. But, if we are really serious about growing jobs, we need to make sure that the companies that are trying to grow here get the skills they need out of our work force.

ROI: What have you learned about New Jersey politics from your vantage point?

AZ: New Jersey politics is so much more reactive, rather than proactive. So often, there’s a headline and a reaction to it, and a piece of legislation that is crafted in reaction. In the scientific community, we look at a large problem, and come up with a real, long-term solution, and then you come up with how to solve it. And then you break it down into smaller pieces and, in series or in parallel, you start to go after solving it. That is exactly how we should be doing public policy, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, we chip away at things. Instead of having a big, broader plan that we can stick to, and try to attack it holistically.

And there are a lot of reasons why that doesn’t happen, but I strongly believe that if we did that, New Jersey would be a better place for it. We would produce larger, grander but practical pieces of legislation, rather than these smaller, little pieces and keep on chipping away at things.

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Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem