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Innovator Profile: Sen. Chris Rothfuss, PhD

Rothfuss, politics, senator, xinova

PC: Casper Star Tribune’s “Twenty Under 40: Chris Rothfuss”

Politics needs more scientists. Chris Rothfuss, PhD, is the Senate Minority Leader of the Wyoming Legislature and a scientist through and through: engineer, chemist, researcher, analyst, consultant, and inventor. That makes him a unicorn in his day job as a politician. Beyond a handful of medical doctors, virtually no scientists are in US politics (there are zero in the United States Senate). And that’s to our detriment, as

“We don’t have enough scientists and engineers in politics, which is unfortunate,” aid Dr. Rothfuss, who serves on several committees, including for Education and for Minerals, Business and Economic development. “In engineering the intent is to get up and solve a problem in a complicated system without grandstanding, and that translates well to policy.” 

Promoting solutions, not egos

A favorite anecdote of Dr. Rothfuss underscores the problem of the lack of engineers in politics: 

A senator asks his advisors whether he should support a proposal for a new perpetual motion machine to be built in his district.  The economic advisor says it’ll be great for the local economy, produce numerous high paying jobs and significantly improve the tax base.  The public opinion advisor notes that the project has a 75% favorability rating among certain important voting demographics.  The science advisor points out that perpetual motion machines are physically impossible, but he’s outvoted 2-1.

The joke encapsulates a truth that is no laughing matter. Politics would benefit from an engineer’s approach to solving problems. Engineers are taught to understand a problem within its broader context, and to appreciate the complexity of its surrounding system. Ideas are then developed and solutions advanced based on their pure merits. 

One barrier to solutions in politics is ego. Or, to be more charitable, the fact that credit for winning policy constitutes hard currency in politics. My legislation saved jobs! I built that! That was my idea! While a me-first attitude also exists to a degree in engineering, Dr. Rothfuss believes trained innovators and problem-solvers are far more often motivated by solutions than the limelight. As such, he is happy to turn the spotlight away from himself in order to advance good policy.

“You can get anything done, so long as you don’t want credit for it.”

Dr. Rothfuss, unlike many scientists, did not see politics as an either/or career proposition. He progressed from the debate team in high school to attending the University of Wyoming to study International Studies and Engineering. He earned his M.S. in Chemical Engineering at University of Wyoming and went on to earning an M.S. in Applied Physics and a PhD in Chemical Engineering at University of Washington.

He found his way back into government-oriented work via innovation. Following his doctorate, Dr. Rothfuss worked three years for the US Department of State as a AAAS S&T Diplomacy Fellow and Foreign Affairs Officer in their Office of Space and Advanced Technology. The experience gave him an incredibly broad view of advanced technologies, as his role granted him access to “everyone and everything.” When asked what sorts of things, he jokes:

“I could tell you, but I’d probably have to kill you.”

Science, politics, and complexity

After his State Department service, Dr. Rothfuss went into politics in his home state of Wyoming. Easy-going and affable, Dr. Rothfuss has a natural gift for translating scientific evidence into everyday language, along with an engineer’s ability to disentangle complex systems to find solutions. Other legislators aren’t threatened by his degrees and engineering acumen because he makes it understood that he appreciates their own expertise and, Dr. Rothfuss explains, because he’s “not a jackass about it.” Be it in chemistry or governance, complexity is complexity by any other name.

Rothfuss, politics, senator, xinova

Steering Wyoming towards remarkable advances in technology

“Where you have complicated systems, which is common in governance, you have a lot of interacting components that come into play. Engineers are trained to gather information across disciplines relevant to every component and come up with a solution. That is hard enough even when you take the politics out of it.”

But putting politics into the equation can make potentially solvable problems intractable. He hopes more scientists will go into politics to bring fresh problem-solving perspective to government (and indeed, we are seeing record numbers of scientists and doctors running for seats). The world would benefit from a stronger scientific presence in the American political scene, as he notes there is in countries like China, where actual scientists help steer scientific and economic policy.

“People have really given up on solving anything in politics… That is partly because they were never trained in coming up with solutions.”

For his own part, he’s leading the scientific charge into politics by example. Equally comfortable before technical and non-technical groups, his legislative colleagues welcome his expertise in understanding fact-based matters. And they appreciate his ability to manage the loudest voices in the room such that all ideas may be heard in a planning session or committee meeting. As an inventor, he’s participated in plenty of brainstorming sessions, from which he’s trying to import the scientist’s mindset to value others’ expertise and their ideas as they come from unfamiliar domains.

“A big difference between a room full of policy makers and scientists is that scientists have thoroughly learned a skillset, and they know to appreciate another person’s skillset,” said Dr. Rothfuss. “The chemist and the physicist appreciate each other’s base of knowledge and will complement each other when working on a solution. But often when you go into a room full of policy makers, they each assume they have sufficient information and so they don’t, and won’t, try to tap each others’ expertise to put forward a better solution because they don’t have training in how to do it that way.”

A state of innovation

As an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming he met his wife and fellow scientist, Heather. The two have been inventing together since 2010 for Xinova’s precursor company. While he’s not inventing as much as he’d like these days, he does work on innovation during ‘windshield time’ while driving across the state, or while  running for fun and relaxation.

“Inventing is therapeutic.”

He stays current with the latest technological advances while serving on the faculty for the Honors College at University of Wyoming, where his students present technology briefs for a course he teaches on nanotechnology and emerging technologies. Full-time politics prevents him from absorbing every journal article he’d like, so he jokes that he “outsources” knowledge acquisition to his talented students.

But emerging tech ties in fundamentally to his work in politics. Wyoming faces many challenges that Dr. Rothfuss says require broad-reaching technical solutions. Few, for instance, understand the state’s complicated budget, revenue streams, and savings of over $20B that includes a sovereign wealth fund. A mineral extraction state, Wyoming relies on revenues from coal, oil and natural gas for nearly 70% of Its state budget, despite an economic future that will likely transition away from fossil fuels.

But Dr. Rothfuss has helped steer Wyoming towards some remarkable advances as a national leader in technology. Under his watch, Wyoming became the only state in the union to integrate computer science into its entire K-12 common core of education.

We must bridge the gap between those with the ability to understand our problems and those with the power to Implement their solutions. Making policy makers out of scientists and engineers just seems easier than attempting the reverse.”

Dr. Chris Rothfuss, Senate Minority Leader at Wyoming State Legislature 

 

“A lot of technologies would benefit the state of Wyoming. We’re traditionally a coal state, but at the same time we want to diversify away from mineral extraction, and many of us in the senate believe innovative technology is the best way to do that.”

For instance, a few in the legislature became Interested in opportunities associated with blockchain technology.  That interest led to discussions and a series of bills that promulgated a policy framework for blockchain In Wyoming. Rothfuss then ran a budget amendment that created a blockchain task-force to identify additional opportunities, and to expand Wyoming’s technology ecosystem through further legislation.

“Now, Wyoming is recognized as the national leader in blockchain policy, and will hopefully soon be a leader in blockchain business, research and development. Who would have thought?”

Inventing a better future

Perhaps the biggest problems—fossil fuel dependence and climate change–facing the most complicated system–planet Earth–will take the most finesse to solve. Dr. Rothfuss sees that coal and gas carbon capture technology—not coal itself–is the path forward to economic prosperity for Wyoming. That’s an unpopular political position in his neck of the woods. But economics, on top of environmental impact, should overshadow the politics.

“You can get anything done, so long as you don’t want credit for it.”

A booming market for clean carbon tech is coming, especially as the coal-burning economies of China and India grow. What if Wyoming could develop and license out such technology? It would create a massive revenue stream. Someone could take a great deal of credit for saving the state economy that way. Dr. Rothfuss doesn’t care who.

“The interplay between the technology, the market, and the political arena can lead to some perverse outcomes,” said Dr. Rothfuss. “The solution is to allow them to burn coal and gas but offer tech that keeps it clean. The tech is already there. If the market and politics would also align, then we could implement important changes and preserve the Wyoming economy while still addressing climate change.”

A state of misalignment weighs down politics. There are problems. There are solutions. Between the two are the requisite expertise and resources for solutions. A system as complicated as government is limited by an absence of scientists and engineers, whose expertise drives the first step of crafting good policy: articulating the right problems. As every innovator knows, the problem has to be correctly framed in order to identify the best solution and most appropriate resources. That holds for technological solutions and beyond.

“You have a mismatch of knowledge and skill in politics. You have people who know what the problems are, but do not have the skill to solve them. You have others with the skill to solve problems, but that are not engaged in politics.”

A new era?

Dr. Rothfuss with his family & WY Governor Matt Mead

More scientists are aiming to enter the political arena in 2018 than ever before. Meanwhile, governments are reaching out to innovation companies, like Xinova, to help develop out-of-the-box solutions via the end-to-end innovation ecosystem. In doing so, smart cities and governments could fix the misalignment between problems and the resources, technology, and expertise to solve them.

It’s wheels within wheels. Government—national, state, and local—are a series of complicated systems operating within and adjacent to other complicated systems: environment, energy, innovation, business, health and transportation. It’s a lot of gears to sync. An innovative system connecting problem-solvers who fully understand each gear—and how to get them turning together productively—could be the way to solve problems in the future on a swiftly changing planet.

“We must bridge the gap between those with the ability to understand our problems and those with the power to implement their solutions” said Dr. Rothfuss.  “Making policy makers out of scientists and engineers just seems easier than attempting the reverse.”

 

 

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