PRINCETON – Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16) and Governor Phil Murphy have the common goal of revitalizing New Jersey’s innovation economy, and to that end partnered last week to formally reup the New Jersey Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology.
It was a significant moment for Zwicker, chair of the Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, who in his day job heads the science education department for Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory. From the start of his chairmanship he backed the million dollar reestablishment of the 17-member commission, unfunded and left adrift by former Governor Chris Christie.
Zwicker said he sees it as a win for New Jersey.
“This economically strapped state has to invest, we have to get it to invest, and the single greatest return on investment is innovation,” Zwicker told InsiderNJ earlier this summer over coffee close to the physics lab where he works.
Like Murphy, Zwicker sees long-term economic sustainability in the combined strategy of tax credits and direct investment in NJ’s innovation ecosystem.
“Massachusetts has had a roughly 4-1 return on economic development investment, or $750 million in a decade,” the assemblyman said.
“This is where my two worlds come together,” he added. “You get science as an economic driver. That’s what this is about. When the state directly invests in startups, it’s a win-win.”
Life sciences and pharmaceuticals. Financial IT. Cyber security. Aviation, agriculture, solar and wind.
“What I am trying to accomplish doesn’t have a time frame dictated by an election,” said Zwicker, first elected in 2015. “The role of the committee is to reinvigorate Jersey’s innovation economy; the first thing they said when we started was bring back the science and tech commission. Instead of tax credits for large corporations, which was what we had in the Christie years, it’s tax credits for innovation.”
If the cross-section of politics and science seems at times almost antithetical, Zwicker had the advantage of a key mentor: former U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12); and a particular assignment that enabled him to develop a social outreach component to academia.
Zwicker arrived at Princeton University 20 years ago, right out of grad school.
“I had just gotten my PhD in plasma physics working on fusion devices. It’s all tied into my narrative of why I’m even in politics. I met Rush Holt early. I was just doing straight research. Rush, he was deputy director – this was long before he was congressman – asked me if I’d be able to mentor a young woman for the summer from Trenton Central High School. [To this day] we stay in touch. I changed her life, but I didn’t know she was changing mine. That was sort of the start. She became the first person in her family to go to college. She’s got a family of her own now and a successful job. And I really love that, that was really cool. I did fusion research all over the world, and Rush recruited me back four years later right before he won – to do education.”
He runs an energy lab now, and takes on eligible underprivileged students committed to research.
“How can we get kids excited about science?” he said. “Basically it’s people who don’t look like me as a white guy – I created partners with other students. There are 18 undergraduates around the country. Two of them are white. We have tremendous success. Over the last 20 years I have spent time on scientific education and outreach. It’s been an arc of how we get young kids into science. When Rush retired, lots of people – Republicans and Democrats – came to me and said ‘you should run,’ and I did.”
This was in 2014.
Zwicker ran in a Democratic Primary for Holt’s seat, and lost in the primary to U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman.
But he impressed people in the loss, and returned a year later to edge then-Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-16) in the battleground 16th Legislative District.
He won reelection last year in the same cycle dominated statewide by Murphy.
Although Republicans are eager to try to take back the 16th District and sense an opportunity next year with the combination of Democrats in charge and the absence of a mayoral contest in Democratic-dominant South Brunswick, Zwicker sees his relationship with Murphy as a positive.
“He campaigned on an innovation economy,” Zwicker said of his fellow Democrat. “He fully understands it and believes it. He knows this is how to bring New Jersey back. I look at it as my role to absolutely help him from the legislative standpoint.”
He’s in regular communications with Murphy’s chief policy adviser, Kathleen Frangione; and Tim Sullivan, head of the state’s Economic Development Authority. Murphy’s emphasis on tech innovation complements Zwicker’s own commitment to data science not ideology, a stark contrast to a Donald Trump agenda of alternative facts, he argues.
Apparently, the goodwill is mutual.
At last week’s bill signing in New Brunswick, Murphy commented on the Democratic lawmaker.
“Nobody understands the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] economy in an elected position better than Andrew Zwicker,” said the Governor. “And the fact that he chose a few years ago to – in addition to his demanding day job and the depth of his involvement in the innovation economy – raise his hand and jump in the pool of public service and represent his district so meaningfully and with such distinction and then have such an impact on the innovation economy in such a short amount of time, it’s really one of those things you look up at and say, ‘That’s the way it should be.'”