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Views from a Physicist in Congress: Washington — Where the Facts are Negotiable

By Rush Holt

Rush Holt
Rush Holt

Why would a physicist serve in Congress? After spending many years teaching physics at Swarthmore College and many years as a leader at a major physics lab, why would I want to roll around in the dirt of politics? Actually, I grew up surrounded by politics. My father was a U.S. Senator from West Virginia. My mother was the Secretary of State of West Virginia - the first woman to hold that position. Although for most of my life I applied myself to physics as a career, I have developed an appreciation for the ways of politics. As an APS Congressional Fellow in the early '80s, I began thinking about how science and Congress can better work together.

Two Cultures - Science and Politics
Scientists and politicians often seem to come from two separate worlds. In politics it often seems that perceptions are facts, and facts are negotiable. Congress is not designed to arrive at the truth, but instead to find the best balance. Science is the pursuit of the facts, wherever they lead-politics is a balance of interests.

Congress is actually very effective at representing society at large. Members of Congress have the same hopes, fears, and prejudices as their constituents. Like most people, Members of Congress make decisions based on what they see and feel personally. It is up to scientists to help Congress and the public understand the importance of their research.

Members of Congress know that science is valuable, but to some extent they're not sure why. They appreciate the fruits of science, but there is not a good understanding of the role and process of science.

Public Access to Data
A misunderstanding of the scientific method by politicians can lead to problems like the one that has developed regarding public access to scientific data funded with government grants. Included in the huge Omnibus Appropriations bill passed at the end of 1998 were a few hidden lines which will require all organizations, including universities, to make public all data obtained under federal government grants upon request through the Freedom of Information Act.

This legislation is a direct result of a misunderstanding among legislators of the way that science is conducted. The openness of scientific exchange that exists in the research community is vital to maintaining scientific progress and vibrance. Instead of creating more openness, this legislation will make industries reluctant to continue or enter partnerships with federally-funded researchers. Once data are commingled in a partnership, it may be difficult to distinguish data produced with federal funds from those produced with other funds. The resulting reluctance of industry to enter partnerships will significantly hurt fast-paced hi-tech industries.

As another example, tobacco companies and the National Rifle Association have already used intimidation and "freedom of information" threats to stop research showing that their products are harmful. This legislation will open up researchers to further harassment.

I am taking an active role in discussing both the implications of this legislation and possible corrective measures with my colleagues in both the House and Senate. Representative George Brown, who had a clear grasp of the role and process of science, was the first to recognize the serious problems created by this legislation and worked to repeal it. It is a real loss that he is no longer here to provide leadership.

Final regulations will be in place at the beginning of October. Universities will now have to develop administrative ways of responding to requests for information as well as protecting their researchers. The Office of Management and Budget, which is implementing this regulation, has rightly tried to narrow the interpretation of this rule. However, it is unlikely that this narrow interpretation will stand up to a challenge in court.

Science Education
Improving science education for all children in our public schools is also critical to developing a broader appreciation for science and the scientific method in society. I believe that teachers are the most critical element in improving education. Nothing makes more of an impact on our children than a well-trained, caring, and dedicated teacher.

Public schools will have to hire more than two million new teachers over the next 10 years. Many of these new teachers will have to teach math and science in the elementary grades. Unfortunately, many of today's teachers, especially in elementary school, do not feel prepared to teach science. Over half of America's high school teachers of physical sciences (including chemistry and earth science) do not have a major or minor in any physical science. About a third of public high school math teachers do not have a teaching certificate in math.

As a member of the House Education Committee, I recently supported the Teacher Empowerment Act as it passed the House. I worked with both the Administration and the Education Committee leadership to increase the overall investment in professional development for math and science teachers. I also included language that requires school districts to ensure the professional development needs of all of their math and science teachers, including elementary school teachers, are met.

I am also serving on the National Commission for Math and Science Teaching that will meet over the next year. This Commission is chaired by John Glenn and includes academics, educators and business leaders from around the country. We will address the developing crisis that public schools are finding in recruiting and retaining qualified math and science teachers. Among the many aspects of this issue, we will focus on preparation of teachers in college and retraining for people who already have a technical background and want to become teachers.

I believe we need to work toward a science education system that teaches every student every science every year.

Holt responds to questions from the APS News Editor:

Representative Rush Holt joins NIH Director Harold Varmus (center) and National Academy President Bruce Alberts (right) in testifying at a Congressional hearing on public access to scientific data.
Representative Rush Holt joins NIH Director Harold Varmus (center) and National Academy President Bruce Alberts (right) in testifying at a Congressional hearing on public access to scientific data. At another recent Senate hearing on this issue, Rep. Holt was joined by Don Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland System and a past APS President, and American Chemical Society President Edel Wasserman.

Q: Many large-scale science and technology projects have become either too expensive for one nation to carry or duplicate capabilities elsewhere. Yet the US is viewed as an extremely unreliable international partner. What concrete measures should Congress undertake to reverse this?

A: There are two major problems for support of international research projects: cost estimates and location of the project. First, the science community needs to take responsibility for more accurate cost estimates. Reports to Congress have shown that Congress has cancelled projects most often when costs have more than tripled above original estimates. In Europe, projects must be re-approved by each country when the cost goes above 15 percent of the original estimates. This results in more accurate estimates the first time around.

Congress can do something to address the location issue. Since the political community in each country will look at a major research project as a jobs program, where it is sited is critical for support. Congress could encourage the White House to convene a discussion group at the G7 level to negotiate which projects will be built in each country.

Q: Funding for the physical sciences continues to decline in the US. What are you doing to convince your congressional colleagues of the importance of strong support for science?

A: Mostly I talk with them. In my position on the House Budget Committee, I have advocated measures to increase research funding. But politics is about relationships, and I think my most effective support for science is through my conversations with my colleagues.

Most of my colleagues are aware of my background and like to consult with me from time to time. When we were recently in session late at night, I got a call about 9:30 from another member of Congress who wanted to talk about energy research. He knew that I would be the guy to call. Another member recently stopped me on the House floor to ask how fuel cells work.

My reputation among my colleagues extends from being able to discuss with them the needs of the research community to the fact that the daily paper on the Hill asked me to review the new "Star Wars" movie before it came out.

Q: What can "bench" scientists do to improve support for science?

A: First of all, become more informed about the political process. Get to know your Representative. I've said that politics is about relationships. Build a relationship with your Representative, and not just to demand funding increases. Invite them to your lab or to see how science education works in your local schools. Members of Congress like to know what is going on in their district. And in that way you become a resource.

Q: I guess you would say it's important to have scientists in Congress?

A: Absolutely. Since politics is about achieving the best balance of interests, the science community needs people at the table representing their views. The way the legislation requiring public access to data developed is a good case. It was pushed into a large bill when no one was looking, without any public debate and with no one representing the research community at the table when it happened.

A lot of conversation and negotiation happens between members of Congress on the House floor or in other venues. The science community is underrepresented in this body which makes so many decisions critical to its future.

Rush Holt is a US Congressman from central New Jersey who took office in January 1999, past Chair of the APS Forum on Education, and the former Assistant Director of Princeton University's Plasma Physics Laboratory.


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