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A Physicist for President?

By Vernon J. Ehlers

U.S.Rep Vernon J. Ehlers

The current presidential campaign cycle started earlier than usual, giving candidates abundant time to talk about the issues. Unfortunately, I have heard little discussion about science and technology. Candidates carefully avoid topics that might make them look too “nerdy,” that is, overly interested in nuclei, Euclidian geometry or theoretical chemistry. 

Later this year, millions of Americans will cast their ballot to elect the next President of the United States, but few will investigate the candidates’ understanding of science. Do you know where your favorite candidate stands on science and technology issues? Have you heard any candidate explain the importance of science and math education to our national defense, energy solutions, global competitiveness, health care, or the ability of our students to obtain meaningful employment in the future? Have any discussed the necessity of adequately funding scientific research?

Before you cast your ballot, consider one additional, hypothetical candidate: “Physicist for President.” Let me first make it clear: I have absolutely no desire to run for president. But as a physicist, I hope that in my lifetime someone who holds an advanced degree in physics, or some other science, will run for and win our nation’s top office.

The physicist’s presidential platform would give science and technology prominence. The candidate would recognize that geographic boundaries are almost meaningless in the 21st century. He or she would recognize that the Internet and other technologies have allowed financial and intellectual capital to flow freely worldwide at nearly the speed of light. The United States is no longer competing with a handful of developed countries, but with the entire world.

On October 4, 2007, we recalled the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik I into orbit. People who were alive in 1957 vividly remember this event. It shocked the American public and dwarfed the achievements of our rocket program. Sputnik spurred U.S. investment in aerospace, culminating in the Apollo moon landing. It also stimulated a great emphasis on improving our math and science education programs and sparked an intense focus on equipping our workforce with the skills needed to compete with the Russians and other foreign countries.

Today, the United States is facing an equally critical challenge from overseas. Despite lacking the same public prominence as the Sputnik launch, our children are once again falling behind their peers in European and Asian countries in the subjects of math and science. As a physicist, it is clear to me how important these subjects are in preparing students for the jobs of the future. I am concerned that by the time another Sputnik‑like spark comes along to wake us up to the crisis looming over our nation’s competitiveness, it may be too late to act. In order to address this growing challenge, a physicist would support updating the No Child Left Behind Act, which has helped countless students in the United States improve over the past five years. This would help ensure that students are prepared for the jobs of the future.

A scientist in the Oval Office would bring good analytical skills to decision‑making in the White House, and would appreciate the need for a population well‑versed in science. A public which understands basic scientific principles and concepts would produce analytical voters and ensure we are better stewards of our planet and all that it contains.

A physicist’s platform would also include sustained investment in fundamental research. President Bush recently signed into law the America COMPETES Act of 2007. This law includes provisions to encourage innovation in manufacturing and to strengthen many of our federal research and education programs. It also provides incentives to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors and teachers. Also, through its special focus on the training of teachers, it seeks to improve STEM education for all of our nation’s children, not just the ones who will pursue advanced degrees. It strives to equip all high school graduates with a strong education in science and math, allowing them to excel in any career path they choose. The law establishes a pathway to double in seven years the research budgets of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and it enhances programs designed to improve K‑12 teacher content knowledge in science and math. The successful passage of this $33.6 billion authorization was in large part due to advocacy by individual scientists across the nation. I was excited to see the efforts of 12 years of hard work in Congress pay off when this bill became law, and I am pleased that I was able to play a part in this success. Clearly, with a scientist as president, as well as more scientists in Congress, success could be achieved much more rapidly.

The catch, however, is that the COMPETES Act does not ensure that this funding actually materializes, since authorization measures must be followed by Appropriation Committee actions to ensure the funds are allocated and spent. Of course, the “physicist‑for‑president” platform would include a plan to fully fund the COMPETES Act in the annual budget request to Congress. Though our nation’s president should have a fiscally conservative view on government spending, this would be the only part of a platform where a scientist could clearly make the case that this investment is one which we must not underfund. It is truly an investment in our future and would produce a great return on investment. Americans must recognize how important basic research is to the vitality of our nation; fully funding these programs should be a proposal all would support. Additionally, I expect a scientist running for president would pledge to permanently extend the research and development tax credit; this would give companies the ability to depend on that credit when they conduct long‑term planning for their research and development endeavors.

In summary, the “Physicist for President” platform would present our nation with a winning array of ideas developed to put us on the path toward sustained economic competitiveness and bolstered innovation. It would include substantial investments in our nation’s research and development programs, as well as sustained efforts to build upon our successful STEM education programs. China and India decided 20 years ago to improve the STEM education of their students, and today are reaping tangible results, especially in manufacturing. It is time for us to catch up to the substantial investments other nations are making.

Perhaps someday we will elect a scientist as president. Until then, I urge my fellow physicists to become involved in their communities and local politics. Volunteer to speak at your local high school, so you can excite students about science. Run for your local school board. Serve as a volunteer advisor to an elected official. Mentor a student and encourage him or her to pursue a college degree or career in science. Exercise your right to vote. If you interact with a real presidential candidate, ask him or her for positions on these issues. If you would like to establish a personal relationship with a candidate, I encourage you to attend their events and to volunteer to work for their campaign. Similarly, I urge current policymakers to listen to the voices of physicists. Our unique training provides us with the perspective to approach problems logically while analytically developing solutions. 

I sincerely hope that our next President will share the same passion and zeal I have for improving our nation’s science and education programs, and that our country will grow and prosper from scientific knowledge! Wouldn’t you vote for that? And won’t you work to make it happen?

APS Fellow Vernon J. Ehlers received his PhD in nuclear physics from UC Berkeley. A Republican, he has represented Michigan’s 3rd district in Congress since 1993. He serves on the Education and Labor, Science and Technology, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Administration committees of the House of Representatives.

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