APS News

A Physicist Discusses His Congressional Service

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt
Official U.S. House photo

Rush Holt

In fall 2014, Rush Holt, one of only two physicists in Congress, announced he would not seek re-election. Formerly an assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Holt has represented New Jersey’s 12th district as a Democrat since 1999. He will become the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in mid-February, 2015. In an interview with Alaina Levine for APS News, he reflected on his experiences in Congress and what he is excited about for the future.

AGL: I noticed in your final address to Congress that you mentioned specifically that when you answered the phone, you always answered it as “Representative Rush Holt.” What does it mean to you to have represented this constituency, particularly as a physicist?

RH: Part of the genius of our Constitution that has been recognized and copied around the world is that a sustainable government begins with the concept of representation. And especially if you have a government that is meant to be the antithesis of a monarchy, which our government is intended to be, and a government that is dynamic enough and evolutionary enough to last in a changing world, it has to be based to the 0th order on representation. Both from a political point of view (in understanding how politics works), [and] from an academic and intellectual point of view (in understanding what it takes to have a sustainable government), I realized that representation focused on each individual is essential to this job and that’s why I’ve often said that “Representative” is both my formal title and also the job description, and that it has to be directed at each individual. Obviously with 750,000 people in this district, I can’t know personally each individual or even each individual’s concerns and hopes and fears, but they have to know that each of them is part of their government. It’s a really important point.

AGL: It’s interesting to hear you describe it that way because you’re going to be overseeing the largest general science society in the world, the AAAS.  I wonder how that same concept of representing your constituency will manifest itself in your mind and what you do as the leader of AAAS. Can you talk a little about that aspect?

RH: Sure. My path has intersected with the AAAS many times over the decades, and I was an AAAS [Science & Technology Policy] Fellow in Congress in the 1980s. And I’ve spoken at AAAS annual meetings and been involved in AAAS policy discussions and so forth. What makes AAAS the most important scientific organization in the country is that it is fundamentally a membership organization. It publishes Science magazine, so it’s a publishing company. It holds policy conferences, so it has some elements of being a think tank, but first and foremost it was created a century and a half ago as a membership organization and that’s what makes it so important.

AGL: In society right now, what roles do science associations, in particular AAAS and APS, play?

RH: The APS, through [the Office of Public Affairs], has done some important things to affect policy. Societies like APS, [in] publishing journals and holding meetings, advance science that way, but they also have a role to advance science the way it is structured and practiced and funded in the country. So APS has a large role. The AAAS, because it is an umbrella that covers all disciplines, has a very large role to look after the health of science. And if you look at AAAS and APS, when they were founded, it was not just for members to get together and talk, but they set up journals because they understood that communication was an essential ingredient of science. It’s not enough to come up with good, empirically testable hypotheses. If you don’t communicate it, you’re not a scientist.

AGL: What was it about this job with the AAAS that attracted you?

RH: I looked at the mission statement and saw [that] this is what I have been doing in one form or another for decades: trying to i want mprove communication among scientists and between scientists and the general public, strengthen science education, defend the integrity of science, and enhance the role of science in society to make sure science is applied to public policy in a meaningful and accurate way. In one form or another, that’s what I’ve been doing for years. For all of those reasons I’m really quite excited about the prospect here.

AGL: I know it’s so early, but I’m curious to know if you have any overarching goals that you can share.

RH: It’s too early to talk about that. I’m not on the job yet. There’s a very good chief executive officer running AAAS (and has been for a long time now), so there’s a lot I have to learn about what AAAS is already doing and what it is capable of doing. I can imagine all sorts of really good and exciting things but it’s too early for me to lay out an agenda.

AGL: In your farewell address, you mentioned the need to re-establish the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and that you were disappointed that you weren’t able to continue your efforts to reestablish that office. I wondered if technology assessment and technology transfer is something you are interested in working on in your role with AAAS?

RH: Oh sure. The Office of Technology Assessment was an important and very valuable organization that served to advise Congress. It lasted for almost 25 years and gave good information and guidance to Congress. And in a stupid, uninformed effort to reform Congress, it was abolished, and Congress and the country are the lesser because of it. Congress needs it more than ever now, to look at the implications of science and technology in our society. This is everything from healthcare to national defense to agriculture and fisheries to communication and civil liberties. You name it. In all of those, there are aspects that are informed by science and technology. And Congress needs advice that’s based on that. I won’t say there’s no scientific advice available to Congress, because of course there is. But this was a stand-alone organization that existed specifically for the purpose of advising Congress and Congress has lost that and needs it.

AGL: Can you share some of your proudest accomplishments as a Congressman, as a Representative of your district? What are you especially excited about that you were able to accomplish while in the House?

RH: I’m still trying to assess what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve failed to accomplish, but you can find things in large areas, like science research, environmental protection and land conservation, education in science and foreign languages, mental health, veterans’ care and so forth. And then what might be more important, and it’s kind of hard to calculate this, is all of the little things that add up: service to constituents, and speaking out on issues that aren’t really legislation but affect the fairness, justice, and opportunities in our society.

AGL: Can you give me an example of that?

RH: Visiting classrooms to talk with students about the role of science in their lives. That doesn’t find its way into a list of enacted legislation, and no one classroom visit certainly rises to the level of being a major accomplishment, but as I run into person after person who, in this decade and a half and almost two decades that I’ve been doing these things, I get the sense that it begins to add up. One of the greatest needs of our country I think is to overcome the surge, in recent decades, of cynicism about our ability to govern ourselves, and we have to overcome that cynicism, because people who don’t believe they can govern themselves, can’t. And so, in a non-specific but still important way, it may turn out that my greatest contributions have gone beyond getting $22 billion of new money for science research or preserving thousands of acres of open space or getting tuition grants for students’ training to teach science or foreign languages or getting hundreds of millions of dollars for suicide prevention through the VA. Those are all things I’m proud of. But it may turn out that helping people understand that we all have more to do to preserve the idea of a self-governing nation might turn out to be more important.

AGL: How has your physics background come in handy in Congress, and, a related question, what was the greatest gift that physics gave you as a Representative?

RH: I deliberately didn’t serve on committees that were explicitly science, and that’s because I felt the need to have people who think like scientists in all parts of policy making. To give one example: voting. That’s done in a committee in Congress that scientists never even think about. (laughs) And yet when changes were made a decade and a half ago to move this country toward unverifiable, unauditable voting systems with inaccessible electronic memories, computer scientists immediately saw the problems: bugs in the system, hacking of the system, public uncertainty of whether their vote was recorded properly the way they wanted … these were real serious problems with this. These electronic voting machines looked neater and cleaner, but computer scientists realized they weren’t better, and that’s an example where thinking like a scientist uncovered problems that weren’t obvious and it’s why we need, throughout our policy making, people who think like scientists. Land preservation [is] another example: you shouldn’t necessarily just set aside the land that is available. What you really need to consider is what lands should be kept in their natural state. The study of ecology can shed some light on that, about how land can be used by migrating animals, how plants communicate and so forth. But generally speaking, legislative decisions about land preservation in this country are not made by scientists. You could go on in area after area after area, where having people who have been trained to frame questions so they can be answered empirically would help, would lead to better decisions.

AGL: I imagine you would recommend that physicists and other scientists consider elected office. Would that be fair to say?

RH: Yeah, as I say, I’d like to see more people thinking like scientists in Congress and it doesn’t mean you have to be a scientist, but the way we’ve structured our education system and our society, generally speaking, people who are not professional scientists, choose not to think like scientists, even though they could. And again, by “thinking like a scientist,” I mean framing questions so they can be answered empirically and verifiably. So until we get to the point where most educated people in this country are comfortable thinking about science and capable of thinking like a scientist, we will need in our legislatures more actual scientists. We have a long way to go before non-scientists are comfortable thinking about science and show themselves capable of thinking like scientists, so until that golden age, we need more scientists.

AGL: How did you cognitively deal with the clash of scientific culture and science being very black and white and binary with the gray areas of politics? How would you encourage other physicists and scientists who want to run for elected office to handle that clash?

RH: They are not incompatible. There are certainly times when science shows that some policy choices are impossible or not realistic. For example, the odds are that continuing to spew out greenhouse gases will harm us and, for anybody who studies the science, the odds are that the current practice is unsustainable and so we ought to note that. But what politics and our governmental system are so good at is balancing competing interests. So there are a lot of things where science doesn’t give THE right answer, based on human values and historical perspective and so forth. It can certainly constrain the possible solutions. But the balancing of competing interests has to go on even when there isn’t good science or maybe never will be about particular questions. I often tell students if you think of our government as a mechanism for balancing competing interests, it makes a lot more sense and it becomes not only easier to understand, but easier to respect.

AGL: What can physicists do to make their voice heard, both in government and in professional associations, like AAAS and APS?

RH: Don’t hesitate to speak out. Think hard about communicating, [especially] with people who probably don’t think about what you’re talking about very often. So you have to continually think about and refine the way you talk, the way you explain, and the way you advocate. And form coalitions with other interested people. Every now and then you’ll find some really interesting coalitions between scientists and non-scientists who care about one thing or another for very different reasons, but still seek the same policy outcome. Be involved. Work in collaboration with other interested people, and be persistent. Very few things of importance in our governmental history have been achieved quickly. And still another thing, and this is so important: the famous judge Learned Hand once said “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” Scientists have to have a good measure of humility — and they do it in their science, we all do it in our science — that we all believe that our knowledge, whether it’s in the physical sciences or the life sciences, is provisional. As we say, we never forget that there might be a patent clerk in Switzerland who’s gonna show that we’re wrong, and we carry that with us all the time. And yet so often when scientists start to talk about policy issues, they act so damn sure of themselves (laughs). It’s a lesson for all Americans that Judge Hand expressed so beautifully, that we have to carry around this idea that we’re not too certain that we’re right.

AGL: How has being in Congress made you a better scientist, a better physicist?

RH: Oh, I’m not sure I am a better scientist. (laughs) I’ve kind of lost ground in science. Speaking about what is important in science, I mean important in the long term, how it affects human welfare, thinking about how humans accomplish progress, certainly has helped me to understand a lot of things that I either didn’t understand before or never even thought about before. But as far as making me a better scientist, no, probably not. If I could, if my mind was nimble enough to go back to doing science, maybe, because of the perspective I’ve gained, I would be a better scientist.

AGL: Would you say, and I say this with all due respect because I am one myself, that you are a nerd?

RH: (laughs) Vern Ehlers, another physicist who served in Congress, frequently said to youngsters that they should understand that either they are nerds or they will be working for one. (laughs) Which is a cute saying and there’s some truth in it. I certainly am pleased that people think of me as a scientist and would like to be worthy of carrying that mantle (laughs).

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