APS Bids Adieu to U.S. House Science Champions

First Physicist Elected to Congress Among Retirees

By Jodi Lieberman

APS - Ehlers Retire web sm
By  Brian Mosley/APS

Three physicists currently serve in Congress. The longest-serving one is APS Fellow Vernon Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan, first elected in a special election on December 7, 1993, and to eight full terms thereafter. Ehlers recently announced his decision to retire after his current term ends, and a reception was held in his honor on Capitol Hill. In the photo, Ehlers (left) chats with APS President Curtis Callan and APS Director of Public Affairs Michael Lubell, while Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia (center) passes by.

At the close of the 111th Congress, APS will say goodbye to several congressional members who championed the importance of funding basic scientific research to sustain innovation and jobs in the United States. Their departures will create a vacuum at a time when the scientific community is in great need of sustaining the funding gains made during the last two years.

For Vernon Ehlers, an eight-term Republican representative from Michigan’s 3rd District, his retirement means the close of the legislative career of the first physicist elected to the U.S. Congress.  During his tenure, he worked tirelessly within his own party and with members from across the aisle to ensure that our nation’s children received a strong education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). He also fought hard to shore up U.S. competitiveness by supporting recommendations from the landmark Rising above the Gathering Storm study through the America COMPETES Act, which was enacted in 2007.

His biography notes that, as a member of the House Science and Technology Committee, Ehlers “oversaw in 1998 the writing of the nation’s first major statement on science policy since 1945.” He currently co-chairs the STEM Ed Caucus, which is dedicated to improving the nation’s K-12 STEM education.

In the February 2008 edition of APS’s newsletter, Capitol Hill Quarterly, Ehlers opined about a hypothetical president with scientific credentials. “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,” he wrote.

Bart Gordon web

Congressman Bart Gordon

Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN 6th), another strong champion for science, is also leaving Congress at the end of the 111th session. During his tenure as chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, Gordon played the lead role in passing the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act of 2007, or America COMPETES Act, a critical piece of legislation that authorized funding for science research and STEM education to keep the nation globally competitive. America COMPETES became law in August 2007, laying the groundwork for crucial investments in the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy Office of Science.

In the November 2009 edition of Capitol Hill Quarterly, Gordon wrote an op-ed outlining the path toward the nation’s energy future.

“To create the jobs of the future in the U.S., we need to ensure the U.S. leads in developing the transformational technologies that will make it possible for us to meet our growing need for energy with a corresponding decrease in greenhouse gas emissions,” he opined.

Bill Foster web

Congressman Bill Foster

The November 2nd mid-term elections also resulted in an unplanned departure of Congressman Bill Foster (D-14th) of Illinois who was defeated by Randy Hultgren. Before being elected to Congress, Foster, a physicist and APS Fellow, worked as a researcher at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for 22 years, helping discover the top quark and leading the team that designed and built several scientific facilities and detectors still in use today, including the Recycler Ring, a giant particle accelerator. 

Additional science supporters who will be leaving their posts: David Obey (D-WI 7th); Brian Baird (D-WA 3rd); Allan Mollahan (D-WV 1st); Bob Inglis (D-SC 4th); Allen Boyd (D-FL 2nd); Bob Etheridge ( D-NC 2nd); Earl Pomery (D-ND AL); John Spratt (D-SC 5th); Chet Edwards (D-TX 17th); Steve Kagen (D-WI 8th); and Rick Boucher (D-VA 9th). APS is grateful for the service of the congressional members who understand the critical role that science plays in stimulating innovation and creating jobs and prosperity for all Americans.