PRISM Magazine Online - May-June 2000
Washington's NEW SCIENCE SAGE
Rush Holt - photo by Linda CreightonIf a couple of important elections go his way, Democratic Congressman Rush Holt stands to become a top player in the science and technology arena.
By Kenneth T. Walsh

Members of Congress fancy themselves experts on just about everything. Check out a typical hearing or floor debate and you'll find that legislators line up to posture and pontificate about whatever is in the news, from Social Security and agriculture to Chechnya and China.

But there is one big exception: When the discussion turns to science and technology, even the most self-confident and well-educated legislator can suddenly lose interest or feel unqualified to make policy. And that's where freshman Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) comes in. A 1970 graduate of Carleton College in Minnesota who earned a doctorate in physics from New York University in 1981, Holt is the former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and one of the few real-life scientists in Congress--and he is fast becoming the in-house consultant of choice for his colleagues on a wide range of science and technology issues that they feel uncomfortable with. If the Democrats take over the House of Representatives in the November election--and Holt wins re-election in his Republican-leaning 12th District--he will be in a good position to greatly influence science and technology policy over the next decade.

The role of science in government is to help to improve the quality of life for the world.

Eking out a victory in 1998 with a 50-47 percent margin, Holt landed assignments on the Budget Committee and the Committee on Education and the Workforce, the latter reflecting his keen interest in improving science and math education, especially in elementary school.

He sees a clear role for himself on Capitol Hill. "There are countless issues facing the country that have significant technical components," Holt says, "and I find a lot of nontechnical people, including their representatives in Congress, are hesitant to deal with technical subjects. People who are very smart and willing to deal with agricultural issues and budget issues and transportation issues and defense issues over the course of a day will shy away from scientific and technical issues."

Another problem, Holt says, is that most members of Congress think of scientists as just another special-interest group, a science lobby that shows up every year seeking more money for research and development. "There is a general sense that scientists are pretty smart people and so maybe this interest group gets a little more hearing than some other interest group," he told National Public Radio recently. The challenge for him, as both legislator and scientist, is to help everyone understand what is special about science. "The role of science in government," he says, "is to help to improve the quality of life for the world."                      His colleagues defer to him and a handful of other trained scientists in Congress on high-tech issues, even though Holt is not trained specifically in many of them, such as gene splicing. "It reflects to some extent people's sense that science is only to be undertaken by trained 'experts,'" Holt says, adding that he disagrees with that notion.

Science Perspective

Yet Holt, 51, makes the most of his opportunities. "The training of a physicist in particular and I think scientists in general, and this would apply to engineers as well, helps us deal with things on different time scales and different spatial scales simultaneously," he says. "I really think it is possible to keep politics local, to deal with what I call the kitchen-table issues--Social Security and Medicare and the local environmental protection--without losing sight of issues of global scale and issues that have time scales that are measured in decades, such as weapons of mass destruction, global climate change, population trends, and loss of bio-diversity globally." These are the issues that Congress and government agencies need to pay more attention to, he says. Scientists and engineers are also trained in problem-solving in which ideology plays no role, Holt adds, and about political issues, which voters tend to prize in their leaders.

"Scientists have an obligation right now to society to correct this perception that harms us all--and that is that science deals with cut-and-dried, hard-and-fast facts," Holt says. "We scientists know that facts are provisional, that even Isaac Newton, whose ideas served humanity well for a couple hundred years, could be overturned by a simple patent clerk from Switzerland by the name of Einstein. Even well accepted ideas are provisional, and we are constantly making decisions with an understanding of probability, and there are degrees of uncertainty. I think scientists have an obligation to educate the general public, starting with elementary-school kids, to be comfortable with probabilities, to understand the nature of uncertainty, and how you make decisions on the basis of uncertainty, and how we know what we know."

 Holt says Rep. Vern Ehlers, a Michigan Republican and another physicist, "has sort of worn the mantle of the research scientist in Congress, and so now I sort of share that mantle with him." But if the Democrats take over, it will be Holt who will have the ascendant role in the new Congress. He will clearly try to use his background in his upcoming re-election campaign. Already, bumper stickers saying "My congressman is a rocket scientist" adorn cars in Princeton. "A lot of these issues are not and need not be partisan," Holt adds, noting that he and Ehlers often take similar positions from a scientist's perspective. They both voted against a national missile defense, for example, for much the same reason: that even if a system to "hit a bullet with a bullet" is feasible, there's no guarantee that an enemy couldn't find a way to circumvent it. "To make that defense work technologically, then you have to have an enemy that is not going to use diversionary tactics, decoys, and other things to spoof and fool the system," Holt says, adding that such a system could be considered "destabilizing" to other nuclear-capable nations.

Holt says support for research and development also tends to be bipartisan--even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as conservative ideologically as they come, has been making speeches and writing essays calling for more federal support for research and development.

"We need to invest strongly at a higher level than we have in research and development sponsored by the federal government," Holt says, "because that not only benefits society by improving the economy and helping some industries, but it's a critical ingredient for the training of scientists." He believes that increases in productivity can be traced to earlier investments in research and development and science, and argues that the federal government should also encourage research and development in the private sector by making the R&D tax credit permanent. Congress extended the tax credit for five years in 1999.

But if the Democrats take over, Holt expects the House to focus more emphatically on education as a top priority, to help states and localities do a better job. "There is a role for maintaining national standards, for assisting teachers in training, and for sharing the best practices through such things as the National Science Foundation as well as the Department of Education," he argues, and he is prepared to join in that effort. He predicts that a Demo-crat-controlled Congress will spend more money on elementary and secondary education, and in supporting teacher training.

On that score, Holt said the nation needs to recruit 2.2 million more teachers over the next decade, just to keep pace with the growing student population. If the goal is to reduce the size of classes, even more teachers will be needed. And most of those teachers will be called on to give instruction on science at some point in their careers. That argues for improved training both while future teachers are in school and throughout their careers, Holt says.

All in the Family

As for his own political career, Holt is no stranger to public life. His father, Rush D. Holt, was dubbed the "boy senator" because he was elected to the U.S. Senate from West Virginia in 1934 at age 29 and couldn't take office by law until 1935. But the elder Holt, though he initially billed himself as a New Deal Democrat, fought frequently with President Franklin Roosevelt and lost the Democratic primary in 1940. He later became a Republican. The younger Holt's mother, Helen, was West Virginia Secretary of State and became a top official with the Federal Housing Agency under President Eisenhower.

With this political background, it wasn't surprising that Holt ran a savvy campaign to unseat GOP incumbent Mike Pappas. The physicist-turned-pol cleverly exploited a bizarre speech that Pappas gave on the House floor in July 1998 in which he praised Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr with this poem: "Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr, now we see how brave you are. We could not see which way to go, if you did not lead us so." Holt replayed video and audio footage of Pappas and ridiculed him in his campaign ads, suggesting that Pappas was too partisan for the district and was wasting his time in Washington. It worked, and Holt rode the doubts about the incumbent to a narrow victory.

It may be tougher winning a second term this fall. Although Holt, by all accounts, has been careful to visit home often and keep in touch with his constituents, he has been targeted by the national GOP for defeat in the Republican-leaning district. And Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, points out that there is a reason there are so few scientists in Congress. "You can assign numbers to almost anything," Sabato says, "but there are many things in politics that are not easily quantifiable. People from hard science sometimes have a hard time in the soft art of politics."

The Early Days

Still, Holt is enjoying himself thoroughly on Capitol Hill, even though Congress is more partisan than he remembered it from his tenure as a congressional fellow for the American Physical Society 20 years ago. "I like to think back to the early 1980s when I was congressional fellow about to begin a year as a staff member on Capitol Hill," Holt told National Public Radio not long ago. "I was with other professional scientists who were similarly selected by their professional societies, and we were getting a briefing organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The first speaker kind of took us aback a little bit when he said, 'Well, you have to understand that here in Washington, facts are negotiable.' And we squirmed in our chairs, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into for a year.

"The next day, we began to get the idea when a completely different speaker said to us, 'Well, you have to understand that here in Washington, we treat facts differently.' And the third day of our orientation, still another speaker came in and said to us, 'Well, you have to understand that in politics, perceptions are facts.' And that led me to think really hard about the essence of science, the relationship between science and politics and what each has to learn from the other."

Science doesn't have all the answers, he says, but the public needs to be educated that some things are well understood. "Science can put a limit on what is possible, " Holt says, "but science can't balance school lunches vs. transportation projects vs. defense projects. That depends on the values of society."  

Kenneth T. Walsh is the senior White House
correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.

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