Rep. Rush Holt on Science Policy Rep. Rush Holt was a guest on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation: Science Friday" (www.sciencefriday.com) late last year. Holt, a freshman Democrat, represents New Jersey's 12th District. Before coming to Congress, he was the Assistant Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Holt offered some interesting observations about his first year in Congress that are useful as we start the next budget cycle. Selections from his interview with Ira Flatow follow. The entire interview can be heard at the Science Friday web site.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CONGRESS, SCIENTISTS, AND FACTS:
"The way facts are treated is indeed different. Scientists would help themselves and help society, actually, if they explained to the public that facts are not cut-and-dry and immutable. Even scientists are dealing with provisional understandings of how things work..... I think, obviously, you don't want the arrogance of science saying that we have all the answers. But, by the same token, we do need to educate the public that there are some things that are well-understood, and if they are going to be challenged, than the standard of the challenge is pretty high."
HOW CONGRESS VIEWS SCIENTISTS:
"I think that most Members of Congress think of scientists as another interest group. Perhaps smarter lobbyists...the science lobby. They are coming in asking for more research and development money...more instruments, better telescopes..... I think there is a general sense, as there is in society at large, that scientists are pretty smart people. And so maybe this interest group gets a little more hearing than some other interest group. But I think that is partly how Members of Congress look at scientists. So we have the challenge, scientists have the challenge, and I as both a scientist and a legislator, have the challenge to help everyone understand...what is so special about science."
BALANCING FEDERAL SUPPORT BETWEEN NIH AND OTHER BUDGETS:
"We could hope that there would be a little more balance in the portfolio so that physical sciences and others would have more of an increase. [Holt was then asked about lobbying.] NIH and the health industry in general are very effective at lobbying because for one thing, you can bring it home. You can relate this to the legislator's husband or wife or kids or grandparents or aunts or uncles. And it's hard to vote against health."
CONGRESSIONAL ACTION ON SCIENCE AND MATH EDUCATION:
"I am particularly pleased that we able to include some money, a small increase, for training of teachers who will be teaching science and math. This would include elementary school teachers; we make enormous demands of elementary school teachers and we need to help them in the teaching of science and math. I think that is particularly important." [Holt then discussed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.] "We have been able to emphasize science in several parts of it. In seeing that states not only have standards for science, but they actually test in the area of science as they do in reading and math, to find out if students are meeting those standards. Let me come back to the training. I think that it is particularly important that we provide funding for that. Because in education we devote a small fraction of a percent to training of teachers. Whereas in most industries, companies will spend five, ten, even twenty percent, training their workers in their areas, ongoing training. So we should be doing that in our education as well."
RELATIONSHIP OF SCIENCE TO THE PUBLIC AND CONGRESS:
"Science seems somewhat remote to most people.... Remember the House of Representatives is nothing if not representative. And generally speaking, the representatives are very smart, very good at what they do. But they represent the hopes and fears and general understanding of the public in general. So I think, again, that science is seen as something of an interest group. And what we would like to do is help people understand that science not only can improve the thinking of individuals, the citizenship of individuals...but will contribute to our economic growth. That investment in science really makes this a better country. One of the things that I am pleased to be working on is a bill calling for the doubling of the federal investment in research and development. One of the reasons is that it is through federally funded research and development that we train our future scientists."
PROBLEMS REQUIRING A LONG-TERM APPROACH:
"Our political system generally struggles to deal with things that require a long-term perspective."
ALLOCATING FEDERAL RESOURCES TO DEAL WITH SOCIETAL PROBLEMS:
"Scientists do not have the ultimate answers. Science can put a limit on what is possible. Science can't balance school lunches v. transportation projects v. defense projects. That depends on the values of societies. We certainly need to enhance the values of society that are based on human welfare. ...let me go back to research and development. This is not some esoteric concern. It really makes a difference for people.... It is research and development that gives us the new ideas to allow for the productivity growth that will allow us to meet the material human needs.... Research is critically important for that."
Richard M. Jones