An interview with former Congressman Rush Holt

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By Ian Dillingham, Statement Editor
Published March 31, 2015

The following is an interview with Rush Holt conducted during the Jerome B. Wiesner Symposium on Strengthening the Roles of Universities in National Science Policymaking. Holt is currently chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Before taking over this role in February, he served sixteen years in the U.S. House of Representatives (NJ–12). In Congress, he was a proponent for the advancement of science and technology policies. He also held a faculty appointment at Swarthmore College as a professor of physics and public policy.

The Michigan Daily: How do you define science?

Rush Holt: It’s a way of asking questions so that they can be answered empirically and verifiably … You try things, you observe things, you communicate your conclusions, and you subject your conclusions to other people who will check your work. That’s science. That’s the whole of science right there. It’s empirically based — evidence-based — it involves open communication and an invitation to others to check your work. If you do all of those things you’re thinking like a scientist. And if you understand that, I think you begin to understand and can appreciate why it is important that you have good science involved in legislation and regulations, why it is important that you have good science involved in international problems, why it is important that you have good science involved in social and economic decision-making.

What is the role of science and scientists in policymaking?

We have a problem in our society understanding what science is and why science is. For starters, we should say that it is a liberal art. You want to understand science just as you would understand history or literature or other aspects of human intellectual experience … Science is not the exclusive path to knowledge — there’s poetry and story telling and religion — but it is the most reliable and it happens that it is also the most applicable. It is a way of thinking that leads to progress — in what most people would say is progress. We need a broader appreciation of that in society; and the appreciation of science in society at large is only so-so.

There are a lot of people that appreciate the fruits of science — the ultimate applications: your iPhone here or something. But they don’t understand the scientific enterprise, how it works, what is needed to sustain it. We really need to develop that understanding in society at large; and, surprisingly, we need to develop that among scientists as well. Most scientists don’t think about science beyond the methodologies and the terminologies. They’re working on their techniques, whether they’re on paper or on the computer or in the lab, and would be hard pressed to give an understandable definition of science — would be hard pressed to talk about where science fits in with the overall human endeavor.

How is science perceived by Congress and the public?

I served in the House of Representatives. Members of Congress are representative of the population at large. So when you see members of Congress denying evidence about vaccinations, denying climate change, avoiding any thought about evolution, cutting basic research funding, they’re reflecting what is widespread in our society and in our body politic. It’s not as if they’re particularly ill-informed or mendacious. They’re representing what people are saying and thinking, and people are saying and thinking that the fruits of science are really pretty good.

Most people would say that science is beneficial and society is making progress because of science — but that number is eroding, so that’s a troubling sign. And furthermore, they don’t quite know what that means, because they don’t have that basic appreciate of what and why science. They value the fruits of science but really don’t have a clue what it takes to sustain science and how scientists work … We need to communicate not what science says is true and false, but rather we need to communicate how science works and where science leads. And you have to do that with good stories. That’s how people communicate. All humans in modern history communicate with stories and anecdotes. That’s the way you learn. That’s the way you make decisions

What does it mean to effectively communicate science?

Scientists are often criticized for it, but I would say scientists are no better or worse than people in general at communicating. Their reputation is worse. They’re thought to be cold and uninterested and just incommunicative. Part of the problem about the misunderstanding of science rests with scientists; part of the problem rests with our education for everybody, because we chose — fifty years ago — not to educate everyone in science. We said, “If you’re not going into science, you don’t need to take all these high school science courses. Certainly not in college you don’t have to, unless your university has a distribution requirement.” … I think it’s undeniable that we don’t teach an appreciation of science, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that most people don’t have an appreciation of science.

How has the President played a role in science policy?

This president is intellectually very curious, and that says a lot — to me anyway. I was at the White House last week for the science fair, where he invited in a lot of high school and elementary school kids who had science projects and they all had their posters up. He just loved it. He said it’s his favorite day of the year — to interact with kids who are discovering things. It’s fun to watch their sense of discovery, and he interacts with them a lot. But more than that, he interacts a lot with the (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology). These are all really hotshot scientists, and he interacts with them really eagerly. He is intellectually curious and thinks about science, thinks about how it works, thinks about its implications.

What is the civic role of scientists?

Scientists and others have a responsibility to be somewhat involved in the community. An individual can begin to define what they consider community, where they feel comfortable. Do they feel comfortable working with the local school board or do they feel comfortable running for Congress? Do they feel comfortable serving on a national advisory committee on emerging diseases or safety of vaccinations or whatever it might be? … A lot of the leaders we see out there just don’t say no. There are some people that are ambition-driven — they want to be a leader at all cost. But I think the most effective leaders are the ones that want to serve and don’t say no to the opportunities that are presented to them.

You don’t have to look too hard to see opportunities to address a need. There are a lot of needs out in society. I think a lot of leaders just go from service to service to service — they start doing something to help and it grows, and pretty soon they’re recognized as leaders. I guess that’s the way it works.