Rush Holt on Bridging the Worlds of Science and Public Policy
Rush Holt on Bridging the Worlds of Science and Public Policy
Interview by Gia Jadick, SPS Mather Public Policy Intern 2019
On behalf of the SPS Observer, 2019 SPS intern Gia Jadick sat down (virtually) with former congressional representative Rush Holt to get his take on the intersection between science and public policy. Holt is a PhD physicist who served as the US representative for New Jersey’s 12th congressional district from 1999 to 2015 and is CEO emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Can you share some of your unique background and philosophy?
From my earliest memory, I’ve been interested in how things work—that’s science—and how people get along—that’s politics. Both of my parents were like this as well. My mother was first a biology teacher, then later a state legislator and secretary of state in West Virginia. She was the first woman in statewide office in West Virginia. I realized you could combine science and politics, and there was nothing wrong with it.
While an undergrad, I majored in physics, but I was also doing just about everything I could find on campus. After I got my PhD in solar physics, I began teaching at Swarthmore College. I taught not only the full range of physics courses, but also science and public policy, science and arms control, and similar topics. I had informal discussion groups in my home every week on issues of the day that involved science. I thought, “This is how science and public policy should be done.” We want the best understanding of how things actually are—that’s what science is all about. Science should not exist all by itself. Scientists should note how their work, and they as people, fit into the larger picture of the world.
How should science and public policy coexist?
I have always straddled these two worlds. At certain times I did more science than public policy and vice versa, but I was always trying to bridge the gap between the two. This has been a very satisfying career for me. But, as I say, it easily could have gone the other way, where I would have been a failure as a physicist and a failure as a politician. For someone who might want to do the same for themselves, it can be risky, but it can also be very satisfying. I think that’s where the future of science is—science that is not off in an ivory tower or holed up in a laboratory, but science that is integrated into society. We may get to the point where policymakers who are not trained scientists will be more aware of the science that they need in their policy and won’t need to call in the experts, and any well-educated person will be able to think intelligently about science and how that fits into their public questions.
How did you become interested in working with Congress?
I was a congressional fellow, back 40 years ago. The scientific societies, including the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Institute of Physics (AIP), sponsor congressional fellows who are PhD-level physicists. I was mid-career at the time. It is a terrific program where you spend a year as a staff member on Capitol Hill. It is very different from doing physics, and you have to want to do something different, and you have to be willing to run the risk that it will interrupt your career. About half the people who do the fellowship end up changing their careers because of it, including me, although it took me a while. After my fellowship, I went back to teaching physics and doing research, but I ultimately returned to Capitol Hill.
How has the way scientists engage in public policy changed over the years?
There was a period from the end of World War II to sometime in the 1970s where physicists were the scientists who were most publicly engaged. They were serving on the president’s Science Advisory Committee, using their physics analysis to explicate public issues, and publishing articles in the New York Times. In recent years, it seems to be more biologists doing this instead of physicists. A few years ago, regarding the Iran nuclear agreement, some physicists got involved, but they were mainly older physicists from that earlier generation.
I think this shift is mainly due to something about the culture that has changed. There are certainly pressing issues in public health today, where the life scientists might have more to say than the physical scientists, but what young physicists want to do and are expected to do has changed. Maybe it’s a narrowing of the subdisciplines, where people are devoted to their research. This may have made it harder or less interesting or less expected for young physicists to branch out.
Similarly, how has the way the public engages with science changed?
We have a society where the general public can’t think like scientists. I thought the pandemic brought this home especially. The public will be told to wear masks, and they’ll either refuse or they won’t stop to think for themselves—what are the risks, what are the benefits, and what data do I need to make a decision? They are content to let the scientists do their own research and produce the gadgets that they love. They don’t want to meet the scientists halfway, and the scientists don’t want to meet the public halfway. The result is, we have a scientific community that isn’t connected to society.
A well-developed scientific enterprise in America—which we have—is no substitute for public engagement with science. You can have vaccines, but if people don’t trust them and won’t take them, or if they refuse to think like a scientist, then public health officials are almost wasting their time. We need to meet in the middle. Scientists will do better science if they think more broadly about what science is, how science works, and how it fits into the world. They will design better experiments and get results that mean more to the world.
What specific education changes can we advocate for to make this a reality?
Most of the emphasis in schools is on teaching science through specific disciplines—biology, chemistry, physics—rather than being taught as science. As a result, you don’t get to see the role of one in the other, and cross-disciplinary questions are overlooked. The other thing is, science is taught for future specialists, so we’re leaving behind 80% of the population. They don’t get to see the beauty of physics, the joys of physics, the usefulness of physics, and they don’t learn to think about science.
In everything we do, we should be asking, how do we frame a question so that it can be answered empirically? That’s science—it’s almost that simple. We should do that at every stage, whether it’s studying chemical processes, ecological systems, or physical mechanisms. The goal is not to get bogged down in the details of any particular scientific discipline but to think of science as a way of structuring questions so that they can be answered empirically and verifiably.
What is the single best piece of advice you can give to physics students?
You can be a better physicist if you are not too narrow-viewed. Within physics, there is a lot you can learn from the techniques of high-energy physics or astrophysics that can be helpful in condensed-matter and solid-state physics. But also, more broadly still, if you think more about science and not so much about physics, you can be a better physicist. If you think about how to ask questions so that they can be answered empirically, then you think more creatively about what the questions are and what data you need to collect to answer those questions. It helps you design better experiments. Then, if you put that work into the larger social context, I think you’ll be an even better physicist.
What is the role of SPS in your vision?
SPS should be both a forum and a mechanism for broadening physics. Whether in high school or in college, teachers should be reminded that it’s a broad community out there. There are many reasons why someone would want to study physics, not only to become a college professor of physics. I would say one of the reasons physics is so wonderful is that it is good preparation for any number of things—even running for Congress, as I did!
Physics is a broad discipline with broad applicability, but many teachers are so focused on the particular mathematical procedures and physical laws that they forget why we are doing this: to understand our world, in a very broad sense. SPS should recruit students who are future doctors, lawyers, environmentalists, and beyond, so that they can remind physics departments to cater to a very large group.
I just published a piece in a reissued version of Science, The Endless Frontier by Vannevar Bush. The book starts with an introductory essay from me on the chasm between the scientists and the general public. There are many other great pieces, such as The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, or Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, which is a collection of essays by the biologist Lewis Thomas, or anything by Freeman Dyson.
Interested in Public Policy?
Consider applying to be an AIP Mather Public Policy intern! Mather interns are physics undergraduates who spend the summer working in a congressional office on Capitol Hill, providing support to representatives and staff on a range of issues. Mather internships are part of the Society of Physics Students summer internship program and supported by the John and Jane Mather Foundation for Science and the Arts. Internship applications open November 1 of each year for the following summer. For details visit spsnational.org/programs/internships.
Gia Jadick was an AIP Mather Public Policy intern in 2019 and worked for the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. You can read about her experience at spsnational.org/programs/internships/blog/un-official-non-comprehensive-guide-mather-internship.
Hear Rush Holt Live at 2022 Physics Congress
SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma are thrilled to have Rush Holt in the lineup of amazing speakers for the 2022 Physics Congress. This unique event will bring together hundreds of physics students for three days of talks by luminaries in the field, interactive professional development workshops, and networking opportunities. The Physics Congress will take place October 6–8, 2022, in Washington, DC, and is supported by the American Institute of Physics and hosted by Sigma Pi Sigma, the physics honors society. Anyone interested in physics is invited to attend. For details visit sigmapisigma.org/sigmapisigma/congress/2022.