How can society arrive at truths that everyone can agree upon, on problems from plasma physics to education policy? The answer to this fundamental question has bearing on the heated discussions occurring in our country today, and binds the seemingly disparate disciplines of science and politics, two fields to which former Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) has dedicated his life.
Holt’s lifelong dedication to serving society, through a diversity of avenues, gives him a unique perspective on this problem. After completing his doctorate in physics, and motivated by a belief that science could profoundly benefit people, Holt served for years as a physics and public policy professor and eventually as the assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, one of the country’s largest alternative energy research centers. His interest in public service drove him to serve for 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District, during which he advocated for federal investment in research and strengthened intelligence oversight, among many other issues.
Currently, Holt is the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific organization. In this interview with The Politic, Holt discusses some of the myriad forces influencing his polymathic career, as well as some of his thoughts on challenges in science and society today.
The Politic: What were some important events from your childhood in West Virginia that shaped who you are now?
Rush Holt: I left West Virginia in elementary school, but I still have West Virginia deep in my bones. I came from a family of interesting characters, and feel very proud of the state. I think what maybe some people don’t realize is that the West Virginia public school system, at least parts of it, is really very diligent in getting a good solid education in the students, and so I feel I was well served by West Virginia public schools.
What drew you to studying physics?
From my earliest memories I’ve been interested in how things work and how people get along, and that’s science and politics. I’ve never seen any incompatibility between them, although I discovered as I went along that a lot of other people thought that science and politics were two very different, even irreconcilable, areas of study. My scientist friends thought that politics was “dirty,” and politicians thought that science was completely unfathomable. They do call on different ways of thinking, and don’t have a whole lot to offer each other. But there’s no reason in my mind why a person can’t be interested in and even accomplished in science and politics.
How did your AAAS Fellowship early in your career influence your interests in public policy and service?
I was already interested in politics and public policy, or else I never would have applied for a AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellowship. I did learn a fair amount about the workings of Congress, and used the time to think a great deal about the place of science in society, and to think about what scientists could do in society, what science owes society, and how society would benefit from a better understanding of science. Although I was a physicist, I have often thought more basically about science—what science is, how science works, in all the sciences. Anything that is designed to give empirical answers to public questions—social science, as well as earth, physical, biological sciences.
How did I get interested in running for Congress? It had crossed my mind long before I was a AAAS fellow. But one of the things that came out of my AAAS fellowship was an understanding that I could do it. In fact, I remember talking with a distinguished Navy admiral who was prominent in intelligence, and we were chatting over dinner once and I mentioned that maybe I would run for Congress one day and he said, “What are you waiting for, an invitation?” That happened at the end of my fellowship year and it was a reminder that I actually could do it. But I didn’t have either the opportunity or the strong motivation for another 15 or 20 years after that.
After you were elected as a [New Jersey representative], how did you adapt to the world of politics?
I knew what I was getting into. For much of my life I had straddled the worlds of politics and physics. I worked on campaigns as a volunteer, and I had followed campaigns pretty closely for years. I knew pretty well what to expect. As with most things I do, I threw myself into it and didn’t really stop to think how it was different or whether it was hard. Yes, it was hard, but that’s what I decided to do, and so I just threw myself into it.
Now that you’ve moved on to head the world’s largest general scientific organization, what does a day in the life of the CEO of AAAS look like?
It’s really quite varied. Maybe not quite as varied as a day in the life of a congressional representative, but it’s really quite varied. Because AAAS is a large organization, we have lots of things going on, in addition to our outstanding publications like Science magazine. We have programs on science and society, science and the law, science and human rights, science and religion, science education, and international science, and so all of those things are going on and issues come up in one way or the other just about every day. They might be issues in publishing, an invitation to speak on science education, an international human rights issue, or recently, for example, we had a decision about whether we would sign onto an amicus brief in a case involving two climate scientists who were being harassed by a climate-denying organization. And every day I’m either speaking or writing for the media or for other science organizations on the place of science in society and in government.
It must be a tough job, especially in these times.
Yeah, and a membership organization has its challenges. Nowadays publishing is a challenging undertaking for any kind of publishing, not just science. So there are things to deal with there.
AAAS publishes the leading journal Science and a number of other scientific journals. What is the influence of the science publishing industry on scientific research, both positive and negative aspects?
Communication is part of our mission of AAAS, and that would be communication among scientists and between scientists and the public. Part of the way we meet that mission is through publishing these journals—six total, in addition to a few for teachers and a journal called Science & Diplomacy. Science magazine is not only one of the world’s premier research journals, it’s also one of the world’s premier science news journals. We also have perspective and opinion in Science magazine.
With respect to the research part of it, it’s true that in some hyper-competitive fields scientists feel a great need, a competitive need, to publish and to apply for grants to seek recognition for their work. That’s unfortunate. But the solution to it would not be to close off the opportunities to publish, or close off opportunities for funding, or close off opportunities to communicate their work and get attention for their work. What Science magazine does, and I think should continue to do, is set the highest standards for selecting articles to publish, make sure the articles are important and well-written, clearly written in a way that advances the science, which means primarily to not only to communicate the results, but to show the way the results can be verified, replicated, and challenged, and so that’s what we do. If department chairs and tenure committees misuse the publication, the scientific communication, that certainly should be addressed. But I don’t think the solution is to lower Science magazine’s standards. I think it’s true that some department chairs and tenure committees say that, “We won’t give you tenure if you don’t have x number of publications in journals like Science and other important journals.” And that’s probably unfortunate. But I don’t think the solution is for Science to lower its standards.
You’ve spoken previously on the choice between communicating bad science or no science to the public. Where do you stand on this question, and what can we do through the educational system specifically to promote scientific literacy?
Oh, there’s so much to say about that, and more than we have time to cover. I think some of the problems with science and its place in our society and our government today can be traced to the way scientists communicate. I think scientists have put a lot of emphasis on the results of the research, and presented them to people as sort of a checklist of what’s true. And they also present it to people in a way that really creates a distance between the scientist and the people they’re talking with. It’s as if they’re saying, “I understand this and you can’t.” The various fields of science may be able to advance with those attitudes, but it certainly undermines democracy in a world where science is and should be part of explaining and understanding the world.
Scientists are actually so concerned about communicating the results of the research that they forget to communicate the reason for the research. They forget to communicate the story of the evidence. Why the evidence is collected, how it is collected, how it is evaluated, and how it is communicated. As a result, one of the biggest problems that our society faces today is that most people feel unable to evaluate and use evidence in their lives and as citizens. Not only do they feel unable, they have almost lost interest in trying to use evidence. And that’s why we end up with fake news that seems to be the equivalent of researched news and opinion that seems to be the equivalent of, in many people’s minds, scientifically vetted evidence.
I think much more attention has to be placed on helping everyone use evidence. I wish we taught science in a way that every student and subsequently every adult would ask on every public question every day, including on any number of issues like vaccination, climate change, and cheating on international arms treaties, “What’s the evidence?”
You’ve spoken before about the unfortunate fact that so few scientists get involved in public service. What does it take to get more people interested in using evidence involved in policy making?
Of course, having interest in something is an individual matter, so there’s probably not a general answer to how to get each person interested in how the world works, how things are, and how science leads to that understanding. But I do believe that for almost every person there is a way to get there. I would hope that on all public questions, science is where you start, because that’s the best, cleverest, most successful, and time-tested way of understanding how things work and how things are. If you want to make a good policy and good decisions, it’s best to start with a clear understanding of how things are, before you start going ahead with how you wish they were. Too often, policies seem to be made on the basis of wishful thinking, rather than a clear understanding of how things are.
Any examples of policies that you think are particularly wishful?
It’s hard to find any that aren’t. When was the last time you heard anybody, whether on the floor of Congress or around the water cooler in the department, say, when they’re talking about economics, “Economics is an empirical science and here’s what the evidence says”? Far more often, economic debates are based on one person’s ideology pitted against another person’s ideology, and the outcome of the discussion is the same as the starting point. It’s true in healthcare, transportation, public safety, and on and on, you see this evidence-free thinking. Scientists are of course offended by this, because they’ve devoted their lives to and developed a reverence for evidence, and they hate to see evidence treated disrespectfully or cavalierly. Or worse, denied or actually manufactured. They’re offended by it, but I think to some extent they have themselves to blame—we have ourselves to blame.
Where do you get your news?
I’m pretty eclectic about that. Some of it, of course, is not what you would call news, but I’m usually looking for durable understandings. Time-tested understandings. That’s much more useful than the latest tweets. There’s an awful lot that passes for news these days that’s not very substantial. You sometimes can learn more immediately relevant stuff from books than you can from cable news shows. But as for breaking news, I get that from public radio, The New York Times, The Washington Post, various blogs, and online news services.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
Right now I’m reading Vannevar Bush’s The Endless Frontier, which was written at the end of the Second World War. It gave rise to the current research establishment in the United States. I’m enjoying reading it because I see what [from the book] doesn’t apply today, and I find that interesting.
Which living person do you most admire?
I’m not into personal idolatry [laughs]. There are some truly admirable scientists I know. [I admire] a lot of the people that I served with in Congress. Even though Congress often has a bad reputation, there are some wonderfully good, altruistic, smart, diligent people in Congress. I think of John Lewis, for example. A true American hero, best known for his civil rights activism.
What keeps you up at night?
Right now, it is some of the challenges faced by AAAS. How are we going to succeed in recovering the traditional American reverence for evidence? What I said earlier is that I think one of the biggest problems facing our society is this loss of appreciation for what science is and how it works. What a lot of people forget and don’t think of nowadays, is that science isn’t for scientists. Science is really for everyone else. Science is to benefit people throughout society. If people lose their appreciation of how science works, science won’t be able to give them the full benefit of what they need.
If you were a Congressman now, what would you be working on?
A member of Congress has to be interested in anything that his constituents are interested in. It’s never a single focused job. It can’t be. You have people who care about their civil rights and human rights, and people who care about their daily bread and their ability to give their family an economic future, and you have people who are concerned about observing international principles. And of course, there’s healthcare and social safety. And so all of those things, and no doubt I would be working on all of those things, sometimes two or three at the same time, more likely sequentially, but it’s really a complicated society and there’s lots that needs tending to.
If you were a college student now, what would you be working on?
It’s sort of the same answer—I chose liberal arts studies because I realized even then that society is pretty complicated and circumstances change and you’d better be able to change with them. That means a very broad education. One of our grandsons lives in Europe, and he’s about to go off to college, where you choose one major and that’s what you do for four years. I think that’s really unfortunate. He’s pretty broadly educated, but I favor a really broad, less applied, education in the college years.