U.S. science remains far from ‘its rightful place’

Rush Holt, a plasma physicist by training, represents New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District in the U.S. Congress. From 1989 to 1998, Holt was assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a research institute focused on fusion as an alternate energy source. Holt was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998. Recently, staff writer Laura Sanders talked with him about the state of science and science funding in the United States.

RUSH HOLT “Most Americans would say science is good. But they don’t have a clue how it works … and they refuse to think like scientists.” Photo Courtesy Rep. Rush Holt’s Office

In his inaugural address, President Obama said we would “restore science to its rightful place.” Where is science now?
Science, I think, is not in a good situation now, in several senses. The funding, although not small, is proportionally less than in some other countries that we would compare ourselves with…. It’s not terrible, but not so good.

But what troubles me more is the attitude towards science. I would say that most Americans would say yes, science is good. But they don’t have a clue how it works, how you sustain it, and they refuse to think like scientists. This attitude is seen with the latest stimulus package, where people go on the House floor — members of Congress — and ridicule the idea of funding science. They did! They want it taken out of the package. In some cases, they were arguing that it didn’t make jobs. You can have that argument; it’s a legitimate argument. But in some cases they were ridiculing the fact that it was science. And they are representing what the people back in the district think and want and believe. That’s not a good sign….

The founders of this country thought like scientists. Many of them, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and so forth, would have called themselves natural philosophers, the equivalent of scientists in that day…. Losing that way of thinking really harms us.

How do you counter this attitude?
Education. If only we could stop beating the science out of fifth-graders. It’s interesting, in third, fourth, fifth grade, all the kids are natural scientists — they want to do science, and we somehow beat it out of them. We should let the fifth-graders talk to these members of Congress who want to cut back on science and show them that they do know more.

Part of the responsibility for scientists is to personalize what they do and tell an engaging story about what they do…. You know, it’s an argument that scientists have generally avoided for decades. Scientists haven’t wanted to appear to be just another interest group. They would like to believe that the work that is done is for a higher good than just jobs. But in fact it does create jobs, in the short-term, as well as the midterm and the long-term.

Where do legislators get their science information?
Well, in many cases, they don’t. They get it from whoever was the last person to visit their office, who may or may not know anything about science….

We should return to vibrancy the Office of Technology Assessment, which was abolished 14 years ago now. OTA was a terrific resource for anticipating the [scientific] questions that were coming up. It worked very well, and we can restore it just as it was, to very good effect.

Are there plans to reinstate OTA?
I try again every year. I’m trying again this year.

Why is science important?
Science, I’ve always thought, is not just another subject in school. It’s how students learn to ask questions so that they can be answered empirically, which is a skill that every person should have. It takes a fair amount of work to achieve proficiency in that — to ask questions that can be answered empirically. It doesn’t mean you have to be a scientist but [you have] to learn to think like a scientist in those parts of life where it’s beneficial.

It’s important for us to understand how the universe works, how people interact, how things will evolve. You need that not just for material well-being, but for our political system to function, and for the aesthetic enhancement of life. So it’s all of those things….

For years, scientists have avoided talking about the practicality of science…. Under the circumstances, given our dire economic situation, I think it’s worth talking about those things. But we shouldn’t let that dominate our view of science. It is from science that we get the innovation that provides productivity and growth for the future economy, so it is critically important for our economic well-being. It also adds to our quality of life in material ways. But I think most scientists still feel that there is a higher calling to what they do, that understanding how things work is an end in itself, and it’s a glorious end in itself.

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