Congressman Rush Holt Sees Frayed Relations Between Science and U.S. Policy
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt
The diminished influence of science on public policy is posing significant risks to the United States across a range of areas, from energy and the economy to education and the underlying spirit of the nation, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt told a AAAS audience Thursday.
Speaking at the 30th annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy, Holt urged scientists and engineers to seek more and better ways to engage with policy-makers and the public, with a goal of dispelling the view that federal funding for scientific and engineering research is "welfare for people in lab coats."
"There's no question that there is an economic return" on the public investment in scientific research, said Holt, who formerly served on the physics faculty at Princeton University. "But the returns are also cultural and intellectual…for the benefit of society at large."
Holt, a former AAAS-American Physical Society Congressional Science Fellow, was first elected to Congress from New Jersey in 1998. Among other accomplishments, he has helped secure over $700 million in new federal funding for science and technology research initiated a federal study to map the gene sequences of all potential biological weapons to help first-responders and law enforcement officers react more effectively to a biological attack.
Chosen by a panel of top science and science policy experts to deliver the 2005 William D. Carey Lecture, Holt offered a sober assessment of the state of the union between science and policy.
Sixty years ago, Holt said, pioneering scientist and engineer Vannevar Bush wrote "ScienceThe Endless Frontier" at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It had broad influence, and led to the creation of the National Science Foundation.
Today, "kids in schools are quite capable of being good scientists," he said, but "we beat it out of them over the years." Even high-ranking policy-makers sometimes don't understand the importance of the scientific method, and the perspective that science seeks to impart.
"On Capitol Hill, I would say most of my colleagues have a deep appreciation of scientists, but they're not sure why," he quipped, drawing a laugh from the audience. "They value the fruits, probably, and they think scientists must be awfully smart people. And if you can cite a scientist on your side of an argument, that's a big plus."
The view, however, is not always so positive.
"Sometimes in Congress there's a narrow misconception that the beneficiaries of science are scientists," Holt said. "Some members of Congress think that scientists are a special interest group, and that the value of science is simply the monetary value of grants to scientistsor, if you're thinking a little bit further, the value of the monetary return on the investment.
"But the benefit is much deeper and broader than that," he asserted. By some estimates, he explained, 50 percent of economic growth is related to technological innovation. And science is crucial to improving national security and to building connections with foreign cultures.
But with the possible exceptions of pharmaceuticals and computing, Holt said, the federal government is "under-investing" in "almost every sector" of S&T research. And he pointedly noted that the trend is reflected in U.S. energy policy, and in the controversial energy bill recently approved by the House of Representatives.
"We are clearly under-investing in an area where everyone knows…we've got problems," he said. While the energy bill provides only a small percentage of its funds for research and development, he said, the provision allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is emblematic.
Despite environmental problems and inevitable limits in world oil supplies, Holt said, the Alaskan drilling provision says "that we will remain connected to and in fact dependent on petroleum, that we will do more of what we have been doingonly drill deeper and dig more."
But when scientists try to press such concerns, he said, they often are undermined by the popular perception that they're an "intellectual aristocracy," a class apart from the average American. What's lost in popular opinion, then, is the understanding that science is not so much a field of study, or a self-serving economic interest, but a way of asking questions and seeking verifiable answers about how the world works.
"It's not for future scientists that we need to have a well-trained population that understands the essence of science. It's especially for those who won't be scientists, and who might be legislators," Holt concluded. Although science does not always have answers, it "will lead people to ask the questions. And if we don't ask the questions, we will do damage to ourselves, our country and the world."
The annual lectureship recognizes individuals who exemplify the leadership of William D. Carey in articulating public policy issues related to science and technology. Carey served as executive officer of AAAS from 1975 to 1987. In that time, he helped move AAAS into a more prominent position in the science policy arena. He was the catalyst for the study of research and development in the U.S. budget and other initiatives which remain central to the mission of AAAS.
Edward W. Lempinen
25 April 2005