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AAAS CEO Rush Holt Urges Leaders to Use Science In Policymaking



Rush Holt brings a unique perspective to his view that science plays a vital role in policymaking as a physicist and a former member of Congress. | Chet Susslin/National Journal

In the wake of a polarizing election, science has never been more important for informing sound policy and ensuring progress for all Americans, AAAS CEO Rush Holt wrote in an op-ed published on 18 December in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.

Holt argued that respect for the principles of scientific inquiry, as much as for the evidence it produces, should infuse our political discourse. And in this charged political atmosphere, lawmakers tasked with weighing the merits of specific policies should look to science as the “tool of first resort.”

“Science is not apart from self-governance, or adjacent to it,” wrote Holt, who also serves as the executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “It is essential to it.”

That is because science demands humility in the face of evidence, Holt observed. Cherished assumptions must be discarded and ideology must yield to the weight of empirical evidence, even when inconvenient.

“What makes science science – publicly presenting facts and reasoning, subjecting ideas to rigorous criticism and many rounds of testing to confirm or overturn theories – is premised upon a willingness to be proved wrong,” Holt wrote. “We need more of that in our politics.”

As a physicist and an eight-term member of Congress before taking the helm of AAAS, Holt has a unique perspective on the critical role science plays in a democratic society. He noted that science can be a unifying force, a common touchstone for citizens and leaders alike, amid the contentious give-and-take of partisan politics and in a season when the factual basis for many political actors’ claims have been a matter of frequent dispute.

Since the election, AAAS and many other scientific organizations have called on the incoming administration to take heed of established scientific understanding and consult respected scientists. A recent letter from the AAAS and 28 other prominent scientific and higher education organizations urged President-elect Donald Trump to quickly appoint a “nationally respected leader” as science advisor, given that scientific questions are deeply involved in almost every issue the president will deal with, from national security to agriculture.

Holt also wrote an editorial in Science on 17 November addressing the uncertainty of federal support for scientific research under the new administration and advocating for better integration of science into policymaking.

This comes as the president-elect has unveiled his Cabinet selections. On 7 December, the president-elect’s transition team announced the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt is currently participating in a lawsuit against the EPA’s regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and denies the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. On the same day, Holt issued a statement expressing reservation about the selection.

“It is folly to ignore this scientific consensus – obstinate and irresponsible in the extreme. And yet, a climate-change skeptic has been put forward as the possible head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the next administration,” Holt wrote further in his Star-Ledger op-ed. “There is no reason for such an appointment when there are scientists of every political stripe who adhere to the scientific method, have the humility to accept when they are wrong and would be willing to serve their country if asked by an incoming president.”

Among other Cabinet selections, Montana’s freshman Rep. Ryan Zinke has been picked to head the Interior Department. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been tapped to lead the Energy Department, an agency he called to eliminate during the 2012 presidential race.

Holt noted that AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific society, has defended and advanced the scientific process and communicated its potential for generating benefits for humanity amid “countless shifting political winds” since its founding in 1848, and will continue to do so.

Public polling shows that majorities of Americans support more scientific research for medical advances and technological innovation, evidence-based regulations to protect clean air and water and policies to mitigate climate change. Even so, the task of broadening and deepening respect for science, among both the public and political class, has only become more urgent.

“The range of issues on which science is relevant is infinite,” Holt concluded. “My plea to our leaders is short: may they commit to using science to inform their policy views and may they have the humility to accept the results.”


Jonathan Mingle