Vernon Ehlers, Congressman and Physicist, Urges Scientists and Engineers to Join the Political Process

He calls himself an “accidental congressman.”

U.S. Representative Vernon J. Ehlers
U.S. Representative Vernon J. Ehlers

Trained as a nuclear physicist, Vernon Ehlers he was leading a happy life in southwestern Michigan, a husband and father of four, a scholar and professor at an up-and-coming liberal arts college. But with others at his church, he wanted to work for the improvement of a distressed urban neighborhood in Grand Rapids—and though he didn’t foresee it at the time, getting involved would eventually lead to a position on his county’s Board of Commissioners, to the Michigan Legislature, and then to Washington, D.C.

“I never intended to become a member of Congress,” he told the audience at AAAS’s annual William D. Carey Lecture. “I never intended to get involved in politics. I just never saw that as a career path.”

And yet, as he prepares to retire after nearly nine full terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ehlers has come to believe that more scientists and engineers should run for office and bring their analytical skills to bear on the challenges of our time.

“We are keeping far too quiet about what we know and how we would go about solving problems,” he said. “We have so much to offer this country and, for that matter other countries, on solutions to various different problems.”

The Carey Lecture is delivered annually at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, which celebrated its 35th year with events on 13-14 May that attracted over 500 U.S. and foreign leaders from government, education, business, and other fields. Just a short walk from the White House, they heard top policy experts talk on range of critical issues, including the global economic outlook for science research and development; building a stronger culture of innovation; and the importance of science and technology in national security.

The late William Carey, for whom the lecture is named, served as executive officer of AAAS from 1975 to 1987. He played a pivotal role in shaping the U.S. environment for science and technology, and was the catalyst for study of research and development in the federal budget and other initiatives which serve as the foundation for many current AAAS programs. The lectureship, started in 1989, recognizes individuals who exemplify Carey’s leadership on S&T policy issues.

AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science, introduced Ehlers. Leshner noted his “distinguished tenure of teaching, scientific research, and public service” and described him as “an ideal person” to represent the kinds of accomplishments achieved by Carey.

Ehlers got his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1960, and in 1993 became the first research physicist ever elected to the U.S. Congress.

Since then, he has had a significant impact on U.S. science and technology policy. In 1998, from his position on the House Science Committee, he oversaw the writing of the United States’ first major statement on science policy since the end of World War II. He led the development of the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which authorized $270 million over five years to clean up the lakes. As co-chair of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Caucus, he has been a leader in trying to improve instruction and learning in American schools.

Throughout a 55-minute talk and question-and-answer session, Ehler was passionate, self-effacing, and often humorous. His topics ranged from the role of religion in his career, to President George W. Bush’s strong support for science, to the continuing importance of “The Two Cultures,” a seminal 1959 essay by the physicist and novelist C.P. Snow.

Ehlers depicted himself as someone who, from an early age, wanted to ease poverty and help improve environmental conditions—but never as an elected public official.

The start of his political engagement came after he and his family moved back to Grand Rapids from Berkeley in the 1960s, at a time when civil rights was a burning national issue and eco-consciousness was emerging in the broad public. He was teaching physics at Calvin College; he and his wife, Jo Meulink, were raising their family. But he and a small group from his church would identify candidates they liked and then volunteer to work for them. And when they backed a candidate, he said, that candidate won.

Soon Ehlers himself was elected to the Kent County Board of Commissioners. Within a month, he recalled, he was approached about running for the Michigan House of Representatives. His overwhelming instinct was clear.

“I repeatedly said, ‘No, I didn’t want to do that. I enjoy teaching, I enjoy research—I love it,’” he said. “And the response was always, ‘But we need you, we need you.’ And then I would say, ‘But I don’t want to be a member of the Michigan House of Representatives.’ And they had an answer which I couldn’t compete with—they said, ‘That’s exactly the kind of person we want in public office.’”

Then, one Saturday morning, he told his wife that he’d decided to run. “‘I’ll let the good Lord decide whether I’ll win and I’ll be happy either way,’” he told her. “That may have been a convenient cop-out, but it certainly worked. I did win.”

A similar scenario emerged in the early 1990s, as allies began to urge Ehlers to run for Congress. His friend, incumbent U.S. Representative Paul Henry, was still young, but was battling terminal brain cancer. Ehlers and his wife talked it over, and he came to the firm conclusion: He did not want to run.

“Most people who run for Congress desperately want to be a member of Congress,” he said. “I didn’t.”

As he sees it now, however, he “totally underestimated the public.” One night, soon after his inclination was announced on the news, there was a knock on the door of his home at about 10 o’clock. The late-night visitor said he’d heard Ehlers wasn’t going to run.

As Ehlers recalled it, the man said to him: “‘Here’s a hundred dollars to encourage you.’

“Of course that’s not my money, it’s the campaign’s money,” Ehlers added. “But nevertheless, you start to think pretty seriously—maybe there’s a message here, maybe you should (run). So that’s how I ended up in Congress.”

Throughout those years of running for office and governing at different levels, being a physicist was never much of an issue. True, Ehlers said, there were some who thought he was an “oddball.” But in other cases he used his profession to his advantage.

When he was first running for Congress, the field was wide open and at one point featured 32 candidates. In all, he said, there were about 30 debates before and after the primary, and many of those debates had a common feature.

The lawyers, he said, would boast of the great laws they would write when elected to Congress. The business executives promised to use their skills to produce a balanced federal budget. “What could I say?” Ehlers asked. “‘When I get to Congress, I guarantee that we’ll find the pi meson?” As the audience laughed, he said: “That just doesn’t have the same cachet.”

But after hearing these promises at so many debates, he called the U.S. Library of Congress and did some research. At the debate that night, as the attorneys and the business executives repeated their promises, Ehlers waited with his new rhetorical weapon.

“I said, ‘You know, every night I’ve been listening to my colleagues say they would write good laws and balance the budget, and I’ve never claimed I would do anything like that,’” he recalled. “‘But I do want you to know that I’m a scientist. And I checked with the Library of Congress today and I discovered that there are 175 attorneys in the House of Representatives and somehow it seems to me that electing one more really isn’t going to improve the quality of the laws. And then I checked on the businessmen—138 businessmen—and it seems to me that electing one more really isn’t going to help balance the budget. But I promise that if you elect me, you will double the number of scientists in Congress.’

“There was huge applause—it was live on TV. And I did win.”

In fact, Ehlers considers it a topic of critical importance. Scientists and engineers have a different way of looking at problems, he said, and he expressed regret that he had not been able to persuade more of his colleagues to run for office. Their problem-solving skills would be welcome, he said, and Congress would benefit as well simply from being exposed more often to the culture of science and engineering.

Too often, he said, the scientific mindset is foreign in political cultures—just as C.P. Snow worried 50 years ago.

“Everyone respects me as a scientist,” he told the AAAS audience. “They listen carefully to what I have to say—but when it comes to believing it, it’s a different mater….

“I’ve learned over the years that if another member of Congress comes to me and asks me a question about science and I give them an answer which as far as I know is scientifically correct, and if the answer I give that person agrees with the previous assumptions the person has made about it, I am the world’s greatest scientist, and they will go around quoting me to other members…. However, if my statement disagrees with their intrinsic, intuitive belief, I’m a lousy scientist and they will never quote me.

“So,” he added, “if you wonder why school boards have some problems with some of the issues in the curriculum, or if you wonder why we have so many problems with global climate change, some of it is traceable to that….

“It’s really an unfair battleground, and I hope you’ll join me wherever possible in correcting that in conversations. It is not easy, it’s not always polite, but usually… with a little jocularity, you can make your point without angering people too much.”

That underscores the importance of bringing more scientists and engineers into elected office, Ehlers said. And in a lighter moment, he acknowledged that this has been a point of frustration.

“The most difficult ones to recruit, believe it or not, are the engineers, who many think would be the most pragmatic,” he said. “Maybe they don’t want to run because they are pragmatists. But nevertheless, someone has to replace me—we can’t let this go backwards.”


Listen to audio from U.S. Representative Vernon J. Ehler’s lecture to the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

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