A jubilant Rush Holt, representative of the 12th Congressional district in New Jersey, was sworn in for his 7th term on Jan. 5 before a crowd of supporters.
He is now the sole physicist in Congress.
During the ceremonial event, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi lauded Congressman Holt, a “real live rocket scientist” for strongly supporting: “science, science, science” – a little catch phrase that became Speaker Pelosi’s mantra during the last two years. Along with Speaker Pelosi and now-retired Congressman and physicist Vernon Ehlers, Congressman Holt fought to boost the budgets for the Department of Energy Office of Science, NSF and NIST in the stimulus package, the FY 2009 Supplemental and the FY 2010 budgets.
But the times, they are a-changing.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the mid-term elections produced a significant change in how things will be done in the House of Representatives. The Republican Party is the new majority, and the new House Speaker is John Boehner. In their Pledge to America, the Republicans stated their commitment to roll back federal funding to 2008 levels. This would be accomplished by across the board cuts to discretionary funding. Their plan excludes defense, but unfortunately, includes funding for science. The new majority simply does not see science as worthy of an exemption from these potentially crippling cuts.
Here’s what it also means: Issues that have strong evidence-based backing, such as climate change, will undergo renewed scrutiny.
On Jan. 6, Congressman Holt appeared on “The Rachael Maddow” show to comment on “our national ability to deal with science and tech.” He said the following regarding Congress:
“There really is a broad problem here in the attitude towards science. Too many people are operating in an evidence-free zone….on so many pieces of legislation that are really on evidence-based subjects; they should be beyond partisanship. But, they clearly are not. People are falling into ideological positions and ideological certitude that is really damaging… [With regard to climate change], it’s not a skepticism, it’s a certitude that reflects an anti-science bias.”
Even faux right-wing conservative Stephen Colbert has gotten in to the act:”Reality has a well-documented liberal bias.”
In a Dec. 6 piece in Slate, Daniel Sarewitz wrote that Republicans are, in addition to Hispanics and African-Americans, a significantly underrepresented group within the ranks of science and engineering. Clearly, the science community has acknowledged and is focused on the former, but are we focused on the latter? Mr. Sarewitz says we should.
“As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure science insulated from dirty partisanship. In lieu of any real effort to understand and grapple with the politics of science, we can expect calls for more “science literacy” as public confidence begins to wane. But the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists.”
Well, friends, we are about to have that chance.
Of the 112 new members of Congress sworn in on Jan. 5, 100 are Republicans. None are scientists. So, while we won’t be able to persuade any of them to go into physics, we CAN educate them about the importance of science to the future of our country, to our ability to compete against the rest of the world, and to train and maintain the best scientific minds in our and in future generations. There is simply too much at stake if we fail.