WASHINGTON – New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt left a position at the top of his field as assistant director of the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University to run for Congress in 1998.
He said more scientists should do the same.
“Having that background and the willingness to think about the scientific aspects of things is something that is badly needed here on the Hill,” he said.
Science pervades a long list of political issues,ranging from headliners like the fight over Terri Schiavo's life,stem-cell research and oil drilling to the less-glamorous NASA funding and communications regulations. Holt,a Democrat,said Congress doesn't have enough science-minded members to cope with these subjects effectively.
“There's hardly any issue before Congress that doesn't have scientific and technological aspects,” he said,“and yet those scientific and technological aspects are usually ignored or mistreated.”
A look at the education background of members of Congress shows that membership from the science community is indeed small.
Of the 370 members with post-graduate degrees,30 – or about 8 percent – come from a medical or science background,according to a Congressional Research Service profile. National education statistics,however,show that roughly 25 percent of post-graduate degrees awarded every year are in scientific fields. Meanwhile,more than 40 percent of members of Congress have law degrees.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert,R-N.Y.,chairman of the House Committee on Science,said the small number of professional scientists in Congress does not result in an inability to legislate effectively.
Agreeing the committee would benefit from more scientists,he argued it isn't necessary.
“It's desirable,” Boehlert said. “What is necessary is members on either side of the aisle have a committee which has overall responsibility and can look with a high degree of confidence on the product the committee produces.”
Boehlert named some of the science committee's recent successful bills – the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003,the Cyber Security Research and Development Act of 2002,increases in funding for the National Science Foundation and the creation of an undersecretary for science and technology in the Department of Homeland Security.
The science committee,of which Holt is not a member,has seven members with doctorate degrees. They and the other 37 members – “pretty darn good generalists,” as Boehlert called them – regularly hear testimony from the nation's brightest science minds.
“We have access to all of those people,” he said. “There's not a deficiency or a void that has to be filled because Congress is lacking in input from experts in the scientific community.”
The Federation of American Scientists published a report in December urging closer ties between the science community and the government. It recommended re-establishing the Office of Technology Assessment,a bipartisan congressional advisory group terminated in 1995,and strengthening the National Science and Technology Council's role in advising the president. The report said the president's current Office of Science and Technology Policy is too weak.
Joanne Carney,director of the Center for Science,Technology and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science,said Congress takes a healthy interest in appropriating funding for scientific research,but when the time comes for Congress to create policy derived from such research,“It gets more complicated.”
When Scottish scientists announced in 1996 they had successfully cloned a sheep,for example,Congress “overreacted” by quickly passing strict regulations on similar science in the United States,Carney said.
She agreed with Holt and Boehlert,who both said science is not taught adequately in the nation's educational system.
“It's a reflection that these are complex issues,and the science community doesn't do such a good job of educating the general public as well as educating members of Congress and policy makers about the science,” she said.
A study by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003 showed that American eighth-graders exceeded the international average for science aptitude,but lagged behind students in several Asian countries,such as Singapore,Korea and Japan,and European nations Estonia,Hungary and Netherlands.
Whether any degree of scientific illiteracy extends to Congress may be a matter of opinion,but Holt lamented the assumption that,as a scientist,he is more intelligent than everyone else. He said he dislikes the phrase that begins,“It doesn't take a rocket scientist to…”
“In other words,it is saying scientists are somehow part of a secret fraternity that you can't be a part of,(as if) rocket scientists and scientists in general have access to knowledge that you'll never know,and that is a dangerous idea,” he said. “It kind of perpetuates the idea that science is not for you.”