Rep. Rush Holt, Physicist, to Lead American Association for the Advancement of Science

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Can you imagine what would happen if we had a PhD physicist in the US Congress? We actually already have one there, Representative Rush Holt (NJ-12), who has done a lot of excellent work in that role over the past sixteen years. Bumper stickers saying “My Congressman IS a Rocket Scientist” are popular in his central New Jersey district. In Congress since 1999, Holt has been a consistently strong advocate for science and science communication and for increasing funding for scientific research and education in federal budgets. Earlier this year, he unsuccessfully attempted to revive the Office of Technology Assessment, an agency that provided Congress with comprehensive and authoritative analysis of scientific and technical issues, and was terminated in 1995. He’s also an inspiring speaker; I saw him give a great speech when I participated in a Congressional Visit Day with the American Astronomical Society.

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Now Rep. Holt is retiring from the House of Representatives. Considering the frequent attacks on science, such as on National Science Foundation research grants, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, and on the EPA’s scientific advisers—to give just a few examples—we’ll need more people like him. In an interview with Scientific American, he said that if there is one issue that nags from his terms in Congress, it’s

…science and international affairs. That means bringing good scientific thinking to matters of arms control and intelligence and war and peace. I think we would all benefit from thinking like scientists, and those are important areas. Also, in areas of environmental protection and public health we need more scientific thinking. Most recently, I think we would benefit if more people thought like scientists in confronting Ebola. We would benefit if more people thought like scientists in facing climate change.

Fortunately, I have good news! Holt will continue his service by succeeding Alan Leshner as the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, of which I’m a member). According to the AAAS, “Efforts to advance science, promote public engagement with science and technology, and ensure that accurate scientific information informs policy decisions—core AAAS activities—have also been central to Holt’s long record of public service.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Holt said that he didn’t have an agenda, but he offered a general thought about the AAAS’s mission, saying that it needs to “look after the health of science in America—the entire science enterprise.”

Holt’s first responsibilities as the new CEO of AAAS will include oversight of a transformation initiative to enhance AAAS’s engagement with its members and to better utilize the Science journals for science communication, which also involves transitioning from a print-centric to a digital-first publishing environment. He will also oversee next year’s launch of a new open-access journal, Science Advances. I’m sure there will be more plans for the future at the AAAS’s annual meeting in February, and I’ll be there and will report on any new developments.

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