Helping Science and the Public Meet Halfway

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Helping Science and the Public Meet Halfway


Korena Di Roma Howley, Contributing Editor

Growing up in West Virginia, Rush Holt Jr. was fascinated by both science and politics. Over the course of his career he has worked to bridge the gap between the two, most notably serving as US representative for New Jersey’s 12th congressional district from 1999 to 2015 and as CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) from 2015 to 2019. Prior to entering politics, Holt, a PhD physicist, taught physics and public policy at Swarthmore College, helped to establish the science education program at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory while serving as its assistant director, and headed the Nuclear and Scientific Division of the Office of Strategic Forces at the US State Department.

Holt comes from a family of teachers and politicians. His father, Rush Holt Sr., taught school and later served as a US senator and West Virginia state legislator. His mother, Helen Holt, a biology teacher, was West Virginia’s first female secretary of state. “I realized you could combine science and politics and there was nothing wrong with it,” Holt said in an interview for the Spring 2021 issue of the SPS Observer.

He got his first direct experience with politics when, in the midst of his teaching career, he spent a year on Capitol Hill as part of a science and technology policy fellowship sponsored by AAAS and the American Physical Society. Though he returned to teaching at the end of the program, he ultimately made his way back to Washington—and to the work of science-minded policymaking.

As a congressman, Holt advocated for science education and investment in scientific research and development, founding the Congressional Research and Development Caucus and co-chairing the Biomedical Research Caucus. He also served on the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, chaired by former astronaut and US senator John Glenn, which produced a report in 2000 that urged a strengthening of math and science education.

In his recent interview with the SPS Observer, Holt noted that, in some areas, science education is still falling short. “Most of the emphasis in schools is on teaching science through specific disciplines—biology, chemistry, physics—rather than being taught as science,” he said. “As a result, you don’t get to see the role of one in the other, and cross-disciplinary questions are overlooked.”

Holt is also troubled by the state of public engagement with science and the disconnect that’s most recently been brought to the fore by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Holt, this disconnect has demonstrated in particular that scientists and the public must meet each other halfway. “Scientists will do better science if they think more broadly about what science is, how science works, and how it fits into the world,” he said.

While he was head of AAS, Holt worked to make scientific expertise more accessible to science communicators, policymakers, and the public. He has served as an SPS advisor and is a longtime friend of SPS internship programs, which includes the American Institute of Physics Mather Public Policy Internship, a summer program during which physics majors work on Capitol Hill.

SPS student leaders with then US Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), third from left, during a 2014 visit to Capitol Hill. Photo by SPS National.

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