Why Congress Needs More Scientists

Q&A With Rep. Vernon Ehlers.

By + More

The year was 1974, and no one thought the nuclear physicist from Calvin College had a shot at winning a seat on the Kent County Board of Commissioners. Vernon Ehlers, who had a Ph.D. from Berkeley, was running against two self-funded candidates and a city commissioner. But he prevailed and spent 20 years in Michigan politics before ascending to the House of Representatives in 1993.

Now, Ehlers is one of science's best friends in Congress. He is a vocal advocate for more accountability and testing standards in science education, a strong backer of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, and a firm believer in the duty scientists have to remain involved in their communities. He wouldn't mind a few more on Capitol Hill as well. He spoke with U.S. News's Chris Wilson about why scientists make good congressmen. Excerpts:

As a scientist, do you think about politics differently than your colleagues do?

Scientists like to deal in facts, not in speculation. That's true of [fellow physicist-congressman] Rush Holt; that's true of me. We tend not to get involved in political game playing, even though we're perfectly capable of it. In fact, I think we probably understand it better than a lot of people. But we just don't regard those games as a good way to use our time. I think we're probably all overworked, because there are so few scientists or science-related people here and a lot of issues that have science as a component. At a recent committee hearing over an airline safety survey that NASA had withheld from the Associated Press, you were publicly critical of the committee's decision to summon Michael Griffin during an ongoing shuttle mission. Why?

What I was frustrated with was that here they were beating up the NASA administrator about a rather small issue in the grand scheme of things and wasting his time, and as far as I was concerned, it was entirely to get political advantage and embarrass the Bush administration. And I just don't have patience for that sort of thing. Does this 'dealing in facts' approach make you more likely to break with your party over votes if the scientist in you disagrees?

If it's not responsible from a scientific perspective, I'd say yes. Otherwise, I'm not sure we're any more willing to depart. I've been asked to vote for some things that just don't make sense, and I say "Sorry, I can't." A downright silly example is last year there was a resolution to honor a small-town Pennsylvanian by the name of Rachel Carson. Someone distributed a flier claiming she was a terrible person because her insistence on getting rid of DDT meant that millions—this is the way it was stated—millions of children in Africa had died who didn't need to because she had gotten DDT banned, and therefore all these poor folks died of malaria. It was just nonsense. I have no idea where it came from. I talked to people and managed to get some to change their votes once I explained it to them, but it just wasn't enough to turn the tide.

We recently observed the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, and a lot of people talked about how we need another kick in the pants to invigorate science education in this country. Do you agree?

The need is as great now as when Sputnik first flew, but it's not as dramatic. I have spent innumerable hours trying to improve math and science education. Basically preschool through grad school but primarily elementary and secondary. I think we've made a lot of strides since I got here. No Child Left Behind, we got national testing for science in there, which goes into effect this year. We're now working on making science testing scores part of the Aggregate Yearly Progress measurements. I don't know if I'll be able to get that through. I've got some supporters and some antagonists. Do you support a "physics first" approach, where students start with physics before chemistry and biology?

I don't think that's a crucial issue. It makes sense in terms of preparing people for biology and chemistry, so it makes them more meaningful. If I had my druthers, I would have students take physics at a level they can handle in ninth grade and then go into chemistry, then biology, and then their senior year take a worthwhile physics course. Or I should say, rigorous course. So they get the introductory, qualitative aspects, which is really all you can expect in ninth grade, but then their senior year they get into the real meat of physics. But I concentrate primarily on elementary education, because if you don't get them started right, it's not going to work.