“Not everyone should be a scientist,” says Rush Holt, “but everyone should learn how to answer questions empirically and present their work for peer review and verification. This is an essential skill.” Holt, who represents New Jersey’s 12th district in the U.S. House of Representatives, is indeed a scientist—the only physicist in Congress. A resident of Hopewell Township, he has dedicated much of his life to advocating for math and science education, research, sustainable energy and space exploration.
I recently spoke with Holt, who holds master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from NYU, about his decision to leave Congress after 16 years. We talked extensively about some of his primary concerns: the future of scientific research and public policy on global warming.
Holt, a Democrat, says the nation has lost ground when it comes to climate change. “Doubts about climate change have increased in the form of questioning whether global warming is actually real,” acknowledges Holt. “We have had a cooler summer than usual, so people say, ‘see, it’s not getting warmer.’” What’s more, says Holt, “There is an active disinformation campaign and millions of dollars have been spent against climate change, not unlike what happened years ago with the tobacco companies. As a result, people are questioning whether global warming is because of human activity, or is there anything we can do about it if it even is real?”
Public doubts about global warming have limited the ability of Congress to act, says Holt. In 2009, the House passed cap-and-trade legislation that would have provided economic incentives to companies for limiting pollution. The measure died in the Senate. In the years since, members of Congress who deny climate change have tried to restrict spending on researching global warming and prevent efforts to limit carbon emissions.
Holt, of course, says there is scientific proof of climate change. He is hopeful that in the next 10 years, America will recapture lost ground when it comes to addressing this serious and potentially deadly issue. He predicts we will use more sustainable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, “once again people will understand that climate change is real.” He adds that a clean environment does not have to come at the cost of jobs growth. “There is no reason why we can’t have both,” says Holt.
Holt cites space exploration as another frontier where we have lost ground. Federal spending in this area has been cut in half, he says. “There is a sense in Washington that the government can’t do anything well, so we shouldn’t do anything,” says Holt. “That’s just not true. If you look back over history, whether it is transportation, energy or health, government-funded research and infrastructure has paid off by boosting our economy.”
With so much at stake, why is Holt leaving Congress at the end of his current term? “I am leaving for positive reasons,” says the 65-year-old. “Even though the current situation in Congress is enormously frustrating for those of us that believe the government can and should help people, I am not leaving out of anger or disappointment. It dawned on me that someday I wanted to leave Congress under my own power….It is not meant to be a lifetime job.”
As for his future, Holt says: “I don’t know what I will do next, whether it is academics, non-profit organizations or something of the sort, but I intend to stay engaged.”
Some members of Congress leave kicking and screaming. But Rush Holt is simply ready to move on. By any reasonable standard, Holt, a five-time Jeopardy! winner, is one of the smartest people ever to serve in Congress. Washington will no doubt miss his wisdom—and his candor.