Ehlers Expects to Stay Active on Science Education

Representative Vern Ehlers (R-MI) has spent 17 years in Congress as a quiet but insistent advocate for improving U.S. science education. He's worked behind the scenes with both Democratic and Republican chairmen of the House of Representatives science committee to craft bipartisan legislation. On Wednesday, while a historic blizzard gripped the nation's capital, he announced in his central Michigan district that, at 76, "it was time" to move on. But the decision by the self-effacing former physics professor to retire from Congress doesn't mean he's giving up his lifelong passion for science education.

"I hope to stay involved," Ehlers tells ScienceInsider. "I've spoken to some of the powers-that-be in Washington, and I think I can still play a role." Ehlers said he couldn't talk yet about his new gig, noting only that, "I won't be doing it for the money." He also wants to become "an elder statesman" on behalf of continued federal support for research.

Looking back fondly at his tenure on the science committee, Ehlers predicted that it would successfully move a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act through the full House this year but that the chances of Senate passage depend on whether there is enough time on that body's already-full agenda. He doesn't expect any action on his bill to create voluntary national standards in math and science education, co-sponsored by Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), who also is retiring. However, he has high hopes for the common standards initiative underway in 48 states with the support of the Department of Education and many national educational organizations.

Not one to toot his own horn, Ehlers nevertheless says that he's concerned about the continued vitality of the science committee with the departure of himself and the chair, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), who's retiring after a 26-year ride. "That was actually the biggest factor in my mind against retiring," he explains. "I recognize the role I've played on the committee over the years."

One of three physicists in the House, Ehlers urged one of the other two members of the self-proclaimed physics caucus to step into his shoes. "I'd love to see Bill Foster (D-IL) or Rush Holt (D-NJ) join the committee." But he doesn't expect that to happen. He's also not convinced that the front-runner for the chairmanship, Representative Jerry Costello (D-IL), will take the reins, noting that Costello may prefer a senior post on the higher-profile transportation committee if offered the choice.