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Rush Holt

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Rush Holt, physicist and congressman, to lead AAAS

Rush Holt, a physicist, educator, and eight-term Democratic member of Congress, has been named the new CEO of AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider). He will succeed Alan Leshner, a neuroscientist who is stepping down this winter after leading AAAS since 2001.

Holt, 66, has represented a New Jersey district since 1999, but in February announced he would not seek another term. Although not known for sponsoring legislation, Holt has earned kudos from both Republican and Democrat colleagues for being an effective, behind-the-scenes advocate for additional funding for research and science education. He was part of an unofficial, bipartisan “physics caucus” in Congress that, at its peak, totaled three members who held physics Ph.D.s.

Holt has a long political pedigree. His father was a U.S. senator from West Virginia in the 1930s, and his mother was West Virginia’s secretary of state. He was elected to Congress in 1998 after spending a decade at the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. A former physics teacher at Swarthmore College, he credits the long-running AAAS Science and Technology Fellowship program, which allowed him to spend a year on Capitol Hill, for piquing his interest in politics.

“I will continue to work on trying to bring more scientific thinking to public policy and to American society in general,” he told ScienceInsider after announcing his retirement from Congress. “Those are ongoing interests of mine. I think it’s important to maintain freedom of inquiry and to make sure that we have support not just for research but also for scientific communication.”

Holt was a vocal—but often lone—advocate in Congress for reviving the Office of Technology Assessment, a well-regarded in-house think tank for legislators that Congress abolished when Republicans took control in 1995. He admitted that it was an uphill battle, but felt the fight was worth waging. “I would say that most members of Congress value science and respect scientists,” he told ScienceInsider in February. “But I don’t see more scientific thinking evidence-based, critical thinking.”

This fall, Holt made an eloquent pitch for the importance of science to society when the American Academy of Arts & Sciences rolled out a report urging the government to commit to steady, long-term increases in research funding. He began by asking Americans “to banish the pessimism that is dominating our public policy on this issue and so many others.” Then he sketched a picture of where the country is and where he thinks it needs to be.

“Why hasn’t Congress paid more attention to the critical point we’ve reached? I’m not sure. But it may be because we’ve taken it for granted that America’s leadership will continue as it has for a couple of centuries. The sky seemed to be the limit for what we could do. And after the Apollo flights, we even broke through the sky.

“This success has continued in some respects, enough to make some members of Congress complacent But if you look at transportation, energy, and every other sectors, the transformative breakthroughs that we thought we were heading toward 20 or 30 years ago have not materialized.

“What we need at this point is a return to America’s traditional optimism. I don’t mean empty, technological optimism that technology will solve all of our social problems. But I do mean optimism that we can increase economic opportunity and personal growth and create jobs and grow, to overcome our short-term problems. That’s what we have always done.”

Leshner, who was a senior administrator at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation before coming to AAAS, said that “Rush Holt is an ideal choice to lead AAAS and Science into the future. His expertise, experience, and commitment to science, and to public service are sure to greatly enhance the association’s impact in all domains.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), founded in 1848, is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science as well as Science Translational Medicine and Science Signaling.