Former Michigan Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers, the first PhD physicist in the House of Representatives and the only one so far from the Republican party, died on August 15 at the age of eighty-three. His tenure in Congress (from 1993 to 2010) capped off a most impressive career as a scientist (specializing in studies of the nuclei of alkaline and post-transition metals), educator and science adviser to Gerald Ford while the future President held the same Congressional seat that Ehlers would later occupy. While in office, Ehlers continually brought his scientific expertise to bear on a variety of issues and functions: he wrote-up the most significant study and proclamation on the American scientific research program since Vannevar Bush, helped to wire Congress to the Internet, and was a reliable go-to information source for Republicans and Democrats alike on issues ranging from global warming to nuclear weapons control. He never forgot his constituency in Grand Rapids either, and was responsible for legislation that helped clean up the Great Lakes and control the influx of Asian carp and other invasive species into the ecosystem. Even when the partisan divide in Congress threatened to become a chasm, the soft-spoken Ehlers remained a role model for his colleagues, the epitome of civil dialogue and ethical speech. Someone who is at once both a gentleman and a gentle man is a rare creature indeed, and we need more politicians with both the professional attitude and professional expertise Ehlers embodied.
Initial reports of Ehlers’s passing did not list a cause of death, but later articles indicated he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That’s an especially tragic way to go for someone known for his great intellect, but even before then, I suspected he had died from a broken heart as a result of seeing what had happened to the Republican party. Not because the party had moved too far to the right. Nearly all the obituaries called him a moderate and true, he didn’t always vote along party lines, but that’s to be expected when one follows the scientific method in politics as well as at work. He was a deeply Midwestern brand of conservative that tends towards moderate views anyways and some of his more notable breaks with his party (such as his votes for the DREAM act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) probably derived more from his committed Christian faith that encouraged tolerance and compassion. Nor was it the election of Donald Trump and the new incivility that he represents; after all, he was one of Newt Gingrich’s greatest allies while the then-Speaker of the House was being (unfairly) vilified as an incendiary bomb thrower by the media. I suspect instead that he was heartbroken from how the Republican party has seemingly lost its way on science.
It is not surprising that Ehlers worked so closely with Gingrich when one considers that Newt was one of science’s greatest champions in the House, and also frequently went against the supposed party line on environmental issues. Unfortunately since the retirement of both Ehlers and Gingrich from the House, the Republican party has not found someone to replace them, either a professional PhD scientist or someone demonstrably scientifically literate who will work to inform and educate both members of the party and those on the other side of the political aisle. It is a tragedy then that the Republican party has not only ceded science to the Left, but have permitted it to weaponize the rhetoric of science against them, as embodied in the so-called “March for Science”. Alas, the marchers had a valid point: too many Republicans (including the current Commander-in-Chief) have taken what can fairly be called anti-science positions, either in refusing to concede verified scientific facts and take expert advice seriously (the most obvious examples being the embrace of creationism and the knee-jerk rejection of the consensus view on global warming) or in efforts to slash basic scientific research from the budget despite the obvious benefits and payoffs (A recent article on The Federalist has tried to argue otherwise, but I did not find it persuasive. You are only able to read this on the Internet thanks to public investment in high-energy physics). It is a sad commentary on where we are now that someone can be sneeringly designated a “RINO” simply for acknowledging that both evolution and global warming are true and asserting that public policy needs to be based on scientific fact. Worse yet, our leading science popularizers seem intent on exacerbating this problem; instead of working to persuade and inform, they rely on personal attack and ridicule to further dissuade those they need to reach out to the most. How can they claim that “Science is for Everyone” when they aim to exclude at least a third of the public?
Is there a Republican scientist (more specifically, a Republican physicist) out there who will continue Ehlers’s legacy of both defending science as a public speaker and by serving in office with equal effectiveness? The most obvious heir to Ehler’s throne would be Illinois State Representative Mike Fortner. He is not only a first-rate physicist (as a member of the DZero team at Fermilab, he helped to discover the top quark and continued to be an important collaborator on major experiments even while in office) but has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most civil and congenial politicians in the state. Like Ehlers, he is known to have an overall conservative voting record but to also cross party lines occasionally (most significantly being one of a handful of Republicans to vote to override governor Bruce Rauner’s veto of an income tax increase), and is also a hawk on environmental issues, so much so that he has become the rare Republican to be endorsed by the Sierra Club. Furthermore, he has gained a degree of national attention for his work on fair redistricting, using his scientific knowledge and training to help solve complex political problems. Unfortunately, he has just announced his retirement from his State seat at the end of this term, and has not given any indication of plans to run for national office. Further out west, Arizona’s Ruth McClung very nearly became the first woman physicist in Congress (and a genuine rocket scientist, at that!) when she ran in 2010, but has similarly not yet made the decision to run again. That’s a genuine shame as McClung, a Tea Party activist who was just twenty-eight years old when she ran for office, would have not just brought considerable expertise to discussions of such issues as national defense and space research but served as an obvious role model on many different levels.
But it is in California that we see the remarkable phenomenon of not one but two scientists taking a prominent role in the Republican Party and in keeping the conservative movement alive in what has very nearly become a one-party state. Charles Munger Jr. is of course the son of the famous philanthropist but has also had a distinguished career as a physicist at Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory where he was part of the team that figured out how to produce the first lab-made antimatter atoms. He has also been one of the most visible figures in the state Republican party, funding campaigns for viable candidates and ballot propositions to stem the rapid tide of “progressive” legislation in the state. One of his closest allies is Sam Blakeslee, a former geophysicist and state senator who is now director of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic State University. However they have also remained dedicated to state and local-level politics instead of trying to engage with conservatives all across the country. Clearly, a national figure within the Republican party who will help to both defend science from ill-thought out attacks from misguided compatriots as well as to explain basic scientific facts to them has yet to emerge, yet is especially-desperately-needed at this time.
A week after Ehlers’s death, The Detroit News published a moving editorial on how voters and politicians of both parties can learn from Ehlers’s example if they really want to to “return civility and reasoned governing” to the political process. Republican politicians and conservative voters can especially learn from his example by making the effort to be as scientifically literate and informed as possible. In particular, conservative scientists need to speak up, and make their voices heard in political debate, not just to increase the diversity of voices but to specifically provide a voice that can reduce misconceptions and misrepresentations from all sides. Additionally, those who have taken up the task of communicating science can also learn from Ehlers on how to address and engage politically and socially conservative audiences, and to learn to listen to their concerns as much as they hope they will listen to their advice. If they are genuinely concerned about science in this country and actually want to see policies based on facts and evidence instead of mere rhetoric, then they will have to make a sincere effort to reach out to those on the other side of the aisle. All the same, it is up to the Republican party itself as well as unaffiliated conservatives and libertarians to learn to listen more carefully to scientists and be more receptive to the concerns of the scientific community. As Jon Huntsman has long maintained, the last thing they should do is let themselves be seen as the anti-science party.