Why Congress' Only 5-Time 'Jeopardy' Champ Chose Science Over Lobbying

PHOTO: Rush Holt is pictured on June 28, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Bill Clark/Getty Images
Rush Holt is pictured on June 28, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

He has a resume unlike any other elected official: Five-time “Jeopardy” champ, research physicist, patent holder, arms-control expert.

So when U.S. Rep. Rush Holt announced his retirement from Congress, he might easily have made his next step into the so-called "revolving door" of the lobbying world.

But, according to the New Jersey Democrat, who earned a reputation for being a leading advocate for science in Congress, there’s just better work to be done elsewhere.

Holt, 66, has since announced he will be joining the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as its newest CEO, as well as its executive publisher of scientific journals.

In a recent interview with ABC News, edited for brevity, Holt expressed doubt about the quality of the science debate in 114th Congress, talked about where he hopes his next venture will lead him, and reflected on his decision to leave the Washington political game behind.

When you announced your retirement, many suggested it was further evidence of the “death of science” in the halls of Congress. True?

I’ve been careful not to say that I was leaving because of the atmosphere in Congress or leaving out of disappointment or frustration. But I must say the atmosphere in Congress doesn’t make me want to stay. Part of the problem is that ideology has trumped evidence and trumped science so often here on the Hill. There’s a real frustration when people are much more interested in advancing their ideological positions than they are in making policy on the basis of reliable knowledge.

You were the first physicist to be elected to Congress as a Democrat. How did your passion for science intersect with your duties serving constituents?

Too many people have the idea that a scientist must be otherworldly or academic, in the narrow sense of the world. I think a lot of people have been surprised that I’ve actually had good political instincts and a real ability to interact with people and, I would say, lead people. It shouldn’t be surprising that somebody with a science background could do well in politics. It’s not an obvious overlap, but they’re not incompatible. On some issues, my scientific background has been particularly useful. But what’s always useful is a reverence for evidence, and science brings an analytical ability that helps you understand a situation be it in the physical universe or in politics and human relations.

Does it trouble you then that there aren’t more scientists succeeding as politicians?

It’s a real problem. I think there are more scientists who are or can be adept at politics than there are politicians who are comfortable with science. There should be more people who, while choosing not to be scientists professionally, are comfortable thinking about science and thinking like a scientist. I think Congress suffers and policy-making in government suffers because there are not enough non-scientists who are comfortable thinking about science.

Republicans trounced Democrats in the midterm elections, and many have looked to label the GOP as an anti-science party. Does science have a friend in the 114th Congress?

I think over many years, appreciation of science has slipped and education of science has slipped. I think that it shouldn’t be possible to deny and patently reject the preponderance of scientific understanding. That’s not to say every scientist is always right. But the idea that you can just flat out deny evolution or climate change or any number of things that are so well established in the science community would have been, in past years, unthinkable. Now, it’s really quite common that people will blatantly, even proudly get on the political stump and say they deny what the scientists think is right.

You’re taking a very different path than many retiring members of Congress who become lobbyists. Why?

It was a deliberate move to avoid the revolving door. But I was very much interested in staying engaged in the policy process, to work on something that I think is of great social benefit. I really think if we improve the health of science in America it will be of great benefit to human welfare. Not just because you’ll have more scientists employed, but because with improved science we learn things that are beneficial to all humans.

Do you think that you’ll be able to accomplish more in the name of science than you could have as a congressman?

Maybe not more than what one could do in Congress, but in the current Congress I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of good accomplished. I certainly hope that’s not true but, from my perspective, the signs are not very promising.

How did you decide to take the helm of AAAS? What will your role be like there?

When I announced I was leaving I did not know what I was going to do next. I was pretty sure I was not going to go out to pasture and I avoided using the word "retire." But AAAS is an organization that I have known and intersected with time to time over many decades now. To look at it in a general sense, it’s about the health of science and its mission has to do with communication between scientists and the public, promoting integrity in science and strengthening support for science in technology, and making sure science plays a constructive role in the formulation of public policy. It’s a fairly natural step for me, but nobody predicted it. Least of all myself.

You’re one of the few members of Congress to compete on “Jeopardy,” and you actually beat IBM’s Watson in 2011. Do you ever see yourself returning to that stage?

I think I’m a lot slower now. I did beat Watson, but it was not televised. It was something IBM set up. It was an actual "Jeopardy" match so it was very life-like, but it was a demonstration that IBM set up a couple of years ago.