Scientists in Congress

(People should be free to gamble via the internet if they want to. - promoted by Bob)

  • Vern Ehlers (R-MI), first elected in 1993

    Ph.D. in nuclear physics from UC Berkeley; former chair of the Physics Department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

  • Rush Holt (D-NJ), first elected in 1998

    Ph.D in physics from NYU; assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab 1989-1998.

  • Nancy Boyda (D-KS), first elected in 2006

    Chemistry/Education double major in college, then worked as  analytical chemist and field inspector for the EPA.

For much of the past decade, I believe Holt and Ehlers were the only scientists in Congress; they jokingly referred to themselves as “the bipartisan physics caucus”.  Boyda’s election made it three. 

Soon there may be a fourth: Bill Foster is running for Dennis Hastert’s seat in Illinois.  His science background includes a Ph.D. from Harvard, and 20 years at Fermi National Laboratory (aka “Fermilab”), and he just got endorsed by 19 Nobel laureates.

If he gets elected, the number of scientists in Congress will have doubled in just a couple of years. Interestingly, the 4 of them would be 75% Democrats, and 75% physicists; also, the one woman is the only non-physicist.  And we still wouldn’t have a biologist.

[ Edit: bobvm points out that John Olver (MA-01) is another.  He has a Ph.D. in chemistry from MIT and was a professor of chemistry at several universities, including MIT and UMass.  How'd I miss him?! ]

This post was originally published with Soapblox and contains additional formatting and metadata.
View archived version of this post


51 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Wow

    Makes me interested in Vern Ehlers.  One one hand, he's a PhD, on the other hand he caucuses with the anti-science party.  On one hand, he's from Mississippi, on the other hand he got his degree at the school that embodies crazy liberal college environment.

    sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
  2. Two observations...

    One, while it would be nice to have a biologist in Congress, we can't force them to run.  A chemist is a fine substitute, though.

    Two, the dearth of women in physics has been discussed at length on some science blogs, including Sean Carroll (et al)'s Cosmic Variance.  It's unfortunate, but apparently physics--like its engineering analog, electrical engineering--is a fairly sexist profession.

    • Another Lunger Raj ?

      Another profesion where school graduates are guaranteed employment, but only if they fit the right demographic categories. Whether or not the chosen demographic category chooses to take advantage of that in numbers satisfactory to you is a whole 'nuther matter and not the fault of your aledged "sexist" society. But alas having eyes in my head would make me sexist myself wouldnt it? Ah well ...

      • If you actually have a point, it's very obscure (n/t)

        • Of course you wouldnt see the point ...

          Why am I not surprised, and with your scientific curiousity and all ....

        • for someone who claims to be a registered Democrat

          Nomad's writings remind me a whole lot of Aaron Margolis.

          For the record, I think he's arguing that policies against sexism are sexist.  Either that or to be male is to be sexist.  Could be wrong.

          • I didnt hijack the thread ..

            Who was it that turned the "scientists in congress" thread into another "oh whoa is the persecuted group X" thread? Not me; And I am not a registered dem and turn ill at the thought of being so. Like i would waste my time or money verifying decisions already made to my detriment. Hillary! She's just the ginshiest and will be just like Billy but better ... ohhh lah ... make me ill, like I said before. :)

            • Read the last sentence of the last paragraph...

              ...of the post.  If you actually had made it that far into the post, you would have understood my second observation.  Obviously, you didn't make it that far into the post.

              Return to your adult beveridge.

              • Of what post?

                The OP or your reply? ... And no, I have today switched to decaf coffee to augment my 3rd day without cigarettes. The nicotene and cafeine withdrawal symptoms combined are something awesome. Cant pay for a high like this :)

                • I am not going to waste time playing games with you. Make a point (n/t)

                  • Waste Time ...

                    Raj, your typing into this blog the same as me. What are we doing if not wasting time? But anyhow ..... I asserted a point that you had hijacked the thread and you told me to go back and re-read a post. I read both the OP and your post and found nothing different in them than on my first read. So  ...? Why did you want me to reread them?

                    • Oh, so let me understand this...

             do not know what "an observation" means.

                      "An observation" means just that.  Something that may be somewhat related to the post, and which may be of interest to some readers here that is somewhat, but not necessarily, closely related to the post.  The post is the text at the top of the thread.

                      I haven't hijacked anything by an "observation" comment.  If someone wants to address my "observation" that is their business.  But if they want to ignore the observation, that is their business, too.

                      Just to let you know, I am not going to pollute this site with a lot of "observations" that are couched as "user posts."  Some people here seem to like to do that (count the number of Peru threads in recent days), but I find that annoying since it makes it difficult to follow comment threads.

            • not to be contentious, nomad

              And I am not a registered dem and turn ill at the thought of being so.

              Your very first post was entitled "How to turn this Dem red"


              Well, I have done in it. For the first time in my 50 years I have voted for a repub in a general election. Thanks Niki for putting away any doubts that I may have had that my party wasn't subverted away from within away.

              I do guess I missed this:


              Besides, this time around I needed to get down there to pick up a party registration change form so I could get the D off my name and be able to vote for RON PAUL in the primary which at the rate they are moving the dates up might be tommorow or next week.

              I'm still surprised to see someone who claimed to be a Democrat mere weeks ago echoing HubPolitics' "admitting women aren't good at science isn't sexist" BS.

              • What Part Didnt you get?

                Not a registered dem is not a registered dem. What part do you have trouble with?

                But as to women in science here is my OBSERVATION. Roughly a quarter, maybe less, of the engineering students at the school I went to were women. Yet we expect and find that roughly half the engineers holding jobs are to be women or else "society is sexist". Try out this hypothisis. In their zeal to demonstrate DIVERSE hiring standards the quality of applicants chosen by corp USA is DIMINISHED by selecting such a large group from such a small sampling, while equal and better male applicants are overlooked in the name of maintaining DIVERSITY. That shouldnt take much of an imagination to figure, should it? While maintaining a brighter, cheerier, happier, diverse workplace; creative output blows and the nation suffers in the form of lack of actual innovation because we make decisions based on everything EXCEPT merit. I have no interest in saying any group is better than any other group at anything. I'm saying lets get away from the group identity crap and let peole demonstrate what they can or cant contribute as individuals. But that would fly right in the face of our ingrained group identity mentality, wouldnt it. Couldnt have that. Peoples careers are built on maintaining the fissures.

                • sorry dude

                  You're as phony as a three dollar bill.  In fact, if you're not actually Aaron Margolis, you're a damn close approximation.

                  One thing is crystal clear - you were never, ever a Democrat, a progressive, or anything resembling one. You don't even understand why diversity programs exist or how they work.

                  • You are the clueless one ...

                    Diversity programs work like this. Corporations go out and round up all the women and minorities they can, right down to the straight 3.0 social passers. The more DIVERSE the work force the greater the REWARD. To get there they bypass a large block of the undesirable white male block probably the middle 50%, who despite demonstrating the initiative to excel will not bring the needed skill set, DIVERSITY. How many really lousy engineers do you know hold down cube space strictly based on their demographic profile? Tell me none and you are a blind fool. They are everywhere. I have read that corporations are in the habit of thinning out the undersirable white male workforce through attrition to make room for the new mediocre crop of diversity...


                    Them is the facts pal, so now tell me how sadly misinformed I am or why that this discriminatory practice is a good thing, unlike any other discriminatory practice which needs to be addressed through candle lighting vigils in ...

                    • $quot; For Victims of Reverse Discrimination$quot; !!!!!????

                      Their claims to be "A Civil Rights Organization for Color Blind Justice" would be a lot more compelling if thet weren't so obsessed with, you know, race.

                      "Public opinion polls show that between half and three-fourths of whites believe that, as a group, they are routinely discriminated against."  Indeed.

                      I think this paragraph says everything I need to know about you and them:

                      And most American corporations also have blue ribbon Diversity Panels like Kodak's which are universally headed by liberal, pro-quota refugees from the first two Clinton administrations.  Where possible the chairpersons of these Diversity Panels are black,  Hispanic or Native American.  If no blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans are available for the job then pro-quota companies such as Kodak will at least appoint a non-minority female to head their Diversity Panel.  Whatever the specific facts and circumstances, the chairpersons of these Diversity Panels  are always liberal, pro-quota diversiphiles.  However, there is no  diversity of viewpoints or politics on these panels.

                    • Wonderful ...

                      Did you read the story ... the one story that I linked which relates to Kodak? Do you know of ANYONE who denies that this did/does occur? Noone right. Its just a fact of life like the sun rising in the morning, huh? So what you want to do is attack the source? Why not discuss the fact? Fact is KODAK settled the lawsuit out of court for a hude amount. That doesnt seem like something attorney deep Kodak would do if the charge leveled was frivoulous now does it. ... ah well... SO how do you justify this discriminatory act when you whine about all others, huh personal Jesus? If gays or women were targeted you would be all up in arms wouldnt you? So why is profiling okay in the corporate arena? Arent you being a bit hypocritical in your purely noble cause?

                    • you mean Kodak's $13 million settlement with their own employees in 1999?

                      Frankly, it's irrelevant to your argument.  They alleged discrimination; Kodak conducted an investigation and agreed. 

                      As to facts, you might want to take a second look.  Even the stuff they claim as supporting evidence doesn't back you up. The closest thing they cite to an actual fact is this: "One in four U.S. workers at Xerox Corp., Bausch & Lomb Inc. and Eastman Kodak Co. was a racial minority in 2001, up from one in five a decade ago."  BFD.

                      The real crux of your and their problem with Kodak appears to be this:

                        None of the organizations funded by Kodak or to which Kodak belongs promote European American culture or conservative values.  In fact, most of the organizations funded by Kodak are overtly hostile toward European American culture and conservative values

                    • almost forgot

                      Yes, of course I read the story.  I even quoted from it.  The fatal assumption is that the so-called "preferred minorities" you and they are ranting about (blacks, hispanics, women, gay people, etc.) aren't qualified for their positions. 

                      And yes, your repeated assertion that this is true does make your statements sexist, racist, and homophobic.

                    • Huh ...

                      Good name. Anyhow, for a second I will place myself into your illogical little world and try to look at it from your unique perspective.

                      Imagibe this:

                      A number of years ago the percentage of white male employees in a given field is X. This is thought of as being not diverse enough so it is determined that more women and minorities must be hired in order to make X some new lower percentage. To say you want more of something is also saying you want less of something else but thats besides the point.

                      This new lower percentage can be arrived at in one of two ways or likely a combination of the two ways.

                      1) New hires must be predomently composed of the desired demographic, that is most new hires must be either women or minorities EVEN THOUGH the make up of the applicant pool will reflect the make up of the pool of qualified school graduates in that field, which in the case of engineering is predomenantly white male. To assert that MERIT is the reason that the makeup of the succesful candidate field does not roughly mirror the graduate pool that they are drawn from is pushing the envelope of odds QUITE a way, but that is what you do. MERIT did this you beleive. Hmm ...

                      Then we consider the second method of improving diversity

                      2) Attrition ... people who are chosen to leave the given field will be predomentantly from the offensive demographic group. To assume that merit has any consequence in these decisions is again moving the ball into the unlikely. Again though you do so.

                      Combined the two characteristics of DIVERSITY programs presents a pretty obvious case IMO, take from one to give to someone else. This is not taking something that was given, this is taking something that was worked for, EARNED through hard work and then just pulled away regardless of merit, in the name of progress.

                      Which , of course is the typical democratic/liberal approach to most things. SOCIAL ENGINEERING. It doesnt work.

                      So call me any scary name you wish but I will not be effected because when I think of someone gullable enough to beleive that any of these COINCIDENCES could freely occur, I think of only one name, fool, and that is the scariest thing in this world you can ever be. 

                    • So, let me understand this...

                      ...apparently it escaped your notice that the photography market changed markedly in the 1998-2002 time frame--pretty much the time frame of your article.  Kodak essentially jettisoned its chemical film business (Agfa is out of business, and who knows where Fujifilm is going) in favor of digital camera technology.  I bought a Kodak digicam in 2000 (and may shortly buy a Pentax SLR digicam).  And you expect that Kodak would have the old-line chemfilm people still around?  That is nuts.

                      The problem that you have, and the problem that you wish to ignore, is the fact that technology shifts mean employment upheavals.  Get used to it.  And don't ascribe every change in corporate employment to sexism or racism.

                    • Raj

                      You impress me as being at least somewhat inteligent so grant me this much and we will have no argument and no reason to play tit for tat. Will you do me the service of admitting that the form of discrimination known as reverse discrimination does in fact exist and like any other form of discrimination it should be avoided? So waht say you, does this form of discrimination exist?

                    • Sorry, but by now it should be obvious to you that...

                      ...I do not opine on hypotheticals.

                      Give me a set of alleged facts, and I will evaluate them.

                      Hypos are fun in law school, but not in the real world.

    • sexist engineering department

      the engineering departments were highly sexist when i was in college in the early 1980s.  so it wouldn't surprise me if there still aren't a lot of women in upper-level jobs at this point.  i don't know what things are like now.  better i hope.

      i am a biologist, and witnessed an amazing transformation within my department's (fisheries & wildlife) grad student population during my grad years.  when i arrived, i was one of very very very few women who were studying actual science (as opposed to "human dimensions" subjects).  my classmates were largely tobacco-chewing beer guzzlers who hunted on weekends and dressed their kill in our lab.  within a few years, however, the male:female balance in the science end of the dept was much closer to 50:50, and dedicated hunter-drinkers were no longer in the majority.  i have no idea what to attribute the changes to, but it was astounding to observe.  by the time i graduated, there were also a few female science faculty in the department.

      • What you were observing was why...

        ...Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was so roundly castigated only a couple of years ago.  I'm sure that you remember the incident.

        I have seriously never understood why the "hard sciences" (particularly physics and chemistry) would want to ignore the contributions that might have been made by half the population.  For some reason, on the other hand, sciences like biology (which I consider one of the "hard sciences" but which does not utilize a lot of hardware) welcome women. 

        Regarding faculty, I suspect that there is still an "old-boy" network.  Some faculty are hired to teach.  Tenured faculty are granted based on their ability to get research grants.  It's the "old boy" network that largely determines who gets research grants.  It will be more difficult to get rid of the "old boy" network, but eventually it will occur.

      • biology and women

        I actually was thinking about this when I wrote this post: Almost everyone I personally know who is a scientist in my generation or younger, is a female biologist.  Off the top of my head I can probably name about ten female biologists I know in person (I don't mean simply that they got an undergrad degree in it, I mean that they either went on to a Ph.D. program or a lab job or some other research endeavor).

        In fact, in the version of this post that I put on my personal blog, I added one extra sentence at the end joking about recruiting one of my female biologist friends for Congress.  (and she commented that she's always thought she would someday run for some elected office :)

        I know exactly one male biologist of my generation or younger, in person.  And exactly one female ... well, astronomer, but that's the closest to physicist among the women I know, that I can think of off the top of my head.

        Why this sharp divide between the fields?

        ... and maybe the first biologist in Congress will be a woman.

        • An observation...

          ...several years ago in SciAm the evolutionary biologist Jean Myer noted that biology was primarily an historical science, in contrast to sciences such as physics and chemistry, which are primarily mathematical sciences.  Perhaps it is because of womens' fear of mathematics that dissuades them from going into physics and chemistry.

          I sincerely do not understand the fear.  Many of the outstanding students in my AP math class in high school were female.

          Regarding And exactly one female ... well, astronomer, but that's the closest to physicist among the women I know

          Astronomers are physicists.  Don't let anyone persuade you otherwise.

          On the general point of the comment, at least as long as women want to go into biology, we'll have biologists.  It appears that, if we had to rely on men, we wouldn't have many biologists.  That's a snark.

          • a historical science?

            pardon me dr. myer, but what the hell does that mean, "historical science"?  biology cannot be done well without a good working knowledge of statistics at the least.  it's not the highest form of math, but it is math.  some areas of biology are heavily quantitative.

            fear of math?  raj, i sincerely dont think women suffer from this any more than men.  more like, girls and women have traditionally been dissuaded from studying math, and treated with the assumption that they can't handle it or that it isn;t an appropriate subject for a young lady.  that is changing in a big way in many places, but not all.

            my own grandmother was accused of cheating when she did a stellar job in her high school math class.  did the teacher assume that girls were too dumb for math, so if they did well in it they must therefore be cheating?  or could he simply not stand 'competition' from the female sex?  as i said above, this is changing.  however, there are still enough 'old school' farts around to keep the number of female math-o-philes lower than it otherwise would be.  all too often, girls are still set up with the assumption that they will not be good in such subjects.

            • Laurel, please don't bite my head off.

              Myer was referring to evolutionary biology, which is obviously an historical science.  There are other historical sciences in other fields, including geology (eg. plate tectonics), astronomy, astrophysics, and so forth.  They do not adapt very well to experimental techniques.  They (the historical sciences) rely on evidence that is gathered, sometimes from sources provided over millenia, to support their theories.*

              Actually, regarding fear of math?  raj, i sincerely dont think women suffer from this any more than men it may have been different when you were at university, but it certainly wasn't true when I was there (cusp 1960/70).  There were very few women in my advanced college math classes.  That doesn't suggest that males were particularly good at math (I can assure you that they weren't, and I recall a couple of problems to this day), but it does suggest that women were probably less interested in pursuiing the subject. 

              Regarding your grandmother's experience, I'll tell you yet another of my little stories.  In my last corporate job, my administrativie assistant (yes, she really was that) decided to go back to college.  I encouraged her to do that.  But...that meant that she would have to take college algebra.  She was frightened at the prospect.  I told her, do lots and lots and lots of problems and she would be OK.  And, if she hit a roadblock, she and I could work it out.  (Actually, I would ask her questions concerning the problems, and she would work it out herself.).  The only way to learn--no, be comfortable with--math is to do lots of problems.  She did so and she aced the courses. 

              Regarding biology cannot be done well without a good working knowledge of statistics at the least you are correct, but statistics is little more than sophisticated counting.  There are a lot of interesting theorems (Bayes, etc.) and so forth, regarding statistics, but at base it's little more than sophisticated counting.

              *As an aside, the "historical sciences" issue is one reason why I use the term "evidence" instead of "experimental results."  Not all sciences are subject to experimentation.

              • $quot;historical$quot;?

                If Myer was referring to evolutionary biology, then the comment makes sense, but is also entirely irrelevant to the question I posed.  Most of the women I know in biology are doing current research.

        • the sex of biologists

          your experience, that most biologists you come across are women, is not my experience.  so, i guess i can't hypothesize as to your 'why'.

  3. Charley's question--

    not necessarily.  His thesis could have been interdisciplinary between the engineering and mathematics departments... and I think it was.  "A (1,1) tensor generalization of the Laplace-Beltrami operator / by Gerald M. McNerney"

    Hoo boy.  I haven't thought about tensors in a dozen years.

    • Much of mathematics was actually...

      ...invented (originally) by scientists and engineers, and then generalized by mathematicians.  The calculus (differential and integral) is one example.  The stress tensor is another.

      On the other hand, differential geometry seems to have been developed by mathematicians.

  4. Good post, Cos.

    The nation is better served by having scientists in Congress, partly because they can provide a different viewpoint from the lawyers or businesspeople or washed-up actors (Gopher from the Love Boat?)

  5. McNerney's an engineer

    Jerry McNerney is an engineer, which isn't the same thing as a scientist.

    Though I bet there are very few engineers in Congress, too.

    • You're splitting hairs on that one Cos...

      Dude's got a Ph D in engineering and mathematics.  He's a trained scientist and I don't think there are many folks with Ph Ds in chem / bio / physics who would really argue otherwise.

      • nope

        Huh?  "Dude's got a Ph D in engineering and mathematics" - exactly.  He's an engineer.  Engineers are consumers of and appliers of science, scientists are producers of and practitioners of science, more or less.  Obviously there's some overlap (and heck, even a hair stylist does some things with "research" elements in his/her work), but engineers and scientists are different categories of profession.

        For example, I'm a systems administrator.  Several of my coworkers are software engineers aka programmers.  We work with computers all day, and I even write some code and they can install some software, but I'm not a programmer, nor are they sysadmins.  Just because we're "technical" and "work in computers" doesn't mean we do the same things.

        There's no hair-splitting about it.

  6. Congressman John Olver is a Ph. D. in Chemistry

    I'm surprised no has pointed this out earlier. Massachusetts'own John Olver has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from MIT and taught at UMass Amherst before his political career began. If you have talked with him, his scientific background comes through in the way he approaches issues.

    • Huh

      Wow.  I have in fact talked to John Olver in person, but I didn't know.  I've also never seen him on any lists of scientists in Congress, even though I've been paying some attention to that for several years.  Thank you.

  7. This is interesting

    Cos, you always come up with an interesting angle, so well done.

    Why are the physicians omitted?  There have been some on both sides of the aisle over the last few years, no?

    Or did the diagnosis of Terry Schaivo by videotape on the Senate floor disqualify them all?

    • physicians

      We have some physicians in Congress, but I don't think any of them are scientists.  (Some people can be both physicians and scientists, but I don't know of any in Congress).

    • One of the things that you are seeing is that...

      ...there is a blurring of lines among various disciplines.  Engineers can be applied scientists, applied scientists can do theoretical science, applied mathmeticians (which I consider computer scientists to be) can do theoretical mathematics, and so forth ad nauseum.

      Regarding physicians, the same.  They can certainly contribute to applied science: it is often physicians who observe conditions among their patients, and report on them to the journals.  Research is a cooperative effort.

« Blue Mass Group Front Page

Add Your Comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Tue 25 Apr 12:54 AM