A Tireless Advocate for Science - an Interview with the Former House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert

bridges vol. 15, Sept 2007 / Feature Article

by Caroline Adenberger

Sherwood Boehlert

During his 24 years in Congress, Sherwood Boehlert has always been a strong advocate for science and the environment. When he retired in December 2006, as chairman of the House Science Committee, he left an impressive legacy of laws which he helped shepherd through the legislative process: among them, the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 including his acid-rain regulation, the Nanotechnology Act of 2003, and the NASA Authorization Act of 2005.

The moderate Republican from Utica (in upstate New York) has served for 12 terms in Congress. He has kept the reputation of being not just one of the biggest proponents of governmental investment in scientific R&D but also one of the few remaining centrist politicians who will cooperate across party lines to get the work done in the people's - and the environment's - best interest: supporting stronger fuel-economy standards, mandatory greenhouse gas restrictions, and endangered species protections.

But to Boehlert, retirement doesn't mean "buying a rocking chair and sitting on the back porch rocking away my more mature years." In addition to the numerous non-compensated boards he is on, he taught a public policy course for honor students for Boston University's Semester-in-Washington program and is writing a book while spending about two days a week in his Washington, DC office at The Accord Group, a public affairs/lobbying firm where he is of counsel. What other people would call a crazy schedule, Boehlert described as "semi-retirement" when he met with bridges at his Washington office to discuss his experiences in science policy-making and his plans for the future.

bridges: Your daily schedule doesn't seem to quite fit into the stereotype of a recent retiree. What have you been up to since you left Congress in December 2006?

Boehlert: I am a counsel to "The Accord Group," a highly respected, tight-knit public affairs lobbying firm with which I had a long association over the years. I do that for about two days a week. In addition, I am on several boards of directors, including the Natural Resources Council Action Fund, The Alliance for Climate Protection (the Al Gore group), The League of Conservative Voters, the Republican Main Street Partnership, and the Heinz Center, to name a few of them. And I am co-chairing, with former Governor Mark Warner of Virginia and former Senator Slade Gordon of Washington State, the Bipartisan Policy Center's "Transportation Policy for the 21st Century Project," something I believe very important and meaningful.

I also taught a college course this spring for the first time in my life, called "American Institutions" at Boston University's Washington Journalism Center. You know, I initially thought it would be a cakewalk, but once I started developing the syllabus and selecting the reading material, boy, I realized how much work this is going to be! The kids in my class were honor students, both juniors and seniors who qualified for their class and internships at Congress here in Washington, DC. They were very bright and asked tough questions, but I loved it. I never thought, though, that I'd appreciate a spring break as much as I did this year's - since it gave not just the students a week off, but me too!

And I am in the process of writing a book on my political past and experiences, which is a labor of love. Unfortunately, this is one of my projects that I am putting off due to so many other things I am working on at the moment. I got it all ready in my head, but only single chapters are written down, and those are scattered in folders... I hope to finish it by the middle of next year, and hopefully published - it would be a good time to publish the book, in the middle of a presidential campaign.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} bridges: You once described yourself as a "bigamist" since you're married both to your wife and to your job. Has this concept been changed by your retirement and the activities you are pursuing now?

Boehlert: My wife Marianne and I always joke that she married me for love and not for lunch. But seriously, it has changed since I am busy now in a different way: I am in a wonderful position to choose the things I want to occupy my time. For example, I always liked campaigning but not the fund-raising part. I think this is the worst part of the job of a congressman, the need to constantly be soliciting for funds. I never liked to hustle people, starting with my friends, for money, even when I knew they could afford it. Quite frankly, I am glad this is behind me.

We've also relocated: We sold our house in upstate New York and moved to Rehoboth, Delaware. When I was a staff member on Capitol Hill, and our children were little, we used to think that was heaven. We saved our money and rented a place there for a week. Fast forward to today, two of my daughters have homes there and my third daughter is in nearby New Jersey. The family can get together easily, and Marianne and I enjoy the frequent times when we get all six of our grandkids and our daughters at our new home. In terms of my continued interest in playing an active part in Washington, living in Rehoboth allows me to spend more time with my family. It is a relatively easy commute to get up in the morning and drive into Washington for a day or two, compared to what I used to have to do and did for 24 years. In all those years, I only missed one weekend, making that long trip between Washington and upstate New York. I had to get up at 4 in the morning, drive an hour to the airport, fly down, sometimes in very adverse weather, because we had some severe winters up north. But that's all past now.

bridges: Looking back at a quarter century of experience in science policy making, do you feel that the communication between scientists and policy makers has improved?

Boehlert: Dramatically. And I like to think that I was part of that improvement because, first of all, I am not a science whiz. I tease people who ask me, "How did you become chairman of the science committee?" by telling them, "Well, I'm convinced I got on the science committee initially because the elders of the party making the assignments looked at my résumé and said, ‘Look at this guy Boehlert. The last science course he took was high school chemistry, and he got a C. He's a natural.'" This usually gets a good laugh - but in a sense that's true, I really did get a C in high school chemistry. I think I was ideally suited for the science committee because I lack the in-depth background and, therefore, I would ask the obvious questions that some people were reluctant to ask.

Secondly, I was smart enough to know that most of the people I was dealing with as witnesses at hearings were a heck of a lot smarter than I am. I would often times look at a panel before me, on which there might be a couple of Nobel Laureates. One of the reasons why I was in good favor with the science community was because they knew I relied on them for essential input and that I tried to have my decision-making be science-based.

In my opinion, the policy maker must LISTEN to the scientist. Now, you're never going to find a unified, undisputed opinion in the science community. I'm convinced I could get a respected scientist with an impressive c.v. who would argue that Einstein was wrong with his theory of relativity. But the way I always operated, and the science committee operated, was that we looked at the scientific consensus. Most issues aren't 51-49. Most issues are 70-30, 80-20, where the majority of scientists are on one side of the question, and that would guide me. I think that's what every policy maker should base his or her decision upon.

As for the scientists, initially when I came [to the science committee], I thought they were lousy. That's not the best choice of words, but they were lousy lobbyists and advocates for their own cause because scientists would come in with their impressive backgrounds and current positions, and I used to say to them, "Don't argue that you've got to do this for the best interests of the advancement of science, because people's eyes will glaze. But if you come in and say, ‘This is important and here's what it means for the economy, for the creation of new jobs, etc. - that will make policy makers listen and understand.'"

Another part of the problem on Capitol Hill is that politicians try to politicize science. You know that as well as I do. Politicians should look to science - and scientists - for scientific information, but they always ask them to translate that into political language, and that's simply not the job of the scientist. That's the policy maker's role. I think policy makers put scientists in a very uncomfortable position by trying to politicize science - on both sides - to use it and, I would say, misuse it by hyping what the scientists are telling them and embellishing it or by pooh-poohing it.

In my opinion, every single policy maker needs to have an appreciation for what expertise in a given discipline can add to his or her evaluation of public policy questions or issues. I say shame on any policymaker who is going to make some key decisions in science, or any other activity, who doesn't reach out and ask the experts what they think! It doesn't mean what they think is what he or she has to do. But let your decision-making be guided by that input.

We are not short of information and sources. Today, I see the danger rather in the information overload, you need someone to condense it - I think that's where scientists are truly challenged.

bridges: You were always a strong proponent of bipartisanship in Congress in order to get things done. How do you feel about the stronger shift towards partisanship in recent years?

Boehlert: During all my time in Congress, I worked bipartisan. And I must not have done it completely wrong because my constituents reaffirmed and kept me for 24 years. I think the marching orders you get from the voter are to go to Washington, and to listen to all the arguments from all sides of the issue. Then make what you think is the best judgment you can exercise on the voters' behalf. It is not about what the Republican Party or the Democratic Party wants you to do, but what you think is best based upon the fact that you did your homework and listened to other people.

I left Congress with sort of a heavy heart in some respects because I think there is a dark cloud over the institution of the Congress. In all the 40 years - I have been affiliated with Congress first in a staff capacity, ending up as a chairman of an important committee and as a congressman - I have never seen a higher level of partisanship, or a lower level of tolerance for another point of view, than I see now. There is a conscious lack of flexibility in political figures of all stripes these days, and I think that this is absolutely wrong. You can't be so rigid in your views, refusing to adjust even a little bit.

bridges: Do you have an explanation for this?

Boehlert: I think in some respects you can blame the public at large. The public at large tends toward simple solutions to complex problems. Sure, there are simple solutions to complex problems - but inevitably, they are wrong. Because complex problems don't lend themselves to simple solutions.

And then there is the media. Just take a look at the current presidential campaign. I've never seen a presidential campaign as long as this one in the history of this country. You get all the Democratic candidates on a stage, or you get all the Republican candidates on stage for a big debate. Then, they are each given 60 seconds to provide their "solution" to one of the thorniest problems of mankind today! It's like talking in sound bites. I ask, where is the depth?! You know, just yesterday I heard Senator Clinton on NPR unveiling her health care plan for America - and I give her a lot of credit for that. She went on at some length, answered a number of detailed questions, and how refreshing that was! Normally, when you turn on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, etc. all you get are those 20-second sound bites, and I think they do the public a great disservice with this. But what the media is doing is responding to what the public wants. Some sort of "instant education," but I don't really believe in this concept.

I never want to see an absence of differences of opinions. I think it makes us all grow from hearing other points of view. I detest nothing more than a homophobic atmosphere with people pointing accusing fingers at others. Even if it sounds corny, I've always tried to live by the Golden Rule of do to others as you would have them do to you. That's also the great thing about public service: What is more rewarding in life than being able to help people solve problems? I guess I just have a positive upbeat attitude towards life in general - and that's what keeps me running.


This interview was conducted by Caroline Adenberger on Sept 19, 2007.