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Rep. Vernon Ehlers, Who Put Science Before Politics, Dies at 83

He led a comprehensive review of federal science policy; helped revamp standards for education in science, technology, engineering and math; and helped allocate $270 million to clean the Great Lakes. He also led the way in modernizing the House’s internet presence and email system. His goal, he said, was to create something “so simple that an adult can use it.”

Dr. Ehlers coaxed his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reconsider scientific issues, like the cause of climate change, when data appeared to contradict their beliefs.

“I just had to go around, continuously talking to people about issues and educating them,” Dr. Ehlers told the NPR program “Talk of the Nation” in 2012. “It took an immense amount of my time.”

Photo

Vernon J. Ehlers in 1994.

Credit
David LaClaire

It was a lonely task at first, but two other physicists, Rush Holt of New Jersey and Bill Foster of Illinois, both Democrats, eventually joined Dr. Ehlers in the House, where they did their best to inform their colleagues. In an interview with The New York Times in 2008, Dr. Ehlers described “rushing to the floor” of the House to stop members of Congress from cutting off financing for endeavors they might not entirely understand.

In one instance, Mr. Treur, the former campaign manager, said, Dr. Ehlers argued in favor of efforts to slow the spread of zebra mussels, an invasive mollusk that had colonized American waters. At one point he had to correct a colleague, who exclaimed, “I don’t know why we have to spend money researching the muscles of zebras!”

Misunderstandings like these led Dr. Ehlers to urge others in the scientific community to engage in politics.

“You can grumble all you want about those idiots in the Congress,” he told NPR. “But if you’re not helping to educate the idiots, you’re not doing your job.”

Vernon James Ehlers was born on Feb. 6, 1934, in Pipestone, Minn. His mother, the former Alice Doorn, was a homemaker, and his father, the Rev. John W. C. Ehlers, was the pastor of a Christian Reformed church in Pipestone. Dr. Ehlers said that his faith’s commitment to service helped persuade him to enter politics.

He graduated from high school in Celeryville, Ohio, then studied for three years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids before completing his undergraduate degree in physics at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956. He earned his doctorate in nuclear physics there four years later.

Dr. Ehlers spent the next few years teaching at Berkeley before returning to Calvin in 1966. He also worked as a volunteer science adviser for his congressman at the time, Gerald R. Ford, the future president.

Dr. Ehlers served as a state representative and state senator before he won a special election to fill the seat of Representative Paul B. Henry, who had died of a brain tumor in 1993.

He married Johanna Meulink in 1958. She survives him, as do two sons, Brian and Todd; two daughters, Heidi Rienstra and Marla Ehlers; two sisters, Frances Engle and Henrietta Buurma; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Despite Dr. Ehlers’s efforts, scientists remain a minuscule part of the Congress, according to the Congressional Research Services. Aside from a smattering of engineers and medical doctors, there are only three members of Congress — among 540 representatives and senators — with backgrounds in science: a chemist, a microbiologist and a lone physicist, Dr. Foster.

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