Vernon Ehlers, a Michigan Republican who became the first research physicist elected to Congress, where he championed science funding and environmental protections and won plaudits for the scientific rigor he brought to the rough-and-tumble of politics, died Aug. 15 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was 83.
Rick Treur, a family spokesman and the congressman’s former campaign manager, confirmed the death and said he had Alzheimer’s disease.
A former nuclear physicist, professor and Michigan legislator, Dr. Ehlers served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 until his retirement in 2010. He represented Grand Rapids, a Republican stronghold in the western part of the state and the childhood home town of President Gerald R. Ford, whom Ehlers served as science adviser when Ford held the same congressional seat.
Ehlers won a special election to replace Republican Rep. Paul Henry, who died in office of a brain tumor. The incoming congressman was later joined by Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, a former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and Bill Foster, D-Illinois, a former Fermilab physicist, to form what they called the three-person physics caucus.
In a statement on Ehlers’ death, Holt recalled his colleague saying that “we could meet anywhere — even in a phone booth — as long as it had a blackboard where we could discuss such things as the quadrupole moment of the nucleus, or impedance matching of simple machines, or congressional debates.”
The Almanac of American Politics credited the freshman Ehlers with bringing “to House Republicans, then entering their 40th year in the minority, a majority mindset.” Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, who became speaker after the Republicans regained control of the House in 1994, appointed him to oversee the modernization of House technology, including what were then its 11 email systems.
“It was easier to send an email to Moscow than to send it 20 feet down the hall to a colleague,” Ehlers once told Congressional Quarterly. He also oversaw the establishment of THOMAS.gov, the online legislative information source later succeeded by Congress.gov.
Because of his professional expertise, Ehlers led a review of science policy in the United States. A 1998 report concluded that the country’s strategy required “not a major overhaul, but rather a fine-tuning and rejuvenation.” He was considered a chief advocate on Capitol Hill for science, technology, engineering and mathematics training for the young.
Displaying what the Almanac described as a “penchant for compromise,” Ehlers opposed Republican-supported initiatives that he considered harmful to the country’s scientific goals or scientifically unsound. In particular, he strenuously defended the National Science Foundation, the grant-giving organization that, he noted, had supported him when he was a physics professor seeking to train elementary school teachers.
“I couldn’t say what I really think of this proposal,” he told The New York Times in 2004, when President George W. Bush proposed transferring $120 million in NSF funds to the Education Department. Ehlers had supported the Education Department’s math-science programming but did not wish to see the NSF overlooked. “My language would be too bad, you’d have to rule me out of order,” he remarked.
On environmental issues, he opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and obtained $270 million for cleanup of the Great Lakes. He expressed his frustration with those who denied scientific evidence of climate change.
“They sort of reject our reasoning,” he told the Times. “But they will come back and say, ‘Science will find a way.’ “
Although Ehlers was perhaps best known for his service on the House science and education committees, he also chaired the Administration Committee after Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, stepped down from the post in 2006. Ney later pleaded guilty to corruption charges stemming from the influence-peddling scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Vernon James Ehlers, the son of a Christian Reform minister, was born in Pipestone, Minnesota, on Feb. 6, 1934. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and a PhD in 1960, both from the University of California at Berkeley and both in physics.
After research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Ehlers became a physics professor at Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids. He simultaneously served on the county commission, including as chairman, before devoting himself full time to public service.
He was a member of the Michigan state House from 1983 to 1985 and the state Senate, with a stint as president pro tempore, from 1985 to 1993.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Johanna Meulink of Grand Rapids; four children, Heidi Rienstra, Brian Ehlers and Marla Ehlers, all of Grand Rapids, and Todd Ehlers of Tübingen, Germany; two sisters; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Ehlers at times bemoaned the general lack of scientific knowledge — or interest — that he encountered on Capitol Hill. He recalled arguing with a colleague who wanted to defer to the banking industry for “A.T.M. research.”
The acronym A.T.M., Ehlers had to inform his fellow House member, stood not for “automated teller machine,” but rather for “asynchronous transfer mode,” a type of data transfer.
He helped form Ben Franklin’s List, a political action committee to support scientists seeking public office.
“Just get involved; the country needs your expertise, your analytical thinking and your approach to issues,” he told aspirants. “If you can learn nuclear physics, you can learn politics.”