Known for frankness and wit, Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist Burt Richter could soon become a columnist in his own right. Yesterday the editors of The Washington Post announced that Richter and nine other aspiring columnists had made the finals of “America’s Next Great Pundit” contest, the winner of which will get to write 13 columns for the paper or its Web site. "I told The Washington Post I believed the newspapers needed a science-and-technology version of Paul Krugman and that I could be that person," Richter says. His entry to the contest called for the resurrection of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment:
In 1995 it decided that ignorance was bliss and abolished OTA as part of the Gingrich revolution, in order to save about $20 million out of a congressional budget of $2 billion. It has been blissful ever since, getting its information on science and technology issues from outside organizations that too often have serious conflicts of interest.
For science journalists, Richter has long been a go-to guy—somebody with the wisdom and perspective to provide insight into an issue, the temperament to be even-handed, and the clout to speak his mind without having to worry too much about the repercussions. Chosen from more than 4800 contestants who submitted an op-ed piece in the initial round, the finalist will have to compete in a series of challenges—this week The Post will publish a column from each finalist and ask readers to vote on them. Richter’s competition includes a former federal prosecutor, an executive at Teach for America, and an expert on international security at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fact that led one reader to comment on Ricther’s piece: “I was expecting a healthy sampling of everyday America based on how The Post described the contest. Boy was I wrong.”