Retiring Rep. Rush Holt, right, has been named the incoming chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (Mel Evans/AP)

Physicist Rush D. Holt, the retiring eight-term Democratic congressman from central New Jersey, has been named the incoming chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the organization announced Tuesday.

Holt, 66, who served as assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory before becoming a lawmaker, announced this year that he would not seek re-election. At AAAS, he will replace Alan Leshner, who in April announced that he would step down from the self-proclaimed “world’s largest general scientific organization,” which Leshner has led since 2001.

Holt will assume his new post, which includes the title of executive publisher of the Science family of journals, at the AAAS annual meeting in San Jose in February.

“I knew that someday I would leave Congress and wanted to do it under my own power and my own terms, and some more thought led me to think, this is the time. But it was in the expectation of doing something else worthwhile. And this is as worthwhile as anything I can imagine,” Holt said Tuesday morning in a telephone interview.

He said he didn’t have an agenda and noted that he’s not on the job yet. But he offered a general thought about the mission of the 166-year-old, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, saying it needs to “look after the health of science in America — the entire science enterprise.”

He went on: “Essential to science is a reverence for evidence. Also essential to science is communication. No one can call himself or herself a scientist if they keep their findings to themselves. It’s appropriate that the most important science journal in America [Science] is part of the most important science organization in America.”

Leshner said Tuesday of Holt: “He’s exactly the right person to lead AAAS to its next iteration. He’s a highly credible scientist who truly understands the role of science in the broader society.”

Holt will take over an organization that is making the difficult transition from a print-centric to a digital-first publishing environment, and one that is trying to expand membership.

“Science has never been a more important part of everyday life,” Leshner said. “And so AAAS, as sort of the embodiment of the scientific community, the voice of science, needs to expand its presence both in the policy arena and in the broader public. So what he has to do is work strategically to figure out how to make sure that our core mission to both advance science and serve society will be accomplished.”

Holt’s move to AAAS was also applauded by Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

“To have someone with that kind of scientific and political gravitas as the head of AAAS at this juncture is a wonderful development,” Collins said. “I’m thrilled to hear this.”