Science

A Chance to Reboot the House Science Committee

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Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas will retire from Congress in 2018. Smith has run the powerful House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology since 2013. Unfortunately, he did not use his position to seriously advance science policy but instead wielded it as a cudgel against perceived political enemies—including scientists. He sponsored legislation championed by lobbyists and trade groups that would, had it become law, have undermined the role of science in policy making. And he stood shoulder to shoulder with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt as they gutted the independence of that agency’s science advisory panels. Smith went after individual scientists, science programs and even science grants as part of his “oversight” efforts, all in an apparent attempt to stifle both the process and the outcomes of scientific work whose results might offend his allies in polluting industries.

In 2015 the House gave Smith the unusual ability to issue subpoenas unilaterally, without the input of the minority party. He used it to subpoena e-mails and documents from scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over a peer-reviewed climate study they published in the journal Science. In issuing these subpoenas, Smith contended, without evidence, that the scientists altered data about climate change. A congressional subpoena is an intimidating tool, and the American Meteorological Society wrote to the committee to protest this use of subpoena power. In 2016 my own organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), was hit with a subpoena from the House science committee demanding its correspondence with state attorneys general. The UCS rejected the request, and Smith’s staff declined our offer to brief the committee.

With a new chair comes a great opportunity to deal with the real challenges confronting our scientific enterprise. How can we continue to maintain world leadership across a multitude of fields and at the same time deepen and support international partnerships? How can we strengthen our training and early career prospects for scientists in both well-established and emerging fields of study? What effective new approaches should we adopt to train the technically proficient workforce the economy needs? How can we tackle long-standing disparities in our science and technology workforce arising from individuals’ income, race, gender and other factors? How can our federal scientific workforce be strengthened? How can scientific integrity be fully implemented in federal agencies? And how can we best put science to work to advance public health and environmental justice? These are just a few of the substantive and challenging issues a functional science committee would address.

Oversight should focus on the structure, function and outcomes of agency actions with regard to legal mandates. There must be hearings on the recent change in science advisory boards, for example, as well as scientific integrity policies across the government (26 agencies have such policies, which are intended to protect against political interference in science). We need congressional oversight to make sure political appointees are implementing and abiding by these policies.

The science community and all those who care about science-based policy making should speak out for a new direction for the House science committee now that the dark period of Smith’s chairmanship is coming to a close. As one former Republican chair of the committee, Sherwood Boehlert, wrote in a 2010 opinion piece for the Washington Post, “no member of any party should look the other way when the basic operating parameters of scientific inquiry … are exploited for the sake of political expediency. My fellow Republicans should understand that wholesale, ideologically based or special-interest-driven rejection of science is bad policy. And that in the long run, it’s also bad politics.”

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