Over the past eight years, the House science committee became a home to climate change denialism and attacks on the federal process for doling out research grant awards.
That promises to change in January when a Democrat takes up the committee gavel for the first time since 2010. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the current ranking member, has already announced an about-face for the direction of the committee.
She’s outlined an agenda that includes addressing climate change, supporting STEM education and restoring the credibility of the committee on science issues. Johnson has also introduced legislation to deal with sexual harassment in science and has called for federal science efforts to be more inclusive of minority scientists and those who work at historically black institutions.
The pending retirement of Lamar Smith, the chairman since 2013, meant the committee would see at least one significant departure next year. But four other Republican members -- California representative Dana Rohrabacher, Illinois representative Randy Hultgren, Virginia representative Barbara Comstock and California representative Steven Knight -- also lost their re-election bids.
The incoming Democratic class, meanwhile, includes eight new members who campaigned on their backgrounds in science, engineering or medical fields and had the backing of organizers opposed to attacks on science by President Trump. Science advocates expect Congress to put a greater emphasis on science in policy making and are hoping the committee could once again become a plum assignment for House members.
“It’s kind of a novel idea to put scientists on the science committee,” said Yogin Kothari, a senior Washington representative with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I’d encourage all the new members who have scientific backgrounds -- whether they’re engineers or hard scientists -- to join this committee and give it the prominence it really deserves.”
Under Smith, the science committee issued subpoenas to the Environmental Protection Agency seeking raw data used for a landmark air pollution study. Opponents said it wasn’t possible to release the data without violating the privacy of program participants. Under the Trump administration, EPA officials have sought to require that new regulations be based only on research where data is publicly available. The rule would enact requirements that Smith had sought to impose for years. The agency argued it would advance data transparency, but science groups said it would let the government ignore important and credible studies.
Smith also subpoenaed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after researchers at the agency said in a paper that there had been no halt to global warming in decades. For years, he’s called the scientific consensus on global warming “climate alarmism” based on biased data.
Smith also targeted National Science Foundation grants for special scrutiny, asking the agency for detailed records -- including scientific and technical reviews -- of grants that he said had questionable intellectual merit. Johnson blasted that interference in the peer-review process in what became a rare public feud between the top leaders of the committee.
Rush Holt, CEO at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that Smith and other top Republicans on the committee have prided themselves on being iconoclasts when it comes to the conventional wisdom of research and the scientific consensus.
“I think they would take that as a badge of honor,” he said.
Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association for American Universities, said with Lamar Smith’s departure and Democrats in charge of the committee, he expects that social science research would not see its value questioned so heavily by the committee, as it has under Republican leadership. And Democrats will likely look more favorably on the kind of applied research -- especially on wind and solar energy programs -- where industry won’t take the risk.
The committee is also likely to use its oversight powers to scrutinize the administration’s management of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Our hope is the committee will become more bipartisan,” Tobin Smith said. “It’s not at all clear that will be the case.”
He noted that Republican members who lost their campaigns for re-election included lawmakers praised for their support of science. Hultgren, for example, although a conservative Republican has been recognized for his support of basic research and STEM education by the American Physical Society.
But Hultgren lost a narrow contest to Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse and former senior adviser at the United States Department of Health and Human Services, where she helped implement the Affordable Care Act. Underwood was one of more than a dozen congressional candidates on the ballot last week who were backed by 314 Action, a group launched in the wake of the 2016 election to find and back candidates with science backgrounds.
Shaughnessy Naughton, the president of 314 Action, said those candidates were able use their backgrounds in STEM fields to talk about issues important to their communities in a credible way. One of those candidates, Joe Cunningham, pulled off a narrow upset of South Carolina representative Katie Arrington by making offshore drilling a key part of his campaign.
“They bring a lot of credibility to these issues,” Naughton said. “That’s what people want right now. They want problem solvers.”
Of 13 candidates backed by 314 on Election Day, eight were elected to Congress -- all of them in districts that flipped from Republican to Democrat. (Joseph Kopser, one of the 314-backed candidates, lost a bid for Lamar Smith’s open House seat to Republican Chip Roy, who has dismissed the threat of climate change.)
Naughton said the new leadership on the science committee should mean the chair no longer uses the position to intimidate and silence researchers “who are just doing their jobs.” She said she also hoped to see Congress pass the Scientific Integrity Act, which aims to prevent the suppression of data and findings at federal agencies. Johnson is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which was introduced last year.
Kothari of the Union of Concerned Scientists said he also hoped to see the committee start holding hearings featuring scientific experts on matters under review by the committee.
“We’re hopeful the committee next year will go back to defending and promoting science and its role in shaping policy,” he said.