Since its hasty creation in the panicked months following the Soviet Sputnik launch, the Science Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives has frequently struggled to find a place for itself. It has changed names six times. It started as the Select Committee on Space and Astronautics, but soon veered chaotically in both its name and mandate. Over sixty years it has at various times been given responsibility for standards and measures, civil aviation, and the National Weather Service, along with a generous helping of other agencies, institutes, and legislative niches. As of 2016, its formal name is the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (HCSST).
Ostensibly the committee is in charge of writing and reviewing science-related legislation, overseeing relevant executive agencies and approving political appointments. But lately, as ranking Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson wrote in a June 2016 letter to Republican Congressman and committee chairman Lamar Smith, the committee has “grown increasingly mean-spirited and meaningless.”
Just in the past year, Rep. Smith and Republican allies have carried out a witch hunt against climate-change scientists, imposed unnecessary restrictive regulations on National Science Foundation projects, brought climate deniers to testify in committee hearings, and staged attack after attack against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA, while dropping real scientific and technological innovation to the bottom of the priority list.
In 2015, Smith and the Republican majority issued a subpoena to the NOAA, claiming that it conspired to doctor research in a study disputing the theory that global temperature rise had “paused” beginning in the 1990s. Smith argued that NOAA rushed the study to publication and neglected sufficient peer review. In fact, the study actually took 50% longer to publish than average for NOAA research. Administrators at NOAA refused to respond with documents.
In the summer of 2016, however, the HCSST reached entirely new levels of overreach. For more than a year, attorneys general in twenty states have been conducting fraud investigations into Exxon-Mobil, suspecting that the oil and gas giant knew about harmful effects of fossil fuels as early as the 1970s and intentionally withheld the information.
In July, committee Republicans subpoenaed the attorney general offices in seventeen states, arguing that their investigations impaired Exxon-Mobil’s first amendment right to reject climate science “orthodoxy.” The committee also issued subpoenas to eight non-profits in the climate and environmental sector who have been cooperating with the state attorneys general offices.
Not only did the Republicans issuing the subpoenas not seek bipartisan approval, they did not even inform the committee’s Democrats. Ranking minority member Johnson only found out about the subpoenas when one of the targeted NGOs contacted her. In that June 2016 letter an enraged Johnson described the committee as having degenerated into a “Committee on Harassment,” and suggested these activities risked a constitutional crisis, since state legal activities are generally exempt from congressional inquiry.
Rick Heedes directs the Climate Accountability Institute, a Colorado-based science and policy organization. Heedes’ institute got a subpoena demanding documents even though it never had any contact with any of those state prosecutors. The mere publication of climate research, he believes, prompted committee suspicion. “Congress has punted on effective climate legislation in favor of infringing our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, petitioning the government, and to peaceably assemble,” Heedes says.
Where does all the anti-environment animus come from? Data on campaign fundraising from OpenSecret suggests an answer. The campaigns of the twenty Republican members of the committee received a total of $468,500 from oil and gas companies in 2015-2016, an average of $23,400 per member. Chairman Lamar Smith received $85,900 from oil and gas for his most recent campaign. Over his career Smith’s campaigns have received more than half a million dollars from such companies.
But climate change is not the only area where the committee has left the fingerprints of ignorance. Back in 2013, the Republican majority decided the National Science Foundation’s system of peer reviewing was inadequate. It insisted more regulations be imposed to ensure that each study the NSF funded was “of benefit to the American people.” Rep. Smith and other committee members cherry-picked studies they considered not sufficiently scientific and called them evidence of misspending.
To Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy, the idea that politicians should decide what studies deserve research in fields they know nothing about is absurd. “I’ve been a scientist for 30 years,” Rosenberg says, “but I don’t feel qualified to say this is important research or that’s not important research when I don’t have a lot of understanding in that field.”
The Republican majority has brought new levels of partisanship and obstructionism to the Science Committee, ignoring important science and technology policy in favor of wedge issues and political gamesmanship. An analysis of the committee’s witnesses over the past 12 years, conducted by the Center for Science in Democracy, found that testimony from for-profit industry executives has increased from 18% to 28% of the total. Meanwhile, testimony from independent scientists has dropped from 33% to less than 25%.
Possibly even more disturbing, the percentage of committee hearings meant to inform members of scientific developments has dropped to a 12-year low: just 35% of hearings, down from more than 50% in 2004. Discussion of legislation has fallen to less than 10% of all hearings.
“They’re both misrepresenting what they are doing as well as not serving the public interest,” the Center for Science and Democracy’s Rosenberg warns.
Meanwhile, important issues like funding for young scientists, issues with national economic ramifications like developing science, technology and math programs in schools, and protecting research from corporate influence remain undiscussed and unlegislated. As the House Science Committee continues to doubt legitimate science and engage in partisan grandstanding, the actual work of maintaining our country’s scientific and technological policy is not getting done.
If House control shifts to the Democrats in the 2016 elections, the picture will certainly change. But even if it does, it’s critical we recognize how pernicious has been the impact of a Science Committee actively working against trained scientists and that harms our ability to develop policy for science, tech and innovation.