American Culture

Really? It was ‘Science Day’ in Congress?

Scientists should be allowed to conduct rigorous research independent of government interference. But Rep. Smith does not trust scientists, whom he considers politically motivated.

Science Day in CongressHow nice of the retiring Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the outgoing chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, to declare this past Monday “Science Day” in the House of Representatives.

Yes, according to a press release from the science committee office, Rep. Smith had the House primed to consider “five bipartisan Science Committee bills that support careers and education in STEM, reauthorize federal firefighting programs and promote cooperative space and science programs between NASA and Israel.”

The House majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was soooo proud of the intended accomplishments of Science Day: “America has led the world in science and innovation for generations. To think, 65 percent of today’s students will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet. In our mission to prepare America’s next generation of innovation, the House will honor our nation’s history of leadership with Science Day. We will bring five bills to the floor that will support science, our nation’s infrastructure, aerospace and STEM careers. I applaud Chairman Smith on his hard work to get these bills ready for floor consideration.”

If you’d like to see the bills, laughably labeled as “bipartisan,” go to the committee’s press release. But if Monday was Science Day, it was a low bar.

The House did not consider Monday a bill to increasing funding for basic scientific research. The House did not consider a bill to strengthen the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to actually conduct research into how to best protect the environment. The House did not consider a bill to fund scientific investigations into how to prepare the nation for the consequences of climate change.

No such bills would be considered, because Rep. Smith, as rabidly anti-science as can be, would not permit his committee to even consider them.

Recall that Rep. Smith once subpoenaed the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and accused NOAA scientists of doctoring data in a study on climate change. He has subpoenaed other organizations that have transgressed against his anti-science beliefs, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists did with its investigation into what and when the fossil-fuel industry knew about global warming.

Scientists should be allowed to conduct rigorous research independent of government interference. But Rep. Smith does not trust scientists, whom he considers politically motivated:

Smith’s subpoena-happy chairmanship hasn’t come out of nowhere. It apparently depends upon a conviction that the scientific community has a liberal agenda and that, if scientific results conflict with right-wing ideas, the scientists must be lying.

When Rep. Smith became chair of the House science panel, politics trumped independence.

[T]he committee almost immediately became a platform for a series of increasingly partisan and bitter quarrels over politics and policy.

It began in April 2013, when the [scientific] community got wind of draft from the committee to reauthorize programs at NSF. Among other things, the bill called for the NSF director to personally certify every research project was “groundbreaking … not duplicative … and in the national interest.”

The language triggered an unprecedented, all-out war between Smith and NSF officials over the meaning of the seemingly innocuous phrase “national interest.” Smith insisted he was merely trying to ensure that NSF spent its money wisely. But NSF and research leaders said it was code for favoring applied research over basic research, and the natural sciences over the social sciences.

Rep. Smith’s influence as chair of the House science committee mirrors the anti-science rhetoric now prevalent in other federal cabinet departments, notably Scott Pruitt’s EPA, Ryan Zinke’s Interior, and Betsy Devos’s Education. None of this antipathy toward competent scientists, let alone the scientific method of inquiry, would be possible were it not continually fomented at the top — by President Donald. He nominated opponents of science for high government offices.

Will pro-science legislation prosper under the House committee after Rep. Smith departs its chair? There are likely candidates for the job, but none signal a dramatic change from the course charted by Rep. Smith.

Science, at the federal level, as conservatives control all three branches of government, remains under assault by those afraid to think beyond ideology.