On November 2, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), announced he will not be seeking re-election. Rep. Smith has chaired the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology since 2013. Unfortunately, he used his position as chair not to seriously advance science policy, but as a cudgel against perceived political enemies—including scientists. He proudly boasted that he had issued more subpoenas unilaterally than all previous committee chairs combined. He consistently sponsored legislation that would undermine the role and independence of science in policy-making, bills championed by lobbyists and trade groups for interests like the petro-chemical industry. Just this week, he stood shoulder to shoulder with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as they gutted the independence of the agency’s science advisory panels, effectively implementing by fiat a bill that Mr. Smith could not get passed into law.
Mr. Smith was aggressive, to say the least, in his oversight of federal agencies—until we had a Republican administration. Now, oversight of federal agencies had abruptly stopped. In the past, Science Committee oversight was not solely a partisan guise for attacking the other party, but that changed under Chairman Smith. He went after individual scientists, science programs, even science grants as part of his “oversight” efforts, all in an apparent effort to stifle both the process and the outcomes of scientific work whose results might not match the talking points of his allies in polluting industries.
With a new chairman for the Science Committee comes a great opportunity to deal with the real challenges confronting our science enterprise. How can we continue to maintain international leadership in science 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 well-established as well as emerging fields of study? What effective new approaches should we adopt to train the technically proficient workforce the economy needs? How can we address long-standing disparities in our science and technology workforce due to income, race, gender and other factors? How can our federal science workforce be strengthened and scientific integrity 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.
And there is a need for real, bipartisan oversight of federal agencies with regard to science policy—not Mr. Smith’s version of “oversight,” which targeted research results not to his liking. Oversight should focus on the structure, function and outcomes of agency actions with regard to legal mandates. There needs to be oversight hearings on the recent change in science advisory boards for example, as well as the implementation of scientific integrity policies across the government (26 agencies have such policies in place which are intended to protect against political interference in science).
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 Lamar Smith’s chairmanship is coming to a close.
As the former Republican Chair of the House Science Committee, Sherwood Boehlert, once said, “no member of any party should look the other way when the basic operating parameters of scientific inquiry—the need to question, express doubt, replicate research and encourage curiosity—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.”