Congress can be…chaotic. Last Thursday night, President Obama unveiled plans for immigration reform, and literally challenged Congress to stop him. The next day, Speaker of the House John Boehner said that the GOP would be suing the White House over unconstitutional changes to the Affordable Care Act. It’s a mess.
But for science—and scientific research—there’s a silver lining. The House Committee on Appropriations, which bankrolls the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, recently appointed two relatively science-friendly chairmen to powerful subcommittee seats.
In D.C. parlance, subcommittee chairs are known as “cardinals,” and in the powerful Appropriations committee, cardinals decide when the government spends and where it cuts. On Wednesday, Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers announced that Tom Cole would take over as cardinal of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, and tapped John Culberson to be cardinal of Commerce, Justice and Science. Here’s what that means for science:
Representative Tom Cole (R-OK)
Tom Cole will be the cardinal in charge of Health and Human Services, which means that he’ll be one of the key people holding the purse strings for the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is the largest source of funding for biomedical research in the world, and it gets its budget almost entirely from Congress.
Cole’s appointment is a victory for the NIH. In 2007, Cole co-sponsored a bill to establish a national childhood cancer database, and in 2008 he voted in favor of the Lantos-Hyde bill, which funded efforts against global diseases like AIDS and malaria. This year, Cole threw his support behind legislation that would remove funds from political party conventions and instead put them toward pediatric disease research.
His environmental voting record is decidedly less science-friendly. In the past, Cole has voted against protecting wild horses and authorizing the “critical habitat” title for endangered species. That shouldn’t affect biomedical research. But it is a bit worrying that Cole, who voted against environmental education grants, will be influencing the federal education budget.
Representative John Culberson (R-TX)
John Culberson will be the cardinal in charge of Commerce, Justice and Science. His appointment has the space community excited—Culberson is an outspoken proponent of a NASA mission to Europa. Culberson’s district is home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and his new position means that he now has quite a bit of say over NASA’s budget. On his web site, Culberson emphasizes his interest in advancing in spaceflight technologies, like the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle.
Commerce, Justice and Science also covers the National Science Foundation, which backs more than 20 percent of the basic research conducted at universities in the U.S. Culberson’s NSF record is exemplary. Of note, Culberson once called science and technology funding a “national insurance policy” and said that Congress needs to “pour it on.” This, from a well-known fiscal conservative.
Unfortunately, Culberson’s environmental voting record is about as disturbing as Cole’s. That’s bad news for NOAA, which his subcommittee is supposed to fund. It is likely that the NOAA will continue to receive substantial government funding—Culberson has almost never cut scientific research—but it is also likely that the NOAA’s concerns about climate change will fall on deaf ears.
Culberson was, after all, the sponsor of a 2013 amendment that claimed that carbon pollution is zero and produces no harm and no costs. Yikes.
The Bottom Line: Who Wins?
The new cardinals are basically good news for scientific research, with a few important exceptions. To sum it all up, here are your winners and losers:
Space Science: Win
Culberson supports NASA, and loves Europa.
Basic Science: Win
Culberson supports the NSF, and loves basic research.
Biomedical Research: Win
Cole will almost definitely throw money at the NIH.
STEM Education: Tie
Cole hasn’t been enthusiastic about paying for kids to learn about the environment. At the same time, he has funded scholarship programs for low-income families in the past, and there’s inevitably some STEM in there.
Climate Science: Lose
At least for NOAA, there’s some irony here. Culberson will probably fund NOAA, and then throw their findings about climate change in the trash.
Image credit: Flickr/Colin Jagoe