The Republican Party is widely predicted to win control of the Senate as a result of today’s midterm elections. In broadstrokes, that outcome portends a green light for the Keystone XL Pipeline, a blow to the Affordable Care Act and a push for corporate tax reform.
But what would a GOP-controlled Senate mean for scientists and their research?
When it comes to science (and, more importantly, funding) individual senators are perhaps less important than the committees that they run. There are 20 committees in the U.S. Senate, with responsibilities ranging from homeland security to urban development. The chairperson of each committee, appointed by the majority party, holds inordinate sway over how his or her committee votes.
If Republicans take control of the Senate, we can expect a major shakeup within the ranks of these powerful committees. But, despite the conventional wisdom, conservatives aren’t always bad for science. Here are three of the senate committees that hold the most sway over science and scientific research—and what might happen to them if Republicans win the day.
The Good: Appropriations
The Senate Appropriations Committee is arguably the most powerful committee. Virtually all Senate-approved funding for science must pass through Appropriations—think cash for the Food and Drug Administration, the National Science Foundation and NASA. It would be disastrous for scientific research and development if someone hostile to science were to gain control of Appropriations.
Fortunately, that’s unlikely. The current chairwoman of Appropriations is Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat who has consistently opposed NASA budget cuts and recently promised that she will fight for NASA receive at least as much money in 2015 as the organization did in 2014.
If Republicans win the Senate, it is likely that Thad Cochran would return to his prior post (2005-2007) as chairman of Appropriations. Cochran, too, supports increased funding for NASA, and back in 2013 he was one of the few Republicans who voted in favor of protecting ocean, coastal and Great Lakes ecosystems. In the past, he has voted for telecommunications deregulation and even advocated for an extra $18 billion toward waterway infrastructure.
The Science-Friendly Vote: Toss up. Both Mikulski and Cochran seem pretty science-friendly.
The Bad: Commerce, Science and Transportation
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is all about scientific legislation. This committee controls funding for green technology, aeronautical and space sciences, atmospheric and weather sciences and scientific research and development (there’s some overlap among committees).
The current chairman of Commerce, Science and Transportation is Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat who thinks, according to his web site, that investing in science, technology is critical to our nation’s global leadership. Although Rockefeller did not seek reelection in 2014, his voting record has been decidedly pro-science. He has taken major steps toward bringing federal research grants to underserved states, and he even voted in favor of providing Internet connections for public schools. It’s not a stretch to imagine a Democratic successor who operates along the same basic lines.
Meanwhile, based on senate seniority, it is likely that the Republicans would appoint Ted Cruz as chairman of Commerce, Science and Transportation. Cruz is a climate skeptic who recently pushed for a reduction in NASA’s budget. It is also noteworthy that he was the public face of last year’s government shutdown, which did lasting damage to scientific research.
The Science-Friendly Vote: Rockefeller over Cruz.
The Ugly: Environment and Public Works
The Environment and Public Works Committee stands at the helm of climate change legislation and funds the Environmental Protection Agency. The current chairwoman, Barbara Boxer, famously pulled an all-nighter back in March to publicize the threat of climate change. Need we say more?
If Republicans win the Senate, James Inhofe will likely take charge of Environment and Public Works. That would be disastrous for science.
Inhofe is one of the loudest climate deniers in the senate, as evidenced by his book The Greatest Hoax: How The Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future and many other public and written statements. If Inhofe gains control of the Senate committee in charge of climate change legislation, that’s probably the end of climate change legislation (not that great strides have been made in the past seven years of Democratic dominance). And, global warming aside, it’s probably not a good idea to put someone who calls scientific consensus a “hoax” in charge of a Senate committee that holds the purse strings for scientific funding.
The Science Friendly Vote: Boxer over Inhofe. Definitely.