Earlier this year, we told you about a strategy that congressional Republicans would increasingly use to attack environmental policies that they don’t like. Not only would they go after the actual policies, such as President Obama’s proposed carbon-dioxide rules for power plants. They would also try to overhaul the rules that regulators must follow in writing these policies, including how they use scientific data.
But now, there’s a new front: Congressional Republicans want to shift funding away from environmental and earth science research that can help policymakers assess how to regulate pollution and plan for the effects of climate change.
Recently, a House panel advanced a bill (19-15, along party lines) that would cut funds to NASA’s earth science programs, while boosting the agency’s space-exploration funds. In justifying these changes, House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said the panel was seeking to strike a difficult balance and “provide NASA with the resources necessary to remain a leader in space exploration in a time of tight budget realities.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden isn’t happy, though. The measure “guts our Earth science program and threatens to set back generations’ worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events,” Bolden said in a statement in April.
The House science committee also advanced the America Competes Act, a bill that sets guidelines for how much money the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology can funnel toward various kinds of research. It was first enacted with strong bipartisan support in 2007 and renewed in 2010 with some measure of bipartisanship. Congress needs to renew it again now, and Republicans are pushing for some changes.
The measure, for example, would refocus money toward basic research in the biological and physical sciences “to help ensure future U.S. economic competitiveness and security,” Smith said. “And it will spur private sector technological innovation.”
But as Science’s Jeffrey Mervis and Adrian Cho report, with these changes, the bipartisan spirit in previous votes on the America Competes Act has gone missing. The bill “was not shown to Democratic committee members before it was unveiled,” and no Democrats voted in favor of advancing it to the House floor.
Here are a few reasons why Democrats have been so upset: In prioritizing biological and physical sciences research, the bill would cut funds from environmental and renewable energy research. Moreover, it would restrict the government’s ability to use these findings to inform policy.
Under the legislation, several research offices, including the Department of Energy’s biological and environmental research division, would face funding cuts compared with what the White House is seeking. The only energy and environmental research program that would receive a boost, meanwhile, is for nuclear fusion.
It doesn’t stop there. Under the bill, federal agencies couldn’t use any funding from DOE-sponsored research for policy purposes. The DOE funds all kinds of research — from basic physics and applied physics, to energy, to climate and environmental science. Presumably some of this research might yield findings that identify an environmental problem that would need fixing through policy.
Needless to say, environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club aren’t happy. Neither is Obama’s energy secretary, Ernest Moniz. “This is mystifying given the Committee’s call for science-based regulations,” Moniz, a physicist formerly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a letter.
On top of that, any DOE-sponsored biological and environmental research would face curious limitations: Any climate research in that division couldn’t overlap with or duplicate any other federal agencies’ climate research.
On its surface, it may not seem like such a bad idea to prevent duplicative work. But in the scientific arena, duplication is usually a good thing; replicating findings boosts our confidence in them. As Nick Johnson of Wired points out, “the [DOE] Biological and Environmental Sciences program is the bill’s only target for crimes of duplicability.”
It’s no secret that Republicans aren’t fans of the Obama administration’s environmental agenda. It’s also no secret that many Republicans — including the chairs of two Senate panels that oversee federal climate research — oppose Obama’s proposals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and even doubt or outright reject the idea of climate change.
That’s not to say that only Republicans take positions at odds with the science community. Democrats do too, though the extent to which anti-science views in their party influence their policies is a more complicated question. Science isn’t a political party, and reducing debate over scientific matters to simple partisan politics is dangerous.
But in this case, what we’re seeing here seems to play into a broader narrative. Now fully in control of Congress, Republicans are not only ratcheting up their efforts to go after the environmental policies they oppose. They’re also going after the science that underlies them — both by changing how policymakers use the science and how much that science even gets done in the first place.