In 2010, she became the first female and first African American ranking member of the science committee. Johnson, trained as a psychiatric nurse, has served on the committee for more than two decades. If she secures the chair, she will succeed Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), who has held the position since 2013.
Smith, a lawyer and former journalist, frequently disparaged climate science, dismissing, for instance, a link between climate change and extreme weather events. In 2015, the House granted Smith the unusual ability to issue subpoenas without the support of the minority party’s committee members. Smith tussled with academics, state officials and government scientists, all while playing down a human role in the changing climate.
The Washington Post spoke with Johnson on Friday about her plans to return more science to the science committee. The following is lightly edited for clarity.
Q: If you become chair, what would be your first step to build the credibility and reputation of the House Science Committee?
A: It really won’t take a lot for us to get back on the agenda. We hope that we will carry out the mandate of the committee, which I consider the “Committee of the Future.” We will focus on, of course, basic research.
We will review the rules that we had to operate under during the Republican majority.
I see moving back to a nonpartisan view of what the committee was organized for: oversight, a combination of investigative hearings, making sure that our subcommittees function and making sure that we give adequate time for examining proposed legislation.
Most of the things that we’ve experienced under the chairmanship of Lamar Smith the past six years have skirted our usual way of functioning on this committee, going out of our way to spend lots of time questioning scientific discovery of the past. There’s enough going now for the present, and for the future, that we can look ahead — and not spend all of our time badgering the agencies to dig up information that’s already been determined.
Q: At Smith’s direction, the House Science Committee has scrutinized the National Science Foundation peer-review process, particularly for social and political science, among other grants. Under your guidance, how would that change?
A: The main thing I’d like to do is see them be able to function as they have been in the past.
There probably is nothing so perfect that it does not require some dialogue and change, but for the most part, we’ve had the National Science Foundation function in a very ethical and professional manner with peer review. I did not see any major flaws within that agency. I certainly did not agree with Lamar Smith’s approach.
Q: You’ve expressed concern about sexism and racism in science. Are the proposed rules by the NSF sufficient? [A new NSF policy requires institutions to report grant recipients who commit harassment.] What else can be done?
A: There is an ongoing concern and interest in making sure we weed out any practices that discourage women and minorities entering into the field.
We need the brainpower. It would be great to have it more diverse. But what is even greater is to have more of the people from diverse backgrounds, and both genders, focusing in areas that will make our country remain on the stage of leadership in the world.
I have legislation that I intend to reintroduce that goes back to when I first got on the committee over 25 years ago.
Q: What would that legislation do?
A: Primarily it keeps records. And encourages more women to enter into STEM fields. To look at attitudes, trying to keep in check and call attention to some areas that have never been thought about as being intimidating. Educating the people involved so that they will be more sensitive to some of the influences discouraging women from entering into those fields.
We must make sure that we allow opportunities, and include guidelines, that provide for women to have maternity leave without intimidation.
Q: What are some new approaches to create a more scientifically and technically proficient workforce?
A: Well, we’ve been working on that a long time. What we need to do is continue to encourage young people, to continue to identify the opportunities. One thing that we have found is that they know scientific research does not always bring as much money as football or hip-hop. But it brings us many more bodies of knowledge for the future.
And while they don’t make as much financially, they can be great contributors to a future world. Getting that message out continues to be a challenge, but we’ll continue to do that. We’ve had great support from our scientific organizations, from NASA.
And I was just really chagrined to see that the president recommends completely defunding the education component of NASA. To me that’s a step backward. We will take a great look at that.
Q: What is your message to the science-savvy reader who’s concerned about the representation and the understanding of science on the Hill?
A: What I want to do is put a sign on the window to say, “We are open. We want to hear from you.”
We know that it’s the scientists who are going to actually do the work. It’s the scientists who have the best ideas as to our direction.
We do not want to be in the way, which I think we’ve been the last six years, of progress.
That is the window to the future. So we want to cooperate with those scientific minds. We want to bring them inside so that we can hear from them.