However you feel about the outcome of last night’s election, if you care about evidence-based policy making, there’s one thing to cheer: The House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology will, for the first time in nearly a decade, be led by someone who accepts the conclusions of mainstream climate science.
With Democrats now in control of the House, leadership of the House Science Committee is likely to fall Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson. Johnson, who became the committee’s first African American and first female ranking member in 2010, is a strong advocate for funding STEM education and expanding educational opportunities for minorities, in particular.
She’s also a solidly pro-environment politician, according to her League of Conservation Voters scorecard.
It’s almost hard to imagine a world in which the House Science Committee is not a 'Frankenstinian' mockery of its name, cobbled together from dead theories and misguided lines of inquiry. It has been that way for so, so very long.
The committee’s death spiral began when Republicans assumed the control of the House in 2010, but it was when Texas Republican Lamar Smith became chair in 2013 that things really flew off the flat earth’s edge.
Under the tenure of Smith, the committee has held hearing after hearing casting doubt on mainstream climate science, used its subpoena power to harass and intimidate climate scientists, entertained the conspiracy theory that sea level rise is caused by rocks falling into the ocean, and used its Twitter account to blast links to climate change-denying Breitbart articles.
Smith, who is not a scientist, has used the veil of authority that chairmanship offers to pen articles imploring the public not to buy into the “hysteria over carbon dioxide” while railing against “climate alarmists” at pro-fossil fuel get-togethers.
(He has also accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.)
In short, the House Science Committee has been a dark place for rational discourse on climate change. Sitting on it has been a lonely and frustrating experience for Bill Foster, Congress’s lone scientist (until last night).
To be fair, the Republican-led committee has been more supportive of space exploration and astronomy, even though it favours further privatization of the sector and has criticised the James Webb Space telescope for going massively over-budget.
Smith is also a big fan of fusion energy research, which is cool. And in recent months, the committee has made a mission of going after science’s serial sexual harassers, even going to far as to recommend stripping them of federal funding in September.
But these bright spots do not negate the damage Smith and his ilk have done to public understanding of climate science. In a statement released last night, Congresswoman Johnson laid out her priorities for the committee, including “promoting effective STEM education”, “defending the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks” and addressing climate change by “starting with acknowledging it is real”.
Last on Johnson’s to-do list? Restoring the credibility of the House Science Committee. It’s a tall order, but for the first time in years, I’m feeling hopeful about the possibility.