Election projections for science investments

Climate science especially may feel the heat

The November 2, mid-term election results are in (mostly) and pundits are billing it as a historic turnabout. Republicans appear to have picked up at least 60 House seats, which give them the majority — and committee chairmanships. Democrats retained control of the Senate, but just barely. With a divided Congress, passing legislation — never an easy task — risks becoming harder still. And with fiscal austerity having been a leading campaign issue for the newbies, R&D is unlikely to see a major boost in federal funding during the next two years.

In fact, cuts could become the order of the day, some R&D budget analysts suspect. But even those who closely follow micro-politics on Capitol Hill do not yet have much that’s solid to go on.

Explains Patrick Clemins, who directs the R&D Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in this election cycle “science wasn’t a big platform issue for either party.”

One of the more telling documents about what may be proposed by the new House majority is “A Pledge to America;” the Republicans issued this, their proposed governing playbook, in September.

Among other things, it vowed, “We will put government on a path to a balanced budget and pay down the debt.” And they would do it through a host of measures — such as: immediately cancelling unspent stimulus funds; reducing federal spending to pre-stimulus, prebailout levels; and establishing “a hard cap on new discretionary spending.” Science and technology funding fits, by the way, almost exclusively into this discretionary category.

Based on the Pledge alone, it’s hard to know exactly whether R&D would be slated for a paring. Clemins notes that the term R&D doesn’t even show up in the Pledge. That could be because science policy is low on (if not off of) the Republican radar screen. But if federally funded research takes the back-to-2008, pre-stimulus hit that the Pledge calls for, that might represent a cut of roughly $8 billion (bringing it down to around $140 billion), he calculates.

Then again, even Republicans recognize that science and engineering are pivotal to U.S. industry and economic competitiveness. As such, many research budgets may win some type of protected status — even from Republican freshmen that were swept into office on a platform of belt-tightening and moves to encourage job growth.

We’ll see.

The Pledge did promise to “fully fund missile defense” and to “fight to increase access to domestic energy sources [i.e. coal, gas and offshore oil] and oppose attempts to impose a national ‘cap and trade’ [carbon-dioxide] energy tax.”

Climate issues could feel the heat
Actually, energy and climate are two research-related areas where incoming lawmakers have not been loathe to express opinion.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a climate and energy advocacy group based just outside Boston, points out that several House members “who are poised to take over committee chairmanships have said they would like to hold hearings to attack climate science and climate scientists.”  In a post-election backgrounder, UCS lays out its argument for why there’s reason for science-literate citizens to be concerned about some of the incoming class as well as of veteran lawmakers who are expected to assume chairmanship of influential committees.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, which bills itself as an organization of progressive nonpartisan policy analysis, has developed a “Wonk Room” on its website where it has synopsized sound bytes from 15 top House races where climate has been an issue. (As of this posting, 13 of these races had been won by Republicans or were leaning in that direction). Hyperlinks from the provocative quotes take readers to the texts or videos from which they were excerpted.

“Republicans in these races not only stand against comprehensive climate policy, like nearly all the rest of their party,” maintains Wonk Room climate editor, Brad Johnson, “they proudly proclaim that the overwhelming evidence of the threat of greenhouse gas pollution is a ‘hoax,’ a ‘religion,’ and ‘crap.’”

However, that inflammatory skepticism of climate science may really constitute little more than aggressive electioneering, says Alden Meyer, strategy and policy director at UCS. The real question,” he says, “is will the Republican candidates and the likely incoming committee chairmen in the House actually carry over their campaign rhetoric into governing?”

It would be smart if they didn’t, argues Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in his November 3 blog. “There is no mandate for GOP climate positions in this election. Quite the contrary,” he contends: “a series of recent polls shows that a commanding majority of the public continues to support clean energy and climate legislation.” He cites two polls. And they offer some intriguing numbers, but not ones on which any of us should stake our careers or health. (After all, most of us recognize, by now, how susceptible to phrasing the answers to polling questions can be.)

New chairs, new priorities
The change in House leadership will mean new chairs for its committees. Of particular interest, Meyer says, is the likelihood that Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) will become chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He says that Issa “has talked about wanting to hold oversight hearings on the EPA ‘endangerment’ rulemaking process.” This involves the agency’s decision to regulate greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, over their “endangerment” of human health. Issa has also expressed interest in challenging “the robustness of climate science in light of the hacked East Anglia email events,” Meyer says.

Indeed, Meyer maintains, among science issues, climate is the one likely to cause the most controversy. And it goes beyond challenging a need to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, he says: It goes to “questioning the existence of a [climate] problem at all.”

Meyer notes there’s also the distinct possibility that Issa might launch efforts to overturn not only the endangerment rulemaking but also stricter limits that the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed for other pollutants, including ozone, mercury and coal ash. “It will be interesting to see,” he says, “how wide a net Issa might cast — how many times he tries to have [Administrator] Lisa Jackson up there testifying and what kind of onerous document requests and that kind of thing he puts to EPA.”

Adds Joanne Carney, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Congress at the AAAS, we should expect to see Issa “use the power of oversight to issue subpoenas to investigate a range of issues and concerns that he and his party share” — including, but not restricted to, the endangerment ruling and other policies related to climate science.

The other big House committee that could experience “a night-to-day” shift with Republican control is Energy and Commerce. There’s a lot of jockeying for who will become chairman, Meyer notes. And there’s a lot at stake, since this committee has oversight of legislation on renewables, oil exploration, natural gas, loan guarantees for energy investments and more.

Adds Carney, Joe Barton (R-Tex.) “as ranking member is ostensibly the next in line” to chair this committee. However, he is theoretically term-limited, although seeking a waiver to head this committee. If he succeeds, she says, “we would expect to see a lot of hearings that question the science of climate change — especially looking into the illegally hacked emails from East Anglia University. After all, she notes, “He is extremely passionate and very outspoken — with respect to climate science in particular.”

There is also concern about whether and how a switch in leadership of the House Science Committee could affect research budgets for a whole range of programs, Meyer notes, including global-change research, climate-adaptation strategies and technology policy.

If John Boehner (R-Ohio) becomes the new Speaker of the House, as expected, “we would expect that the select committee on [energy independence and] global warming that was created under [Speaker] Pelosi’s leadership will probably be dismantled,” notes Carney of AAAS. Boehner is no fan of these special committees, she explains, and so most observers anticipate their days would be numbered.

Biomedical funding might be spared the ax
In 1995, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) ascended to House speaker after a large Republican victory a few months earlier. And despite concerns about overspending back then, Gingrich and the Republicans proved “very generous to research,” notes Stacie Propst, vice president for science policy and outreach at Research America, a biomedical-science advocacy group.

Indeed, Gingrich and his colleagues ultimately doubled the National Institutes of Health research budget. And they did that, she maintains, “because they realized it was an investment. Sort of the concept that R&D equals GDP.”

One of the largest bills the nation pays each year is for health care. And the best way to rein in costs, improve the delivery of care and spur the growth of health-related industries is to invest in biomedical research, she says. These arguments have never proven a particularly hard sell to lawmakers on either side of the proverbial aisle, according to Propst. That’s not to say scientists wouldn’t like to see more even money go into this field, but it has remained relatively well appreciated, she says.

Keep in mind, Propst says, even if the incoming members of Congress pledged during their campaigning to cut spending, they aren’t the people who will be chairing committees and writing legislation. “The people who will be in leadership positions are seasoned professionals.” They recognize that the health of their constituents, their states, their universities and their industries all depend on the strength of U.S. biomedical research.

Bottom line, says Propst: “We feel very good about working with the new leadership on the House side.”

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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