Will a Republican Congress Knock Science Back Into the Stone Age?

Predicting the effect of a victory for the G.O.P. "know-nothing flat-earthers" on science policy


In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama famously promised to "restore science to its rightful place." Now liberals fear that a Republican landslide in next week's congressional mid-term elections will knock science back into the Stone Age, if not the Jurassic. For example, Chris Mooney, author The Republican War on Science, fearfully warns in the New Scientist that the "Tea Party [is] luring U.S. into adventures in irrationality." With a Progressive's usual regard for rationality and rhetorical restraint, Pulitzer Prize-winning left-leaning commentator Cynthia Tucker blogs over at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "the GOP is now a party of know-nothing flat-earthers."

Are they right? Let's take a brief tour of how Republican science committee ranking members have voted on various science-informed policy issues. These members, who will likely become the powerful chairs of the relevant science committees, will be in charge of any hearings on science policy and steering any science and research related legislation in the next session. If the Republicans achieve a majority in the House of Representatives, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) will become chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) will head up the House Committee on Science and Technology. Over in the Senate, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) will become chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) will chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard, and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) will lead the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space.  

For this exercise, I will chiefly rely on data supplied by the non-partisan website On The Issues which reports votes by politicians on a wide variety of legislation. Like most politicians, these members of the House or the Senate evidently believe that it is the role of government to fund scientific research, which means the best indicator we have about their views on science is what science the government should fund.

Human embryonic stem cell research: Barton, who has a strong pro-life voting record, voted against banning stem cell research and for expanding stem cell research funding. Hall voted against both. Bailey Hutchison also voted for stem cell research funding, as did Snowe. Vitter voted against stem cell research funding. Rough total: 3 to 2 for stem cell research. Interestingly, On The Issues reports that Snowe voted against a ban on human cloning while Bailey Hutchison voted for it back in 1998.

NASA and commercial space flight: In 2004, Barton and Hall both voted to promote commercial space flight; specifically, they voted for the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act. Oddly, On The Issues reports that Vitter voted for the Act, but does not mention that it passed the Senate via unanimous consent which would mean that Snowe and Bailey Hutchison were for it too. More recently, the Senate passed by unanimous consent the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 which, among other things, moves NASA somewhat in the direction of using private space launch services. Both Barton and Hall voted against for the bill. Vote total: 3 to 2 5 for space privatization.*

Energy policy: Barton and Hall both voted against bills that aimed to extend various renewable energy production tax credits, federal subsidies for biofuels, and raise corporate average fuel economy standards. They voted for maintaining oil and gas exploration subsidies, lifting the moratorium on offshore oil drilling, permitting oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and permitting the construction of new oil refineries.

Different energy-related bills came up in the Senate. Like her House colleagues, Bailey Hutchison voted against extending tax credits to renewable energy producers, and for maintaining oil and gas exploration subsidies. She also favored opening up ANWR to oil leasing. Way back in 1999, Bailey Hutchison voted against a proposed increase in federal solar and other renewable energy research funding and she supported creating a nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Vitter's votes were essentially the same, except that he was not in the Senate when the Yucca Mountain bill came up. However, Vitter later supported opening Yucca Mountain. For her part, Snowe voted for extending renewable energy tax credits, against maintaining oil and gas exploration subsidies, against oil leasing in ANWR, and for funding renewable energy research, and for the Yucca Mountain waste depository. Rough vote: 4 against renewable energy subsidies, 1 for; and 4 for fossil fuel subsidies and 1 against.

But before moving on, let's not forget the geological insight demonstrated by Rep. Barton. Earlier this spring at a hearing Congressman Barton apparently thought he'd stumped our Nobel Prize–winning Energy Secretary Steven Chu with the question of how did all the oil and gas get to Alaska and under the Arctic Ocean? Sigh.

Climate change and carbon rationing: Both Barton and Hall voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act which would have established a cap-and-trade carbon rationing scheme that aimed to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020. On the Senate side of the Capitol, both Bailey Hutchison and Vitter voted for measures that stymied a vote on cap-and-trade legislation in that body. Both also voted against a measure that would have required the Army Corps of Engineers to include the consideration of global climate change in planning and feasibility studies. Snowe voted for introducing cap-and-trade legislation for consideration and for factoring global climate change into federal project planning. Vote total: 4 to 1 against carbon rationing.

However, climate change science occupies a special category of policy hell. Back in 2006, Barton hauled various climate scientists up to Capitol Hill where he questioned them about their work. He especially focused on the notorious "hockey stick" graph created by climatologist Michael Mann. Mann used a variety of proxy indicators to suggest that the last few decades are the hottest in the last 1,000 years. Barton will no doubt enthusiastically support Darrell Issa's (R-Calif.) threat to hold investigative hearings on "Climategate" at the Oversight Committee. Any scientific misbehavior needs to be reprimanded, but the show trial nature of congressional hearings make them particularly ill-suited forums for airing and resolving scientific disputes.

The balance of the evidence is that the man-made emissions of greenhouse gases are increasing the average temperature of the globe. The real question is what, if anything, public policy should do about the situation. Keep in mind that the Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress for the past two years, couldn't get carbon rationing passed. So the status quo remains the same: no carbon rationing schemes will make it through Congress in the next session.

Nevertheless, politicians on both sides of the aisle will probably want to appear to being doing something about climate change, so they will likely adopt the growing bipartisan consensus in favor of spending tens of billions on green energy research and development. Both Republicans and Democrats will favor this approach because it avoids the gnarly problem that carbon rationing necessarily pushes up the prices that voters pay for electricity and gasoline. This compromise also offers the delicious political benefit of allowing members of Congress to shower favored constituencies with vote-currying cash.

So if Republicans in the next Congress follow the lead of their science committee chairs, how will science policy likely fare? Stem cell research will be left alone; commercial space exploitation will be encouraged; and energy subsidies will continue but be divvied up differently. (Here's a thought: Liberals rightly hate fossil fuel subsidies, and conservatives properly disdain renewable energy subsidies. So why not a bipartisan compromise eliminating all energy subsidies? A man can dream.) Climate policy will remain status quo ante, i.e., nothing will be done.

Republicans may be a bunch of irrational flat-earthers, but it looks like it will be pretty much business-as-usual next session when it comes to science policy.

*Zachary Kurz,Republican Communications Director, for the House Committee on Science and Technology tells me that I didn't look far enough in sleuthing out the ultimate votes on this bill. He informs me that Barton and Hall voted for the Senate version. I regret the error.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.