Congress is talking about science now more than ever - and some of the dialogue is unfavorable. However, attacking science may be a surrogate for opposition to federal regulations, which seem to be appearing at a faster rate than in the past.
In addition, cutting federal research seems a politically benign, if futile, way to rein in federal spending.
Some people wonder if Congress has the expertise to legislate about science. It is true that Congress has only a few scientists - the last Congress had two physicists, one microbiologist and six engineers. The new Congress has one member with a geoscience
degree, Ryan Zinke, a newly elected (Republican) Montana representative.
Congress is not, however, bereft of scientific information, and many congressional leaders value external scientific input. Dozens of scientific associations, including AAPG, host policy offices that provide scientific information to Congress and assist
their members in communicating with Congress.
In addition, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) administers a program funded by about 30 scientific and engineering societies to place about 150 scientists and engineers in congressional offices.
Congress has doubts about the use of science by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the source of many new regulations.
♦ One bill that recently passed the House, the EPA Secret Science Reform Act (House Resolution, H.R. 1030), would bar release of regulations that draw on scientific data that have not been made public in a way that allows the research to be duplicated.
♦ A similar bill (S. 544) is progressing through the Senate. This sounds like a good idea, but opponents to the legislation point out regulations that affect public health often are based on protected personal health information.
And if the bill becomes law, EPA could not consider some potentially valuable research.
Congressional proposals to cut federal research and development (R&D) funding are common and currently in vogue.
In fairness, Congress often has voted over the years to increase federal R&D. For example, the National Institutes of Health funding more than doubled in eight years from 1998 through 2005.
On the other hand, re-establishing a tradition of the 1970s and 1980s - Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award - some legislators are picking out grants with suspicious sounding titles to justify cutting funding to research agencies such as the National
Science Foundation (NSF).
One campaign against research that some in Congress do not like is the America COMPETES Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806). This act represents a serious attack on federal research - and particularly geoscience research.
It is especially ironic that university geoscience research funded by NSF is under attack, even as Congress stresses the importance of federally funded university research to help grow our future energy workforce. NSF reports that it funds 64 percent of
basic geoscience research at U.S. universities.
America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science) Act, became law in August 2007, and was reauthorized in January 2011.
That action expired in late 2013, and since then reauthorization legislation has passed the House several times - but the Democratic Party-controlled Senate never considered the House bills.
With a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, the reauthorization may become law.
The 2015 House bill would:
♦ Set specific authorization levels for NSF's research directorates, placing arbitrary limits on scientific disciplines. This runs counter to the way NSF currently sets priorities based on input from scientists, advisory committees and expert workshops.
♦ Cut funding to the Geoscience Directorate by 12 percent from the current year funding level.
♦ Cut 10 percent from funding to the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, which funds STEM education and other activities to grow the STEM workforce. The social, behavioral and economic sciences would take the largest cuts, 58 percent.
The rationale for these cuts was explained by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who said:
"Our bill increases funding for the physical sciences and biology, from which come most of the scientific breakthroughs with the potential to stimulate new industries and jobs. Funding is cut for lower priority areas, including ... redundant climate research
Readers may wonder if Smith is unaware of the connection between geoscience and the shale gas boom.
It is more likely that the Geoscience Directorate suffered from the fact that it includes climate research. The House vote closely followed party lines. All but 23 Republicans voted for H.R. 1806, while no Democrats voted for the bill. Advocates of limited
government and groups that believe that global warming research is over-funded also support the bill.
The geoscience community, including AAPG and its members, reacted strongly to the geoscience funding cuts in the bill, with AAPG members in academia and industry commenting on the importance of federal funding for basic research to universities that are
developing the next generation of petroleum geologists.
In addition, AAPG and 18 other geoscience societies sent a letter to Rep. Smith describing the societal benefits of geoscience research and asking that the bill support sustained geoscience funding.
The White House has threatened to veto H.R. 1806 if it passes both the House and Senate in its current form - but a veto may not be necessary: The Senate has started work on a version of America COMPETES that does not address NSF, and increases funding for
some Department of Energy programs by 4 percent per year for five years.
The campaign in support of geoscience research will continue through the summer as the Senate considers its version of the legislation.