House Science Committee Attacks Scientists

In a must-read article published yesterday on, David Roberts argues that “The House science committee is worse than the Benghazi committee.”

“The Benghazi committee is not even the worst committee in the House,” Roberts contends. “I’d argue that the House science committee, under the chairmanship of Lamar Smith (R-TX), deserves that superlative for its open-ended, Orwellian attempts to intimidate some of the nation’s leading scientists and scientific institutions.”

Roberts writes:

The science committee’s modus operandi is similar to the Benghazi committee’s — sweeping, catchall investigations, with no specific allegations of wrongdoing or clear rationale, searching through private documents for out-of-context bits and pieces to leak to the press, hoping to gain short-term political advantage — but it stands to do more lasting long-term damage.

In both cases, the investigations have continued long after all questions have been answered. (There were half a dozen probes into Benghazi before this one.) In both cases, the chair has drifted from inquiry to inquisition. But with Benghazi, the only threat is to the reputation of Hillary Clinton, who has the resources to defend herself. With the science committee, it is working scientists being intimidated, who often do not have the resources to defend themselves, and the threat is to the integrity of the scientific process in the US. It won’t take much for scientists to get the message that research into politically contested topics is more hassle than it’s worth.

Roberts provides three key examples.  The first involves a scientist named Thomas Karl, who along with colleagues in June published a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Science called “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus.” It cast doubt on the global warming “pause” that has become the latest cause célèbre for climate change doubters.  So Smith went after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where Karl works as the director of the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).  The Committee chair made three written requests for information about Karl’s study, all of which NOAA responded to in writing and in personal briefings.  “Among Smith’s repeated demands: access to the data and methods behind NOAA’s work on climate. Except, as NOAA and Democratic members of the committee kept trying to explain, those data and methods are posted on the internet. Anyone can access them. Yet Republicans kept demanding them.”

According to a blistering letter from the ranking Democrat on the Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX),

On October 13, the committee subpoenaed nearly seven years of internal deliberations and communications among scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including “all documents and communications” related to NOAA’s measurement of our climate.

“All documents and communications” would presumably include emails, preliminary drafts, peer review comments, notes, audio recordings, and a treasure trove of other material. This would mean thousands upon thousands of records for employees to identify and go through and analyze for no clearly stated purpose.

NOAA was given two weeks to comply.

Johnson’s letter adds that under Smith’s chairmanship the Committee has already in two years and ten months issued more subpoenas (six) than had been issued in the entire previous 54 years of the Committee’s existence.

Roberts’s second example of the Committee’s overreach begins on September 1, when a group of about 20 climate scientists sent a letter to President Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren recommending that they look into a RICO case against the energy industry, an idea first proposed publicly by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). It seems the letter was posted on the website of George Mason University’s Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES), a nonprofit research institution led by one of the scientists who signed the letter, Jagadish Shukla.  So Smith sent Shukla a letter noting that “IGES appears to be almost fully funded by taxpayer money while simultaneously participating in partisan political activity by requesting a RICO investigation of companies and organizations that disagree with the Obama administration on climate change.”  He then demanded that IGES

1. Preserve all e-mail, electronic documents, and data (“electronic records”) created since January 1, 2009, that can be reasonably anticipated to be subject to a request for production by the Committee. …

2. Exercise reasonable efforts to identify and notify current employees, former employees, contractors, and third party groups who may have access to such electronic records that they are to be preserved …

Shukla, of course, signed the letter as a private citizen yet now “employees, contractors and third-party groups” may be hounded for months or even years.

The third example is perhaps the most outrageous and especially revealing of the proud ignorance of the Committee leadership.  Republicans on the science committee are convinced that the National Science Foundation (NSF), whose $7 billion budget accounts for some 20% of all federal research spending, is wasting public money by funding, well, studies that they think sound funny.  Smith is demanding that NSF turn over all the details — including internal communications and the names of peer reviewers — related to a growing list of grants, now numbering around 50, that he thinks don’t sound quite right.

As journalist Jeffrey Mervis explains, “the scientific community is scratching its head over how Smith compiled his list of questionable grants”:

[T]he list is hard to characterize. One grant goes back to 2005, and 13 appear to have expired. The total amount of money awarded is about $26 million. The smallest grant, awarded in 2005, is $19,684 for a doctoral dissertation on “culture, change & chronic stress in lowland Bolivia.” The largest, for $5.65 million, is for a project that aims to use innovative education methods to educate Arctic communities about climate change and related issues.

$26 million represents about 0.37 percent of NSF’s budget.  Yet, as Roberts notes, “Smith’s unilateral use of subpoena power has forced the NSF to compromise the longstanding confidentiality of its review process. It has sent letters to several universities that employ grantees, explaining that it had no choice but to turn over documents.”

Roberts concludes:

Republican radicalization has already laid waste to many of the written and unwritten rules that once governed American politics. The use of congressional committees as tools of partisan intimidation is only a chapter in that grim story.

But the science committee is going after individual scientists, who rarely have the resources on hand to defend themselves from unexpected political attack. It is doing so without any rationale related to the constitutional exercise of its oversight powers — not with a false rationale, but without any stated rationale, no allegations of waste, fraud, or abuse — in service of an effort to suppress inconvenient scientific results and score partisan political points against the executive branch.

The federal government is an enormous supporter of scientific research, to the country’s great and enduring benefit, though that support is now under sustained attack. If such funding comes with strings, with the threat that the wrong inquiry or results could bring down a congressional inquisition, researchers are likely to shy away from controversial subjects. The effects on the US scientific community, and on America’s reputation as a leader in science, could be dire, lingering on well past the 2016 election.

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5 thoughts on “House Science Committee Attacks Scientists

  1. I finally broke down and figured out how to use facebook (my daughter left for college so I was without IT support; otherwise the process would have been much faster).

    What I see now that I’m no longer a dinosaur is constant postings about the break between “the sciences” and “the humanities;” here at the University of Illinois this has apparently been codified as the general support for Steven Salaita by “the humanities” professors and too-frequent dismissal of the whole debacle by “the sciences” faculty.

    I was and still am a scientist, on the other hand, while my father was an engineering prof at UIUC my mother is an art historian, and both I and my father loved (and I continue to love) art, literature and all the other things that combine with “science” to make for a complete life.

    All the scientists I know feel that way; perhaps this latest revelation of how science isn’t safe from politics (as if we needed another) could be used to convince those in the sciences who think that’s not the case.

  2. A quick (coffee fueled) addendum: I think physicists have long been very sensitive to the intertwining of “science” and “the humanities,” certainly the quantum mechanics is so anti-intuitive, that it’s hard to contemplate it without also having to admit at least some sense of aesthetics and the meaning of the universe.

    My own area of training was biology, and there the “originators” of the “modern” biology, call it molecular biology as a quick gloss, those people were, by and large, physicists. The phage group, those sorts they too (in my recollection) were pretty firmly embedded in the arts as well as the sciences.

    Maybe we’d be better off referring to “technologists” rather than scientists if we want to discuss what seems to be this rift between the arts and the ___, whatever that ___ is. I’m not sure this is a defensible position, given the extent to which technology (e.g., Apple) intertwines with the arts — iTunes, industrial design etc.

    More to my expertise, I think it’s possible that the revolution in biology may be producing scientists displaced from the humanities, although I certainly hope that isn’t the case. When I spent my junior year in college at Sussex university in England, I took multiple courses in the philosophy of science; alas, that’s probably not part of the standard curriculum here in the states.

  3. How can we have such people in office who are so arrogant and stupid. We need to expose these people by name, state represented, and political party affiliation. Education is critical for us all yet the educated get shunned.

  4. Pingback: The Assault on Climate Science | The Academe Blog

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