This week marks the anniversary of a sad chapter in American history, the beginning of the US House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities’ (HUAC) investigative hearings into communism in Hollywood in 1947. That reminder of history is important, because Congressional investigations are an important part of the checks and balances in our democracy. But that doesn’t mean every investigation is fair or warranted. Only a few weeks ago another House of Representatives Committee (Science, Space and Technology) announced that it was opening an investigation—this time concerning a scientist who had the temerity to express his views that fossil fuel companies should be held accountable for climate change.
Of course then and now, investigations are couched in terms of protecting the public good. In 1947, HUAC was seeking to reveal “disloyalty and subversive activities”. Chairman of the House Science Committee Lamar Smith (R–TX) is seemingly only concerned about whether federal funds are used to influence public policy. But there is no news of Smith investigating other individuals, say for example climate contrarians, and their sources of funding in connection with expressing their views.
Mr. Smith has been very clear in expressing his views about global warming. And he has a bully pulpit to express those views. And I do mean bully—because I worry this latest investigation seems to be exactly that, an attempt to bully or intimidate scientists who disagree with him.
Conducting oversight is of course part of the Committee’s work, though oversight versus legislating seems to be an increasing part of recent Congresses. But what is concerning is the manner in which the chairman has orchestrated investigations. This isn’t the first time that Mr. Smith has launched an attack on science and individual scientists. He has targeted National Science Foundation grants, calling into question the value of research and suggesting that Congress play a role in deciding what individual grants are most scientifically promising.
He has targeted EPA science, with legislation like the Secret Science Reform Act or “investigative theater” hearings. And I have written previously about changes in the rules that give Chairman Smith subpoena power, and the chilling effect that may have on scientists expressing their views or engaging in controversial research topics. The HUAC was noted for its tactics, not just the resulting blacklisting of people working in the entertainment industry. Using subpoena power, pressuring witnesses, and drawing conclusions when someone refused or hesitated in answering were hallmark tactics.
My colleague Michael Halpern said it well. “Scientists have the same right as anyone to engage in the political process and express their beliefs without fear of being hauled before Congress for their views.” It is not the personal views of individual scientists that should be the focus of this Committee, it is how to foster the growth of a stronger, more independent, more vibrant American science enterprise to the benefit of the country.