Sidelined Science: Let’s Get the House Science Committee Back on Track

, , director, Center for Science & Democracy | March 31, 2014, 9:08 am EDT
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The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in the U.S. House of Representatives should lead the way in bringing science into federal legislation and public policy. But, our new analysis of the witnesses the committee is hearing from reveals some troubling trends. Over the last six full sessions of Congress (12 years, 2001-2013) there has been a steady increase in witnesses coming from industry, and a decline in academic scientists testifying before the committee.

In the 112th Congress, for the first time in more than a decade, there were more industry-affiliated witnesses than those from any sector. In the past, academics predominated in testifying before this committee, but that is no longer the case.

The types of hearings have changed too. There has always been a tendency, when the political party of the President differed from that in majority in the House, for oversight of the executive branch agencies to increase. But this has been taken to new heights in the 112th Congress, with an increasing number of oversight hearings (nearly 50%) at the expense of hearings focusing on issues and legislation.

To be sure, witnesses from industry can be scientists too, but they are not inherently independent. Of course the committee should hear from industry, and committee members from both sides of the aisle frequently challenge witnesses on scientific issues. But the core function of a science committee should be to hear from independent witnesses, without a “policy stake” in the issue at hand.

I believe all witnesses before the committee should take care in describing their affiliations. That just helps credibility as a matter of practice. But the committee needs more balance in its hearings—more scientists from academia testifying, and a greater focus on issues and legislation rather than oversight. That’s what we should ask of a committee of our representatives focused on science.

As a former chairman of the Science Committee, Sherwood Boelhert (R– NY, 1983-2007) recently told us after reviewing our new analysis, “As I have said many times during my more than two decades on the Science Committee, everyone likes to profess strong allegiance to science-based decision making until the scientific consensus leads to a politically inconvenient conclusion.”

The House Science Committee should be the place where the scientific evidence is heard and brought to the fore. Let’s get back to better balance.

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  • William Burgess Leavenworth

    How about doing a report on the educational background in science of those who actually legislate? I’d be interested in knowing the scientific educational level of our current Congress. I’ve done research for Andy Rosenberg, and suspect that he has, all by himself, more scientific training and experience than the cumulative scientific background represented in today’s Congress.

    • Richard

      GREAT idea!

      Most legislators are attorneys: bright people who can grasp scientific concepts,etc IF/WHEN they put their minds to it. The issue is whether their political preferences will allow them to do so on issues that they are troubled by for personal or ‘moral’ reasons. When the latter dominate their thinking, it is like wearing blinders. They cannot see the whole picture and thus cannot/will not evaluate pros and cons very effectively. Instead, their, unspoken, mantra becomes ‘don’t bother me with the facts. Just confirm what I already believe about this issue.’ That is when they invite witnesses to committee hearings who will back their point of view.