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

March 31, 2014
Andrew Rosenberg
Director, Center for Science and Democracy

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.