Election day has come and gone and with it went the Democratic majority that once held sway in the U.S. Senate. While political analysts are quick to warn that the shift lacks the Republican supermajority need to make sweeping changes, there is no doubt changes are on the way—and some of those will affect how science is funded.
The most impactful aspect of the shift will likely be seen as Republicans take over key committee appointments and, by extension, have a greater say in what—or if—science gets funded. That is a sobering prospect, especially considering the recent I’m-not-a-scientist mantra of leading party members and their longstanding refusal to accept the realities of climate change.
More alarming is that political pundits are predicting some of the most vocal science bumblers and climate skeptics will soon be in charge of the committees with the most scientific funding clout. Those picks include Ted Cruz of Texas, who could lead the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is expected to head up the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Shortly before the elections, Cruz extolled the need to push through the Keystone pipeline, increase hydraulic fracturing operations, and end the Environmental Protection Agency’s “war on coal,” so it’s not hard to imagine what his leadership on a committee charged with promoting green technology might look like. It’s less clear what direction he might push the committee’s decisions on atmospheric science and science research, but as a staunch climate change denier, it’s probably not too hard to guess.
Although Cruz isn’t likely to be the most science-friendly committee chair, his appointment would be nothing compared to giving Inhofe power over the committee that make climate decisions. Joshua Krisch, writing for Scientific American, called the appointment “disastrous for science.”
“If Inhofe gains control of the Senate committee in charge of climate change legislation, that’s probably the end of climate change legislation…” he writes. “And, global warming aside, it’s probably not a good idea to put someone who calls scientific consensus a “hoax” in charge of a Senate committee that holds the purse strings for scientific funding.”
Despite the ominous clouds looming on the Senate committees horizon, the news isn’t all bad. The powerful Committee on Appropriations—which weighs in on science funding that includes NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug administration, and the National Science Foundation—could continue to see leadership supportive of science. The lead runner for that committee chair is Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a NASA-friendly legislator known to champion flood control, water infrastructure investment, and coastal ecosystem protection.
It’s also important to point out that even though a Republican-heavy Senate could have a chilling effect on some science funding, the days of Democratic majority haven’t exactly been halcyon either. As Krisch points out, little progress has been made in climate legislation in the seven years Democrats reigned. And there is no shortage of criticism for the far-reaching effects sequestration has wrought on scientific research.
Worries for the future of funding and angst about past decisions point to the larger problem of politicizing scientific issue. And, as Frank Bruni points out in an opinion piece for the New York Times, that leaves our nation vulnerable on a large scale.
“If they had proper regard for science,” he writes, “politicians in both parties would fight harder against the devastating cuts to federal research that have happened under sequestration, endangering medical progress and jeopardizing our global leadership.”