The New Congress on Science

With the Dems now about to assume control of both houses of Congress, science policy is going to change. Big time. Indeed, in The Republican War on Science I pointed out that one reason the Reagan administration never messed with science as much as the current administration was because the Democratic Congress helped keep it in line.

We can now expect the same thing to transpire with the Bush administration. The big changes I'm looking at will come in the following areas:

1. Committee Chairs. People like James Inhofe won't be able to build global warming hearings around people like Michael Crichton any more. People like Joe Barton won't be able to harrass climate scientists. This is a big deal.

2. Committee Chairs, Part II. Meanwhile, people like Henry Waxman, who have been concerned about Bush administration abuse of science, will now be able to use the power of subpoena to demand information that has previously been withheld from them. Before now, most of what we learned about all the various outrages came from good old journalistic prying, often including use of the Freedom of Information Act. But with powers of subpoena, expect to Congress to find out a lot more about what was *really* going on behind the scenes in some of these agencies.

3. Scientific Integrity Legislation. Various bills have been proposed, and their details vary, but some general points are clear. This is very limited legislation that is designed to curtail the worst abuses of the Bush administration with respect to science. I.e., rule out the forced editing of scientific reports by politicos; ensure free speech and whistleblower protections to government scientists; and so on. This legislation was treated as "partisan" in the last Congress and so could not pass. Now, it can.

4. Office of Technology Assessment. It may not be a top priority for the new Democratic Congress, but I don't see why Rush Holt's bill, to restore Congress's scientific advisory office, shouldn't be able to move now. This, again, was treated as anathema by Republicans when they ran Congress. Now, it ought to seem like a no-brainer.

In addition to this kind of stuff, the treatment of specific science-related issues--global warming, embryonic stem cell research, etc--will also change. In short, we're going to be in a very different world in terms of the relationship between politics and science in the United States. Some good old checks and balances will be coming into force--thank goodness.

By the way, all of this is proof enough--as if anyone ever needed any--that many core aspects of science policy are fundamentally partisan in the currrent political climate. That's why we expect them to change when Congress changes hands.


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Chris, my takes:

#1 isn't a big deal for that reason -- those were distraction sideshows. the better reason is that you won't have Inhofe and Barton to block consideration of meaningful legislative packages.

#2 maybe, but I think the Dems will focus more on passing legislation that doing oversight. I wrote about that a bit here.

#3 would be nice and probably would pass through a Senate filibuster if brought up, but with only one year to do anything, I'm not sure it'll be on the agenda

#4 I also wrote about that in the post I linked in #2. Be careful here -- a bunch of D's voted against Holt. But with a lot of new blood in there that doesn't know the history of the OTA, you might have a different outcome this time. I'll be posting on that more soon....

In the past, the democrats have had their own war on science--substituting research with more-or-less "obvious" outcomes for fundamental science.

from The Scientist, 1994:

TI : Strategic Basic Research



PG : 13

National Science Foundation director Neal Lane's pursuit of
"strategic basic research" was outlined in the interview in
the January 10 issue of The Scientist [page 11].

It is difficult to defend the needs of science against the
demands of a panicky Congress. The pressure generated by
Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (D-Md.) subcommittee is particularly
dangerous to our country's future, for it may cause us to
reduce funding for that which will bring truly new

If we look back to the 19th century, we can identify strains
that led to important modern technology. To cite one
example, the electromagnetic research led by Michael Faraday
and James Clerk Maxwell gave us now-familiar devices such as
the electric light, telephone, electric motor, radio, and
TV. All this work was of no obvious social value at the

To give another example, astronomers seeking to understand
light coming from the stars built a database of spectra,
which led to quantum mechanics and our understanding of
atoms, making modern chemistry possible. This theory is also
at the basis of most present "new technology" based on
lasers, miniaturized electronics, and so forth.

And a monk, Gregor Mendel, curious about why and how pea
plants inherited flower color and other characteristics,
laid the foundation for modern genetics.

What would have constituted "strategic basic research" in
the society of 1880? Any scientist whose basic work had
anything to do with the formation of boiler scale in steam
engines would have an edge.

Factory power was usually belt-driven, so anything in
mechanics relating to belt-drive efficiency would be big.
The telegraph was clearly important, so a major effort would
be mounted to get telegraph stations in every village,
perhaps a set in every house.

Any coding work offering a new, more efficiently tapped-out
replacement for Morse code would be targeted as strategic.
This would be called "The Information Super-Riverboat."

Studies in buoyancy (and in producing hydrogen) would be
extremely important, to prepare for the great 20th-century
travel mode of balloons/dirigibles lying ahead. (Helium, the
gas used for safety reasons in many balloons that do fly, is
another discovery made in astronomy.)

We can never know what is strategic more than a few short
years ahead, which also happens to coincide with the next

We therefore are likely to waste our money on strategic
research, as the society of 1880 would have done, for the
most part.

On the other hand, the return on basic research is high--28
percent interest, according to a Congressional Budget Office

We can do no less than take on the task of explaining the
value of basic research, which provides the possibility of
learning truly new things, and of defending the role of NSF,
the only agency whose primary mission is to support

I urge readers to write their senators and representatives,
asking them to send copies of the correspondence to

Department of Physics
and Astronomy
University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kans. 66045-2151

I'd like to see Congress call John Marburger to capitol hill to explain in detail what he has done to convince Bush that global warming is a pressing issue that should be addressed now, not 10 or 20 years from now.

marburger says he believs global warming is a real problem, but he has obviuosly failed to convince Bush.

Marburger's office should have by now compiled a detailed doument citing the likely scientific and economic ramifications of global warming. Included in this assessment should be the results of the recently released Stern report.
If they have compiled such a document, it is not on their website.

It is not enough at this late date for Marburger to merely tell the President (again) that he believes global warming is real. He should be advising the President about possible ramifications.

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 09 Nov 2006 #permalink

Melott, how much of a waste "strategic research" is, is also hard to ascertain; borrowing your article's example, who know's what offshoots could have come out of research into Steam, Mechanics, and Bouyancy? Probably nothing like what are considered the current most improtant technologies, but better knowledge of all of those things is certainly useful in some industries.

My point, really, is to point out that, whatever criticism the Democrats may deserve for their policies with regard to science, there is a far cry between what they do and the hatred and contempt that the Republicans routinely exhibit with regard to science.

In other words, while support of "strategic research" may not be the best way to go, it is not guaranteed to destroy the USA the way Republican policies on science are.

By valhar2000 (not verified) on 10 Nov 2006 #permalink

You provided a courageous voice for science in the dark years. Now, you are powerful voice for change. Thank you.

By John C. Zachary (not verified) on 10 Nov 2006 #permalink

I'm with Dark Tent here.

In fact, I was wondering if it is time for Marburger to resign if he can't get action on climate change issues. He could accomplish more with a loud public resignation than he has been able to achieve in almost six years of loyal service to a boss who has marginalized his office.

I'm with Dark Tent here.

In fact, I was wondering if it is time for Marburger to resign if he can't get action on climate change issues. He could accomplish more with a loud public resignation than he has been able to achieve in almost six years of loyal service to a boss who has marginalized his office.

Fred, I agree that Marburger should resign if he can't get Bush to do something on global warming. Actually, I think he should have resigned long ago (as most scientists in his position would have undoubtedly done).

However, at this late date, Marburger would get off way too easy with a simple resignation. he had his chance to make a statement.

You might say this is now Marburger's "accountability moment."

So, before he resigns (or after, if he uses resignation to escape accountability) he should be grilled very publicly by Congress to say what he has done -- or in this case failed to do.

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 10 Nov 2006 #permalink

The Democrats typically provide better funding for NIH, which now has a larger budget than all other sciences put together in NSF. The Democrats often avoid taking knee-jerk pro-industry or pro-fundamentalist positions on certain important hot-button issue of social significance, like stem cell research, climate change, etc. On the other hand, Republicans have in the past better funded fundamental, curiosity-driven science which leads to the possibility of things like CT scans, way down the road. Both kinds of shortcomings are bad. The shortcomings of the Republicans are more obvious and easy to explain and organize against. We can't get Michael J. Fox to appear on TV to appeal for what we won't be able to do in 2040 because of certain unfunded science in the present. "If I knew what I were doing, I wouldn't call it research."

By Adrian Melott (not verified) on 10 Nov 2006 #permalink

Dark Tent and Fred, with regard to your call for Marburger to resign, I respectfully disagree for the following reasons:

1. Jack Marburger has done an impressive job in an extremely divisive political climate over the past 6 years. While you cite his failure to get the administration to take climate change seriously, you neglect to applaud his success in getting Bush to endorse additional funding for physical sciences in the State of the Union address, through the American Competitive Initiative. While the necessary implementing legislation has not yet passed, provisions of the ACI could help NSF, NIST and DOE fund research into any number of important topics.

2. Speaking as a scientist who has spent some time (through a fellowship program) working in the Bush administration, including with Marburger's office, OSTP, I can guarantee that if Marburger resigned it would not be a top administration priority to replace him. It is critical to have a scientist in his position, even if you sometimes disagree with him.

Say what you will about his shortcomings, but when the worst scientific hobgoblin of all, intelligent design, was endorsed by Bush, Marburger did stand up to him. See New York Times article: Bush Remarks Roil Debate Over Teaching of Evolution August 3, 2005.

"It is critical to have a scientist in his position,

Marbuger is hardly the first scientist to fill the position of "scientific Adviser to the President", though I do think he may the worst (most ineffective).

"even if you sometimes disagree with him."

It is not simply that I disagree with him. My view is shared by a large number of other scientists (eg, at UCS) in this country who have been particularly put-off by the out-of hand way that Marburger has dismissed (time and again) claims of political interference with the scientific process by the Bush admin.

For example, after UCS investigated and documented significant meddling by the Bush admin with science, Marburger concluded it was most likely politically motivated (with the implication that there was therfore nothing to the claims).

He certainly did not spend much time looking into the serious charges that they were leveling at the Bush admin. Hardly. He posted a swift denial on the OSTP website and that was that. Or so he apparently thought.

As we have seen since, the concerns of these scientists (and others) were plenty warranted.

"when the worst scientific hobgoblin of all, intelligent design, was endorsed by Bush, Marburger did stand up to him."

Well, good, that's his job, but, sadly, with regard to the misuse distortion, misrepresentation and outright abuse of science by the Bush admin on global warming and a host of other things, he has certainly not been doiing his job.

"I can guarantee that if Marburger resigned it would not be a top administration priority to replace him."

As I said above, he should have resigned long ago, when it might have made some difference. Sadly, that's the only way that people who disagree can seem to have an effect on this administration.

Conscientious people resign and then start blogs (Rick Pilz) or write books (Richard Clarke) and that's how we learn about all the dishonest, corrupt, unethical and otherwise idiotic things that have gone on in this Republican-controlled government over the past 6 years.

That's how we learned that it was a good idea to put the Democrats back in power -- and as I said above, I sincerely hope they hold some of these people accountable for what they have done (or not done, in some cases).

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 10 Nov 2006 #permalink

Samuelson has no idea what he is talking about -- par for the course, as a columnist.

"Stern arrives at his trivial costs -- that mere 1 percent of world gross domestic product in 2050 -- by essentially assuming them."

Samuelson would have us believe that either Stern, former Chief economist for the world bank has no idea what he is talking about or he is just dishonest.

A study done by economists at the Brookings Institution came to the same conclusion with regard to the world spending rate to keep CO2 concentration below a critical level.

When Samuelson says that "The [Stern] report is a masterpiece of misleading public relations", he is himself misleading people.

Why anyone would take a newspaper columnist seriously when it comes to a scientific/economic issue like global warming is beyond me.

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 10 Nov 2006 #permalink

What will this mean for scientists in fields traditonally disliked by Democrats, such as missile research, profit-based medicine, or natural resource exploration and extraction?

Lab Lemming:

With the exception of missile research, the things you mention are funded primarily by the private sector, so whether Congress is controlled by Republcians or Democrats is largely irrelevant.

Are we to assume form your statement that Democrats are less likely to spend federal dollars to fund Exxon-Mobil's exploration?

If that is the policy of the Democrats, I'd say "good for them." Corporate welfare for Exxon-Mobil is not sound fiscal policy at any time, but particualarly not at a time when the federal deficit is hundreds of billions of dollars and when Exxon-Mobil is literally awash in cash as a result of huge (billion dollar) profits.

And while you are consulting an econ 101 book to bone up on free-market principles, I'd check your history, Lab Lemming.

Since the end of WWII, missile research (and defense in general) has been funded by Democrats as well as Republicans. The idea that Democrats do not fund defense-related research in general and missile research in particular is simply a myth.

Perhaps you meant anti-ballistic missile research?

Some of the most vocal opponents of that are experts like MIT's Ted Postol. As a former DOD missile expert, I'd hardly call him an opponent of missile research. Besides, he bases his oppostion to SDI on very good physical arguments -- not on politics.

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 11 Nov 2006 #permalink

Dark Tent, you mistakenly shove Jack Marburger under the Bush tent. He works for the administration, as many have, and holds a high position, as many have, but make no mistake he is not a "true believer" like some. His resignation and entry into the blogosphere would be a disservice to the scientific community.

Flygal says: "Dark Tent, you mistakenly shove Jack Marburger under the Bush tent."

No, I did not shove him under any tents.
I have never been under the misapprehension that Marburger was a "true believer", just that he has not done enough to counter those who are.

But worse still, he has done too much to dismiss without proper consideration (essentially out of hand) the legitimate charges leveled at the Bush admin time and again by scientists of "misuse of science".

When thousands of scientists (including a large number of Nobel Laureates and other top scientists) sign and deliver a petition to the President that indicates as much , Marbuger owes it to members of the scientific community and to the American people to see to it that their concerns are properly investigated and addressed.

Marburger has not adequatedly investigated and addressed these charges and a whole slew of others (amply documented by Rick Piltz, James Hansen, UCS, Chris Mooney et al).

Perhaps worst of all, he has effectively dismissed the concerns of some of the people leveling these charges as little more than politically motivated -- the implication being that there is no substance to the charges.

Perhaps Marburger thinks it is part of his job as head of OSTP to divine people's motivations, but the simple fact remains, it ain't.

He should be considering such charges on their own merits and the preponderance of evidence shows that their charges do have merit (regardless of what Marburger as said to the contrary).

I guess I (and many other scientists in this country) just have a different view (from both Marburger and flygal) about what it means to be "Scientific adviser to the President" -- and to conscienciously and effectively do one's job, in general.

Regardless of whatever else Marburger might have done for science, adressing the charges of political interference with science is one of Marburger's responsibilities and I don't think anyone should be paid to do the kind of job that Marbuger has done in that regard -- period.

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 12 Nov 2006 #permalink

An Open Letter to the Democratic Leadership

What Would Senator McCain Do?

Let's start with what Senator McCain did:

On February 12, 1999, Senator John McCain, AZ, voted twice to convict President Bill Clinton--once on the count of perjury and again on obstruction of justice.

After the House of Representatives voted 228-206 on the perjury charge and 221-212 on obstruction of justice (largely along party lines) to impeach, it was the duty of the United States Senate to determine Bill Clinton's guilt.

And moderate John McCain went along with the Republican right-wing zealots to remove from office lame duck President Bill Clinton.

Clinton's extramarital sexual behavior was no doubt shameful, but Congress's actions were much more shameful--using the serious Constitutional mechanism of impeachment (which is supposed to be reserved for dealing with bribery, acts of treason, and high crimes and misdemeanors) to remove a popular President solely because he tried to cover up an inappropriate sexual liaison.

At no point was the U.S. government, its military personnel, its laws, its international treaties, or the safety of its people harmed or put in jeopardy by Clinton's lying about his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky. Neither the country nor the Constitution was undermined by his lying about inappropriate personal behavior. Yet, moderate Senator John McCain voted to remove Bill Clinton from the office of the Presidency.

Now power has shifted away from the Republican Party, toward the Democratic Party in the House and Senate. Should the House impeach and then the Senate remove from office a lame duck President and Vice President?

Many Democrats and Independents (and perhaps some Republicans too) have been outraged by the actions of Bush, Cheney, and other civil officials of the Executive--and are calling on Congress to protect the Constitution and the integrity of the United States government by impeaching Bush and Cheney.

But aren't Democrats, Independents, and Libertarians being vindictive just as the Republicans had been by impeaching and trying Bill Clinton during late 1998 and early 1999?

No. Clinton's alleged perjury and obstruction of justice did not harm America's national interests--and in the end, the Senate acquitted him because his crimes related to reprehensible private behavior--not appalling governance, widespread bribery, or the undermining of the Constitution. They were not high crimes and misdemeanors as understood by the framers of the Constitution.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney (along with cabinet members and others) violated at least several international and federal laws, including Geneva Accords and the U.S. War Crimes Act. Against Iraq, they unnecessarily launched an aggressive war before exhausting reasonable alternatives, causing the deaths of civilians and U.S. troops. They illegally authorized wiretapping American citizens without obtaining warrants (even within the 72-hour FISA grace period), essentially bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Detainees (declared "enemy combatants") were denied basic human rights, such as access to attorneys, courts, and the Red Cross. Those captured or abducted were often rendered to secret prisons and tortured without the opportunity to challenge their accusers or dispute the charges against them. Suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus was done illegally and then signed into law by President Bush in the name of national security.

Whether enumerated by John Conyers or John Dean or others, the various lists of impeachable crimes are both serious and extensive. The Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate cannot just ignore these charges in some "forgive and forget" gesture. Our future as a democratic republic depends on enforcing federal and international laws covering war crimes and human rights violations. Americans cannot just allow these horrific crimes, involving the deaths of American troops, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the torture of perhaps thousands of both innocent and guilty detainees, to go unpunished and unacknowledged.

It is the duty of Congress to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of such serious crimes and violations.

And it is John McCain's duty as a United States Senator to vote for conviction and removal from office of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney when extensive evidence (a good deal of it now public) almost certainly demonstrates their guilt.

If the Democratic majority of the Congress will not enforce the Constitution and federal statues, such as the U.S. War Crimes Act, against a blatantly unchecked Executive, who will?

--Vincent Miskell
Pembroke Pines, FL

By Vincent Miskell (not verified) on 12 Nov 2006 #permalink


I first found your blog months ago after I picked up "The War on Science" at the library. I applaud your efforts and completely agree about the need to support whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are in a position to protect the health and safety of all of us. They need to be protected.

I trust you will find the following inspirational.

"We did it! Yesterday you helped us achieve major victories that set the stage for a safer, cleaner, smarter America.

At least eight of LCV's Dirty Dozen - anti-environmentalists in Congress that we worked tirelessly to defeat - went down. We are keeping a close watch on the three races that are currently undecided, especially in Virginia where George Allen is expected to lose. Additionally, eight out of nine of our Environmental Champions prevailed."

- Gene Karpinski, President, League of Conservation Voters

Should we call this the Al Gore effect? Or is it more like, 'ITS the ENVIRONMENT STUPID!' I believe American citizens are way out in front of their leaders on this issue. These election results prove it. And they should.

We all breath the same air, play in and drink the same water, and eat the same food. Who wants to leave the world worse than they found it? The Democrats have a mandate to make our world a better place. Too bad they have to clean up so many messes. Well, at least they will no longer have deal with the Dirty Dozen.

Why have we not heard this story in the mainstream media?


Richard Pombo is out, too. Hallelujah!

I hope this is a shift in US sensibility (e.g. that as Salon suggests the libertarians realize that the liberals are currently closer to them than the conservatives), but I also think there's a very good chance the evangelicals were just staying home to "teach Bush a lesson" (e.g. about abortion, as if that could ever be a political reality, but he did get them to vote on one issue...) but will be back in 2 years to make sure things don't go too far. So this is not a time to let up. We need to try to both legislate and communicate so that citizens are more educated.

I think Dawkins is half right, evolution is just a battle in a larger war; but he's wrong in that the war is science vs. autocracy, not naturalism vs. supernaturalism. I've been trying to come up with a clear argument about why the whole creationist line is crap. Yes, I know a very few ID people have subtle and intelligent points to make, but they aren't really the problem, the masses are, and the masses are a mix of naive biblical literalists and naive science believers.

I've written the web page in the URL I linked to as a first-cut try. This is aimed at friendly PhD students, and so far PhD students have liked it, my parents (religious naive science believers) have loved it, and my peers and superiors (professors with more seniority than me) have been worried it's too naive. But it is rhetoric to explain science, not science itself. I'm thinking of rewriting it for a magazine. Any comments would be appreciated!