New House GOP better for science -- by a micron

Some new House GOP leaders believe in science--but the party's war on science is hardly over

For many thinking Americans, the anti-intellectual core of Republican Party policies was made real during a 2007 primary debate among its 11 presidential candidates, when three raised their hands to say they doubted the theory of evolution.

More recently we've had climate-change deniers and skeptics placed in top GOP posts in Congress. Among them is Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, whose efforts to inject politics into government grantmaking procedures as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology we've reported on here and here.

But Josh Krisch reports today for Scientific American that there are glimmers of light in what writer Chris Mooney memorably described as "The Republican War on Science." The glimmers come from the appointments for 2015 of Reps. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and John Culberson, R-Texas, as heads of two subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committees -- respectively, Health and Human Services; and Commerce, Justice and Science.

These posts as all-important "cardinals" of those subcommittees give Cole jurisdiction over the National Institutes of Health and Culberson oversight of the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Inevitably, these appointments are a mixed bag. Cole's record, Krisch observes, includes support for a national childhood cancer database, funding for the battle against AIDS and malaria, and pediatric disease research. But he has also voted against some protections for endangered species and against environmental education grants, which fall within his responsibilities for the education budget. 

Culberson has long been a friend of NASA--unsurprising, since the agency's Johnson Space Center is located near his Houston district. Krisch labels his record on NSF grantmaking "exemplary." However, Culberson in 2013 introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill prohibiting the EPA from applying carbon emission costs in its regulatory deliberations.

Applying those costs would make it easier for strict emissions standards to pass cost-benefit tests. As Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Beverly Hills, put it in an open letter at the time, "The Culberson amendment says that the cost of carbon pollution is zero. It says there is no harm and no costs. That's denial of science at its worst."

Culberson has resolutely opposed emissions regulations as well as subsidies for renewable and alternative energy production, while backing subsidies for oil and gas--also unsurprising, since his district also is home to oil and gas interests.

In sum, it's not yet time to declare an end to the GOP war on science. Lamar Smith still heads the House science committee, and his campaign against the NSF is unrelenting. The infiltration of creationism into science teaching in the schools remains a favored GOP social values plank in some parts of the country.

At least one GOP pundit defended the display of ignorance at that 2007 candidates' debate by observing that "remarkably, only three" candidates--Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado--raised their hands to question evolution and that none was a frontrunner. But Huckabee remains a significant GOP figure and Brownback just won reelection as governor of Kansas. 

Climate change denialism, which is rife in the GOP, should be seen as essentially an economic sop to powerful interests who don't want to face the short-term costs that climate remedies would impose on them. But it uses the vocabulary of science, not economics, to make its threadbare case. As long as the GOP's political and financial patrons benefit from its anti-science stance, that stance won't fundamentally change. 

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