Inside the GOP’s science policy: A talk with Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas)

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) holds extraordinary power over funding for major federal science programs.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Republican control of both houses of Congress gives the GOP extraordinary power over science policy in the United States. Last month, we had a lengthy discussion of the party’s interests and outlook in scientific research with Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who had been named chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on commerce, justice and science.

Culberson’s appointment as “cardinal” of the CJS subcommittee gives him oversight of NASA and the National Science Foundation, and a powerful role in government policy on issues such as climate change. As you will see from the following discussions, Culberson, who serves the Houston area, is an engaging Texan who wears his enthusiasms -- especially for space exploration -- and his politics -- conservative--proudly. At a time when the GOP’s commitment to science funding is in question, Culberson is an outspoken defender of science programs, though some might find his commitments selective.

We’ll be publishing the transcript of our telephone interview in three parts over three days. Part 1 covers NASA; Part 2 will cover the NSF and the political controversy over its funding; Part 3 will address climate change. The transcript has been lightly edited, chiefly for clarity and to remove extraneous and repetitive material.


A few explanatory items to help you understand the references below. The “decadal surveys,” which are once-per-decade analyses of government funding priorities, are prepared by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. A presentation on the decadal survey for NASA is here.

The Europa mission, as Culberson states, was ranked second in priority in the latest survey. NASA had left the mission, which involves fly-by scrutiny of one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, out of its budget; the “cromnibus” funding bill passed late last year requires that it be funded, thanks to pressure from Culberson. The Constellation project canceled by the Obama administration in 2010 was a manned spaceflight program designed to supersede the shuttle program. The idea is to privatize manned launches instead. Finally, the Planetary Society is an independent nonprofit that advocates for space research. Its chief executive is Bill “Science Guy” Nye. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a joint Saturn exploration project of NASA and the European Space Agency, which placed an unmanned probe on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005. The mission is continuing.

MICHAEL HILTZIK: Why don’t we start by talking about Europa. I gather this has been an interest of yours for quite some time. Let’s talk about how you got interested and where you see its importance.

JOHN CULBERSON: The Europa mission exemplifies the need for NASA to follow the best recommendations of the scientific community in prioritizing the missions that we fund and fly. Europa has been the top priority of the decadal survey of planetary scientists of the last decade, and it was the No. 2 priority in this decade. Yet NASA continued to resist it. I have made certain that the wishes of the scientific community and of the planetary survey are respected and that the Europa mission will be funded and flown as the flagship mission that planetary scientists expect it to be.

I became aware of Europa as a high school and a college student. I got my first telescope when I was about 12 years old, and I bought myself a Celestron 8 telescope as a high school graduation present. I still have it and use it regularly at our home in Houston.

I’ve always had a love of astronomy and science. It’s just something I’ve grown up with and have always had a passion for and an interest in, and been a very careful reader and subscriber to the journals of Science and Nature for a couple of decades. I became aware of Europa because of the Voyager missions, and the more I studied it, the more certain I became that when we discover life on other worlds, it is most likely that we will discover it in the oceans of Europa first, in our own backyard. That’s why the planetary science community is so devoted to exploring Europa, because they feel fairly confident that conditions are ideal in the Europa oceans for life to have developed.


I was just astounded to discover that NASA continued to resist the mission, refused to fund it and pursue it even though it was the top priority last decade and the No. 2 priority this decade [in the NAS decadal surveys]. So therefore Europa needed an advocate and it required the support of someone in Congress in a position to make sure the mission took place.

So that’s where it all started. I have been a big believer in following the recommendations of the science community and the decadal survey in particular as the gold standard for NASA to follow. I already wrote into law, in fact, not only that NASA must fund and fly the mission to Europa and achieve the science goals set out for that mission, I also wrote into law in the CJS [Commerce, Justice, Science] appropriations bill that NASA shall fund and fly the top priority missions of the planetary decadal survey. I think that should be the case, frankly, for the other decadal surveys, the heliophysics, the earth science, and astrophysics decadal surveys that are also done by the National Academies of Science, that Congress should ensure that NASA follows the recommendations of the best minds in the scientific community, to make sure that America’s space program is the best in the world.

MH: Why in your view was NASA resisting the Europa mission?

JC: I don’t want to speculate on their motives. I just know that there’s been resistance. They’ve fought it. My first trip out to JPL [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory] was in January 2004 for the Mars Opportunity landing and that’s the first time I ever met Steve Squyres [chairman of the planetary science decadal survey] or [JPL Director] Charles Elachi. I was a brand new member of the CJS subcommittee and they gave me a wonderful briefing on all the missions they were working on and one of the briefings I got was on outer planets. And among the discussions was the proposed mission to Europa, and it just jumped out at me and I made sure they had the money necessary for NASA to fly it.

And yet when Mike Griffin came in as the new NASA administrator in 2005 one of the first places he went and raided was he cannibalized all the funding that I had made certain was set aside for the Europa mission. I never did get a clear answer as to why they would cannibalize money for the exploration of the place most likely to harbor life beyond Earth in our own solar system. It just made no sense. I honestly don’t know why. They just resisted it. NASA throughout its history has always funded and flown the top priority missions of the decadal survey for planetary science, until recently. That’s why I felt compelled to put it into federal law to ensure that NASA was, in the planetary program at least, following the best recommendations of the best minds in the scientific community.

MH: What’s the funding projection for Europa?

JC: It depends on how the mission finally shakes out. But the Europa Clipper mission is one that’s ultimately projected to wind up -- we have to see what the final configuration looks like -- I don’t want to speculate yet, but it’s going to be a flagship class mission comparable to Cassini-Huygens, which is still going strong now after 10 years now, since orbital insertion around Saturn. NASA has had tremendous success with their planetary flagship program and the Europa Clipper’s going to be a flagship class mission. So the funding level is not completely set yet, cause the design is still a little fluid, but they have sufficient money because of the 2015 CJS appropriations bill. [House CJS Subcommittee] Chairman Frank Wolf [R-Va.] and [Senate CJS Subcommittee] Chairman [Barbara] Mikulski [D-Md.] were absolutely essential to the success of the planetary program in general and Europa in particular, they were very supportive of my request and included the language as I offered it to fund the Europa mission at $100 million in 2015 and to ensure that the design of the mission fulfilled the science goals of the planetary decadal survey. That’s in statute. Europa is the only mission it is illegal for NASA not to fly.

MH: How do you balance that with the need there might be for administrators -- and maybe this is the source of their resistance -- to have more flexibility? They’ve got a lot of initiatives on their plate, they’ve got a lot of pressures, not only from the Planetary Society but other constituencies. Do you think they need more flexibility to balance all these needs, or do you think they simply haven’t been doing it consistently or properly?

JC: Unfortunately, I think NASA headquarters has become too risk averse and too bogged down in bureaucracy and just frankly stultified by a long unfortunate history of insufficient funding, lack of direction. Their culture and headquarters is unfortunately different from the way it was during the Apollo era and I’m determined to leave as a part of my legacy as the subcommittee chairman to ensure that NASA’s given the stability and also the freedom they need to do what they do best, and to try to change the culture so they become more focused on their core mission.

You’re exactly right, NASA is spread too thin, they’re trying to do too many things. NASA needs to get back to their core mission of space exploration and scientific discovery. The manned space program, for example, was set back for years because of the Obama administration’s political decision to cancel Constellation simply because it had George Bush’s name on it. That set us back many years. America would be sending American astronauts into space this year on an American rocket, but for the Obama administration’s political decision to cancel Constellation. No matter who’s president, we just can’t allow that to happen. NASA needs to be more professional, less political, given greater stability in their funding and given the freedom at the same time to, for example, do multi-year procurement.

They could build rockets and spacecraft the way the Navy builds submarines and aircraft carriers. I’ve got tremendous support for that concept both from the science committee in the house and the senate and strong support for the idea of letting NASA’s budget request come directly to the Congress and bypass OMB [the White House Office of Management and Budget]. NASA’s too risk averse, too bogged down in bureaucracy and rules, and NASA’s other big problem is that they’ve been run by the Office of Management and Budget for far too long. OMB produces NASA’s budget, not NASA, and that’s just wrong. All of us in Congress want to hear a budget recommendation from the best minds in the scientific and engineering and astronaut community, directly from NASA, not what the bean counters at OMB want us to do.

MH: You’ve proposed an initiative to make the NASA administrator a fixed term, right?

JC: Yes, the idea would be to change NASA’s governance structure so you not only give them the ability to do multi-year procurement, the budget recommendation comes straight to Congress, bypass OMB, and to make the NASA administrator an executive director of the agency with at least a six-year term that would overlap presidents, so they’re not as subject to as much political pressure. The idea is to insulate NASA from political pressure as much as possible so they’re more professional and less political, more like the FBI and less like a political agency following the wishes of whoever happens to be in the White House. They ought to be executing, carrying out the top priority of missions of the scientific community based on the decadal survey, for example, whether it be in planetary science or heliophysics or earth sciences or astrophysics and Congress should make sure they’re given the funding they need, the stability they need to do year to year multi-year procurement. and then step out of the way. I think we need to remove politics as much as possible from NASA and let them be driven by the science and the need to explore new worlds.

Frankly, in my mind one of the biggest problem NASA’s got is political interference, whether it be from presidents or from Congress. We have an obligation to ensure that our hard-earned tax dollars are spent wisely and intelligently and frugally. Congress has got to give them some direction, but nevertheless I really am determined to give them as much stability and freedom from political pressure as possible.

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