House Republicans want to cut government funding for science projects that focus on climate change and the social sciences.
A House bill to reauthorize the National Science Foundation, a government agency that promotes science and engineering by funding research and education projects, would bolster funding for physics and engineering, but cut the dollars that flow to the study of climate change and the social sciences.
The cuts to climate change come in the form of cuts to the geosciences, of which climate change studies is a major component. Democrats on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee say those changes are politically motivated, but the chair of the committee and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is adamant that his intentions with the bill are to protect taxpayer money.
“Unfortunately, NSF has misused taxpayer dollars and funded too many questionable research grants - money that could have gone to higher priorities,” he said in a statement. “We all believe in academic freedom for scientists, but federal research agencies have an obligation to explain to American taxpayers why their money is being used on such research instead of on higher priorities.”
A Democratic committee staffer who declined to be identified by name said, “It’s fairly transparent that Republicans’ cuts to the geological sciences are because of their attacks on climate science as opposed to something like earthquake science, but it’s never explicitly mentioned.”
It’s worth noting that the staffer, and several House staffers who declined to talk about the bill on the record at all, declined to be named. Climate change is a contentious issue and the last thing people want to do is get caught up in a climate change fight in the run-up to tight midterm elections.
It’s a political hot potato, and one that some Republicans have publicly questioned without much fallout from constituents. Smith has been critical of the NSF’s funding of climate-change related projects in the past. Most recently, he criticized the NSF for giving $700,000 to a theater company for a play about climate change, a move that garnered considerable positive conservative media attention.
“[S]pending taxpayer dollars to fund a climate change musical called The Great Immensity sounds more like an immense waste of taxpayer dollars - money that could have funded higher priority research,” he said in a statement.
In 2009, he released a statement that said, "During a six-month period, four out of five network news reports failed to acknowledge any dissenting opinions about global warming, according to a Business and Media Institute study. The networks should tell Americans the truth, rather than hide the facts."
Few Democrats have addressed the climate change cuts blatantly. Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), a ranking member of the Research and Technology Subcommittee, was perhaps the most specific in her criticism of the bill’s climate change cuts, but even she did not use that language specifically.
Johnson said in a statement that she is “opposed to the sharp budget cuts for the social sciences and the geosciences. There is no legitimate scientific reason for these cuts. These are politically motivated cuts to appease a conservative ideology that doesn’t believe in certain kinds of science, and I cannot support them.”
Her staff declined to speak on the record about the issue.
The Democratic committee staffer noted the controversial nature of the issue and said Democrats have been focused on fostering a dialogue with Republicans about the bill and on producing their own version that addresses the cuts. Behind the scenes, though, there is an “awareness and concern” about the cuts, she said.
Aside from the cuts themselves, the bill also wants the agency to explain why each individual project deserves financial support and asks researchers to sign a statement verifying that their findings contain “no falsification.”
The staffer said she also sees that as a response to some Republicans’ distrust of climate change science.
Politicians aren’t the only ones avoiding the climate change language.
A number of science organizations have opposed the bill, among them the American Geophysical Union, a collection of earth and space scientists.
Like many other science organizations and unions, the group authored a letter but didn’t name climate change specifically. Christine McEntee, executive director of the union and the author of the letter, said the group wanted to emphasize a number of their issues with the bill and not zero in on climate change. But, she said, climate change research would “get a double whammy” because so much of its funding currently comes from the National Science Foundation.
The bill has made its way through the Research and Technology Subcommittee and a Republican staffer said he expects it to go before the full committee later this month. Smith will have enough votes, from Republicans and likely a few Democrats, to get the bill out of committee and onto the House floor. While the bill has very low chances of ever becoming law - it would be dead on arrival in the Senate - that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in a Republican-controlled Congress, which is not outside the realm of possibility. And reluctance from Democrats, particularly those in tight races, to engage on the issue makes it one that climate change doubters can continue to employ for political gain.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.