A Microbiologist, Physicist and Chemist Walk Into Congress...

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By Rachel Leven

Microbiologist Louise Slaughter needed 14 years to pass a bill aimed at protecting people from genetic discrimination in health insurance and employment. The delay, she said, was partly because some members of Congress thought the bill was on cloning.

Now Slaughter (D-N.Y.) is working to pass a bill ( H.R. 1587) to prevent everyday use of antibiotics on cattle and other livestock that ultimately end up on people’s tables. Congress doesn’t really want to tackle that issue, she told Bloomberg BNA, but the public understands that “eating meat saturated with hormones and antibiotics is not a good thing for your family” and that helps bring attention to the issue.

Lack of understanding or interest are some of the issues certain scientists who now serve in Congress say they have faced in getting action on science issues. However, Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) held that basic science research is still well-funded. Scientists-turned-representatives told Bloomberg BNA that challenges arise when scientific debates turn into political ones on issues such as climate change.

Conservation and Resources

Slaughter is one of three scientists who are members of the 115th Congress—though there are several engineers and medical professions as well. Even so, Congress is taking action that could forever change how scientists in federal agencies can develop regulations or potentially alter which scientists can advise the Environmental Protection Agency. And so groups such as 314 Action are calling for more scientists to run for elected office to protect science.

Is Science Adequately Valued?

Several scientist and non-scientist members of Congress alike told Bloomberg BNA that Congress doesn’t adequately value or address science in policy. That includes former Senate Environment and Public Works chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), whose response to that question was bluntly “no.” But what does that mean?

Slaughter pointed to her health care-related bill (Pub. L. No. 110-233), which took 14 years to pass despite support from then-President George W. Bush (R). And still it took Democrats winning the House to get the bill across the finish line.

Congress’ lack of understanding of scientific principles can be see in its attitude toward funding research, Slaughter said. Slaughter and Moolenaar praised an increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health in the recently passed budget bill.

“We’ve been losing scientists for some time in the federal government due to its lack of understanding of scientific principles that you can’t turn research off and on, so it’s been a problem,” Slaughter said.

Joshua Morrow, executive director of 314 Action, said research funding needs to be stable for scientists to plan multi-year research projects, and both Morrow and Slaughter acknowledged that Congress can be short-sighted on these funding issues.

When Science Gets Political

Problems have also surfaced in scientific debates-turned-political. Chemist Moolenaar, Slaughter and physicist Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) all pointed to climate change as a prime example—and the result hasn’t been good policy.

Slaughter said that for climate change and environmental rollbacks generally, belief in science seems to more or less divide along party lines. While Slaughter said broadly she didn’t know why there is broad science denial among Republicans, Foster put the blame on politics.

“Some of my most heartbreaking discussions are with very intelligent and educated members across the aisle, who we have discussions of things like climate change or other technical issues and they agree that my position is correct from a scientific point of view, and yet because of the political constraints they feel in their party or particularly in the primaries they have to face, they simply cannot vote in the way that science and logic would lead them,” Foster said. “That I find frustrating.”

When asked whether he felt members of his party could vote their conscience on science issues like climate change, Moolenaar said he was proud of his party’s record of investing basic science research. Though the science may be clear, Moolenaar said that doesn’t always translate to a singular policy choice.

“In the case of climate, there’s a very strong political agenda which is, like other interest groups, very adamant of promoting their view,” Moolenaar said. “So as a scientist, you want to analyze the merits of the arguments, try to process what kinds of solutions might be relevant and realistic.”

Moolenaar later added, “I think when you get into arguments, calling people deniers or calling people this, I don’t think that helps advance science and it doesn’t help good policy.”

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) didn’t answer directly whether he thought science was adequately valued or addressed. But he said in an e-mailed statement that his committee, specifically, has passed four bipartisan science bills this Congress so far that have become law and generally “works tirelessly to address science policy issues” with input from scientific experts and members with scientific backgrounds.

More Scientists? What Else?

But how to fix it?

Foster has advocated putting back in place the congressional Office of Technology Assessment—an office that hasn’t been funded for roughly two decades—to provide “unbiased, nonpartisan advice [on science] on a very rapid time scale.” His resolution last Congress ( H.Res. 605) calling for the office to be reestablished had 14 co-sponsors from both parties, including House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). It never received a vote.

Moolenaar didn’t identify problems with science in Congress, but pointed to the bipartisan, bicameral Chemistry Caucus he and others started earlier this year “to help members understand the importance of science and STEM education, but also the value that chemistry adds to our daily lives, whether it’s manufacturing or agriculture—different areas that we benefit as a society.”

314 Action’s Morrow says getting more scientists elected to Congress and elsewhere will help, an effort his organization has participated in through providing training sessions for scientists and other STEM professionals interested in running for office.

314 Action, a nonprofit organization aimed at protecting scientific integrity, says more than 3,000 individuals have signed up for their candidate training sessions. Some scientists have already begun declaring, such as biophysicist Molly Sheehan who is running to represent Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District. Others came to events the same week as the March for Science as a trial run to see how they would feel about campaigning, according to reports.

Scientists currently serving in Congress are generally on board. For example, Morrow pointed to the House Science Committee, which he said issued five subpoenas between 1950 and 2013. The committee said it has used that power 28 times since Smith took over as chairman.

“The assault on science is real,” Morrow said. “It’s an assault on every level and I think we have to have scientists advocating for scientists. They have the facts and the understanding and the temperament.”

But Inhofe, who is Congress’ best-known skeptic of human contributions to climate change, doesn’t think more scientists are the answer. He told reporters we should “make it very obvious to people when a member—whether it’s me or somebody else—is ignoring the science that should be corrected and called to attention.”

Smith didn’t specifically answer that question of whether more scientists are needed. However, he did say, “Members of Congress come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, all of which are important and add value to our legislative efforts.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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