New Science Chair Announces Plans

The new chair of the House Science Committee is promising to move quickly to get his panel involved in the three E's--education, energy, and the environment. Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) says the panel, which oversees the gamut of U.S. nonbiomedical civilian science, will hold hearings on the three topics beginning in March. And in his first speech as chair he promised scientists that he will be "your staunchest ally and your fairest critic."

Last month, many Washington science lobbyists welcomed Boehlert's ascension to the committee's top spot (Science, 12 January, p. 222) after its previous chairman, Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), became leader of the Judiciary Committee. They predicted that Boehlert would bring a new tone and direction to a panel marked by rancorous, often highly partisan sessions under Sensenbrenner and his predecessor, retired Representative Robert Walker (R-PA). But the new chief hadn't formally outlined his agenda for the science community until a 31 January speech, made to a meeting of the Universities Research Association, a group of 89 major research institutions that operates the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for the Department of Energy (DOE).

His first priority, Boehlert told the group, will be to examine ways to improve K-12 math and science education--from offering teaching scholarships for top students to reexamining the impact of standardized tests on learning and critical thinking. He'd also like to see universities more involved in local schools. On energy, Boehlert argued that universities should play a bigger role in shaping U.S. policy, in particular by developing better ways to produce power from renewable sources such as the wind and sun. "These are areas that have been underfunded in terms of both research and deployment," he said. And in the environmental arena, Boehlert said the committee would be "a central forum to learn about the science behind ongoing--and even more importantly, brewing--controversies." He cited the debate over global climate change and the ecological effects of genetically modified organisms as two examples. Hearings on these issues, he promised, would include diverse points of view, "unlike those at which [lawmakers] don't want to be confused with the facts."

Beyond his big three, Boehlert also wants to learn more about how DOE intends to renew its aging facilities and recruit young scientists, and take another crack at clarifying the role of DOE's national laboratories. He also admitted that he'll have to bone up a bit on NASA, a major part of the panel's purview and a special concern of his predecessor. The panel "won't turn its back on the space program," he said.

Reaction to Boehlert's plan was generally positive. "He appears serious and engaged," said chemist Robert Trellman of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "Now we'll see how far he gets."

Related sites

A transcript of Boehlert's speech

Boehlert's biography