What They Think: Congressional Leaders Weigh-In on Science

Coalition of the wondering. ScienceDebate polled researchers for questions about science and science policy.


American students are spending too much time watching television and not enough time studying, and the United States has too little to show for the billions of federal dollars spent on climate research and science education. Those are just a few of the comments from nine senior members of Congress who responded to questions about science and science policy from ScienceDebate, a coalition of science groups (including AAAS, publisher of Science Insider).

The eight questions posed to 33 Republican and Democratic leaders of congressional committees that shape U.S. science policy are a subset of 14 questions sent earlier this year to President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. ScienceDebate received answers from nine lawmakers, including Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), the outgoing head of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

(Six legislators said "no, thanks," and 18 haven't responded.)

All of the respondents emphasized the importance of scientific research in catalyzing technological innovation and fueling economic growth, and said that funding research should remain a high government priority, even in tough fiscal times. But some members took a partisan tone. Hall, a longtime Democrat who became a Republican in 2004, criticized the Obama administration for focusing "much of its R&D spending—particularly in areas such as energy—on late-stage technology development and commercialization activities with poor track records. Basic research should be restored as the top Federal R&D investment priority."

Several Democrats, meanwhile, charged that a budget plan championed by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (R-WI) and passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year would lead to cuts in federal spending on science. "Sadly, Republicans in the House passed the Ryan budget, which will slash about $800 billion in investment in education and skills training, science and technology research and development, and transportation infrastructure between 2013 and 2022," Pelosi wrote.

Partisan differences also emerged in answers to questions about energy and climate change policy. Echoing other Democrats, Rockefeller wrote that "[t]here is clear and compelling scientific evidence that anthropogenic climate change is occurring." But Hall wrote that "[t]he only thing that is clear is that there continues to be great debate and uncertainty … regarding the extent of natural climate variability versus human impacts." Hall is also "disturbed that we have spent over thirty billion dollars studying climate change and have little to show for it."

Some members bemoaned the state of scientific knowledge among lawmakers and the public at large. "When policymakers reject the science, the result is bad policy," wrote Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA). "Unfortunately, science-denial seems to be the norm on Capitol Hill these days."

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) wrote that he is "distressed with the ignorance or even denial of critical scientific findings in some instances of policy formulation. The most important answer is better science and technology education at all levels, especially in our schools and through our media." But Rockefeller worried that "we Americans are spending too much time watching sports and entertainment -- and too little time on educational achievement. … American students are finding themselves ill prepared to excel in college; 20 percent of high school students entering college have to take at least one remedial class to prepare for university-level coursework."

While many members would increase federal support for efforts to improve science education, Hall disagrees with that approach. "Unfortunately, the Federal Government has invested more than $16 billion on STEM education over the last five years alone, with very little to show for it," he wrote. "Throwing more and more money at the problem is not going to fix it." He says that state and local governments need to take the lead and, with the private and nonprofit sectors, work "together to capture and hold the attention of our nation's youth in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education so they will want to pursue these careers, not be forced into them simply because we need them."

Pelosi took issue with how ScienceDebate framed an education question that said U.S. students had "fallen behind" their peers in other nations on science tests. "Actually, rather than 'falling behind,' what has happened over the last 20 years is that the performance of U.S. students in math and science has stayed the same (rather than improved) while the performance of students in many other nations has grown exponentially, outdistancing our students," Pelosi wrote. "Unfortunately, the United States has only recently begun focusing our national attention and our national resources on the importance of our students excelling in math and science education."

*Correction 4:57 p.m., 24 October: Nine Congress members responded to the questions and 18 have not responded, not 10 and 17, respectively, as previously reported.