Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.: 'We've Gotta Reemphasize Peer Review'

Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Today, ScienceInsider is taking a closer look at the three veteran politicians running to become chair of the House of Representative's Committee on Science, Space, and Technology: Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), and Lamar Smith (R-TX). The winner will be selected later this month by the House Republican Steering Committee, a group of about three dozen House Republicans.

Just elected to his 18th term in Congress, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., 69, represents the 5th congressional district in eastern Wisconsin. A conservative Republican, Sensenbrenner is perhaps best known to the public as a leader of the 1998 effort to impeach President Bill Clinton. He's also played high-profile roles in debates over national security and immigration as the chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

In 1997, after serving 16 years on the House science committee, Sensenbrenner became its chair. His 4-year tenure was marked by a businesslike approach to legislating, support for modest increases in science spending at a time when House Republicans were focused on budget-cutting, and dogged and often highly critical oversight of Clinton administration efforts to involve Russia in building the International Space Station. He could also be a stickler for protocol: In 2000, he reduced a senior National Science Foundation official to tears after barring her from a hearing because the agency missed a deadline for submitting her testimony. More recently, his service on the science committee was interrupted by 4 years as the senior Republican on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, where he was a reliably skeptical voice on climate science.

Last week, Sensenbrenner spoke with ScienceInsider about his effort to return as head of the House science panel. Here is an edited version of his remarks.

Q: These leadership races are a bit of a black box for outsiders. Do you consider yourself an underdog or the frontrunner?

J.S.: It really is very hard to say. I'm conducting a vigorous campaign, talking about what I want to do as chairman. I want to make the committee an extremely active player in science policy, particularly in terms of how to stretch the science research dollars at a time of obvious austerity, and reauthorize both NASA and the Commercial Space Act so that the two are coordinated. I don't think that either NASA or the private sector will have enough money to restore America's preeminence in space if they do it separately. But if they do it together, I think they've got a shot at it.

Q: Politics is often about distinguishing yourself from your competitors. How would you distinguish yourself from representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)?

J.S.: Well, I would distinguish myself in two ways. One is to look backwards. When I was chairman [of the science committee] there were 23 science bills that were signed into law. And we did vigorous oversight, particularly into NASA and the Clinton-Gore administration's relationship with Russia on the space station.

Looking back at it, [that program] meant that the money that could have been used to develop the shuttle replacement and do some other research ended up going to the Russians to finish the space station, then they broke the agreement and didn't pay for what they agreed on. And when I was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee there were 115 judiciary bills that I managed on the floor that became law.

So, you know, I've worked within the committee to get as much agreement on both sides as I possibly can, and then I am able to work with the Senate to try to get bills passed and landing on the president's desk. When I was the science chair, Clinton was president; so I can work with a White House of the other party. When I was judiciary chair, the Democrats controlled the Senate for a period of time and I was able to work with [them] on some pretty important and controversial stuff. You know I am not afraid to get involved in controversial issues. I think I can push the science agenda forward.

Q: On the reauthorization front, are there other particular programs, such as the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), that would be a priority for you?

J.S.: I did not support [ARPA-E] when it was originally passed because it was not fine-tuned. Now I think it might need a bit more of competitiveness advantage, … have a little more competition. But I am very insistent on getting reauthorizations enacted into law for two reasons.

One is that if we don't do it, we basically turn over to the appropriators how the money is spent. The appropriators are very busy people; they do a lot of the really important work in Congress. But I think on authorization issues, science in particular, the people who are on the science committee have an awful lot more expertise.

The other thing is that with an authorization in place, an authorizing committee will be able to do a lot more effective oversight. I learned that by getting all of the authorization bills passed when I was the chairman of the science committee and the judiciary committee. I passed the first Department of Justice reauthorization in 23 years. And it really gave [senior committee Democrats] and me a pretty effective way of doing oversight.

Q: Are there particular areas where you would focus oversight?

J.S.: Yes. Oversight becomes much, much more important when we are going to be living in a period of austerity. I hope that we will be able to replace the sequestration with something else. But whether that happens or not is going to be decided by people whose pay grade is far above mine.

My method of oversight has always been to start out with a letter [to the agency officials involved], and then if there is no response is to start kicking up [a fuss]. And during 10 years as a committee chair, I was able to get what was needed by doing it by letter, having the staff negotiate things out. I am not the type of person that believes that you change problems and agencies by having one hearing with a 40-second sound bite of somebody taking off the agency's head.

Q: If you were elected chair, how would you use the position to stretch science budgets?

J.S.: Well, first of all we've gotta reemphasize peer review. There's been a lot of wasted money as we've gone away from peer review. … [I]f you don't do peer review, you either have political earmarks or you have bureaucratic earmarks. And while peer review has got its problems, as any system would, I think it is far better than any of the alternatives that have been placed on the table.

The other thing we've got to do is deal with the education issues. When I see surveys that have American students ranked 25th in the world in science and Chinese students ranked first, that's really scary. I don't know what it will take to wake up everybody to the fact that our standard of living is based on productivity, which is based on math and science and students graduating and inventing and building state of the art things that have never been seen before. Sputnik woke us up out of our sleep back in the 1950s and we may need to have another wake up call to be able to play catch up. If we turn people loose, we will be able to play catch-up.

Q: The science committee has been called a backwater. How would you change that and attract members?

J.S.: I'm going to be able to tell leadership that I'm going to make that committee interesting if I'm the chairman. I'm going to want people to be on the committee. And my reputation as a committee chair is that I gave an awful lot of things for freshman and sophomore committee members to do, so that they could go back to their districts and say that they had accomplishments, both in terms of their standing in their districts but also in impacting national policy. I'm going to give them a job to do and make it interesting and fun for them. Give them something that they probably would never get with committees that have the reputation as being first-tier assignments.

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