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 14th term in Congress, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), 64, represents the 21st congressional district of Texas, north of San Antonio. Although Smith, a founding member of the House's Tea Party Caucus, is known for his arch-conservative views on immigration and criminal justice issues, he's also earned a reputation as a skilled legislator who is able to work with Democrats. In 2011, as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, he helped build bipartisan support for a landmark patent reform bill. Although the high-tech community backed those reforms, parts of that community have pilloried Smith for sponsoring legislation that critics say would give the government too much access to people's private activities on the Internet.
Smith has served on the science panel for 26 years, but doesn't hide his lack of technical training. "In high school, I had won the Bausch & Lomb science award, and I aspired to be a physics major in college," he told a Washington, D.C., audience earlier this year. "Then, as a freshman [at Yale University], I took a physics class taught by the chairman of the department. … Looking to either side of me, I soon realized that I was sitting next to the future Einsteins of the world, and I wasn't one of them." (Smith's physics class was taught by D. Allan Bromley, who 2 decades later became science adviser to President George H. W. Bush.)
Smith has shown interest in space and energy issues, not surprising for a lawmaker from a state with substantial NASA facilities and oil and gas interests. He's also added his voice to those who are skeptical of government action to address climate change, and played a high-profile role in debates over how to allow foreign-born scientists who earn advanced technical degrees at U.S. universities to stay and work in the United States .
Smith declined an interview request from ScienceInsider this week. But his office did submit a written statement:
Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to share my vision for the Science Committee with my colleagues in the House of Representatives who will select the next Chairman. I am pleased with the enthusiasm and support that I've received.
American innovation is the engine of our economy. As Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I worked across party lines to enact policies like patent reform that spur innovation and support new technologies. If given the opportunity to chair the Science Committee, I will promote legislation that encourages scientific discoveries, space exploration, and the application of new technologies to expand our economy and create jobs for American workers.
I plan to present my agenda for the Science Committee to the Steering Committee later this month. If I have the honor of serving as Chairman, there will be plenty of time then to discuss the initiatives and legislation the Committee will undertake.
Last month, he also released a statement that touched on some of his potential priorities if elected chairman of the science committee:
When I was first elected to Congress, the Science Committee was my first choice. Long ago and far away, I won the Bausch & Lomb Science Award in high school, studied astronomy and physics in college, and later earned my pilot's license. So I have had a longstanding interest in subjects overseen by the Science Committee.
It is important that NASA have a unifying mission. Even though it has been almost 40 years since man last set foot on the moon, we should continue to shoot for the stars. And we can help future generations get there by encouraging kids to study in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). If America is going to remain competitive in today's global economy, we need to remain innovative and focused on exploring science and expanding new technologies. Through the work, research and development of American innovators, we can reach our goal of energy independence, develop new technologies to save lives, and discover new worlds in outer space.