Representative John Culberson (left) and Bill Nye pose with Earth and Europa.

Representative John Culberson (left) and Bill Nye pose with Earth and Europa.

Courtesy of the office of Representative John Culberson

The money chase, 2016: New head of key House science spending panel likes limited government, unlimited exploration

Next week, the Obama administration will kick off the annual U.S. budget process by sending Congress its spending request for the 2016 fiscal year that begins in October. Researchers will be watching the 2 February budget rollout carefully to see where science ranks in the White House’s priorities. But the request is just the beginning, because Congress determines final spending levels in a process that isn’t likely to be finalized until late in the year.

This week, ScienceInsider is running a few stories that offer varying perspectives on the process of setting science budgets—and the people involved. On Friday, we’ll follow the money and look at some of the numbers. Tomorrow, we’ll meet Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), a Ph.D. historian who is the new head of a House of Representatives spending panel that oversees the budget of the National Institutes of Health, the major government funder of basic biomedical research. Today, we meet another House appropriations “cardinal,” a lawyer and science enthusiast who is overseeing NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other key research agencies.   

Space exploration is not in the U.S. Constitution. But “promoting the progress of science” is. That makes it easy for Representative John Culberson (R–TX) to reconcile his allegiance to the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—which states that all powers not vested in the federal government are reserved for the states—with his passionate support for multibillion-dollar scientific missions to distant objects, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.

As the new chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS), and Related Agencies spending panel in the U.S. House of Representatives, what Culberson thinks matters a great deal to the U.S. scientific community. That’s because CJS oversees a good chunk of nondefense, nonmedical federal research; its jurisdiction includes NASA, the NSF, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology within the Commerce Department.

Last week, Culberson, 58, sat down with ScienceInsider in his Capitol Hill office to discuss his love affair with science, his commitment to small government, and the relationship between the legislative and executive branches. A lawyer and former Texas state representative, the seven-term congressman represents a staunchly conservative district in west Houston, where he grew up.

The search for life

Culberson and Europa go back a long time. He’s been captivated by the jovian moon ever since he viewed it through his classic Celestron 8 telescope, a high school graduation present to himself. As an undergraduate, he was wowed when NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft sent back pictures of its vast frozen oceans during a 1979 flyby.

“You could see the cracks—it looked like the Arctic ice cap on Earth,” he gushes.

A quarter-century later, a few years after he was elected to Congress in 2000, he visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, just as the lab’s Opportunity rover landed on Mars. But for Culberson, the highlight of his January 2004 trip was a briefing on a proposed Europa mission by the project scientist for Galileo, which had orbited Jupiter in the 1990s and bolstered the theory that there is a liquid ocean under Europa’s thick ice shell.

“That’s when it all gelled for me,” Culberson recalls. “All the light bulbs went off in my head, and it made spectacular good sense.”

As a new member on the appropriations panel he now chairs, Culberson went back to Washington and proposed that NASA begin planning that next mission, called Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO). The money was allocated, but the next year the agency canceled JIMO, pleading poverty.

Culberson cares deeply about Europa because he believes it could be harboring extraterrestrial life. “I think it’s inevitable that one day, and I hope it’s in our lifetime, we will discover life in another world,” he says. “And the place mostly likely to find it is in the Europan oceans. It keeps me up at night just thinking about it, it’s so thrilling.”

But “Europa needs an advocate,” he says. And it now has a well-placed one, with Culberson taking over CJS from the retired Representative Frank Wolf (R–VA). Culberson gave up leading a panel that funds veterans affairs and military construction to take what he calls “his dream job,” and for work he describes as “pure joy.”

“Europa is the only mission that it’s illegal for NASA not to fly,” he says, pointing proudly to language he and Wolf crafted as part of the agency’s 2015 budget, which allocates “not less than $100 million” for planning the mission and developing related technologies. The agency’s current plan is a so-called clipper mission that would make 45 passes of the moon while orbiting Jupiter, and then drop a probe that would penetrate Europa’s surface and explore its frozen underworld. The goal is to launch it sometime in the next decade, ideally on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket.

The Europa mission has other allies, including Representative Adam Schiff (D–CA), whose district includes JPL, and the nonprofit Planetary Society, now led by science education celebrity Bill Nye. Last summer, at a Capitol Hill pep rally for Europa sponsored by the society, Culberson thanked the group for “lighting a fire under the American people.”

Europa “is one of the most exciting and meaningful things I’ve ever worked on,” he said. He also described to an audience of space buffs how much he thinks is at stake. “That moment when we realize that we are not alone will be a transformational moment, just like when Columbus reached the shores of North America.”

Nye is thrilled to have Culberson as any ally. “He quotes the Bible and he believes that a higher power has put life on other worlds,” he says. “He wants to find it on his watch. And he’s in a position to convince other people in Congress.”

Subcommittee chairs are in a good position to make things happen, Wolf agrees. “That’s the reason to be the chairman, isn’t it?” Wolf tells ScienceInsider. “Wherever he wants to take the subcommittee, that’s where it will go.”

Limited government

Culberson says that he’s been interested in science “for as long as I can remember.” He recalls a family vacation to Meteor crater in northern Arizona spent trolling for iron filings with a magnet on a string. As a child he subscribed to several popular science and astronomy magazines, following their recipes to build cloud chambers and a carbon dioxide laser for school science fairs. Spending summers during college as a mud logger on an oil rig—preparing a log that characterized the rock formation based on mud samples coming to the surface—gave him a chance “to be sort of a well-site geologist.”

Culberson can’t recall a particular teacher that influenced his scientific studies. “I was pretty much self-directed,” he says. And the only science he took at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where he graduated in 1981 with a history degree, was an introductory astronomy course “that was so basic it was kinda boring.”

He chose law instead, following the advice of his grandfather, a probate lawyer. “He said it was a way to help folks, and to make a dramatic difference in people’s lives.”

Culberson says he grew up in a family that was “fiscally conservative, devoted to the Constitution, and believed the American republic is a special inheritance.” His father was a graphic designer who, he says, worked only for candidates who shared that philosophy.

Founding father Thomas Jefferson is his “guiding light,” Culberson says. After spending “a lot of time studying” what Jefferson said about the purpose of government,” Culberson reached this conclusion: “Government is a necessary evil, and its sole purpose is to protect our liberty. It should give us the freedom and ability to do what God meant us to do, and stay away from my wallet, my gun case, my home, my kids, my church. Just leave me alone.”

Still, he believes that keeping the government out of one’s life requires constant vigilance. While still in law school, he jumped into a race for an open seat in the Texas legislature. “I’ve never been a good spectator,” he explains.

During his campaign, he turned his youth and relative inexperience into an asset by saying his candidacy demonstrated his eagerness to fulfill his civic obligation. Despite a small campaign chest and a crowded field, Culberson won the seat in 1986 and held it for 14 years before launching a successful bid in 2000 to succeed retiring Representative Bill Archer in Congress.

“Elections are fundamentally about trust and whether people like you,” he says. “So I knocked on a lot of doors and built a network.”

In 2003, then–Majority Leader Tom DeLay, another influential Texan Republican, offered him a seat on the powerful House appropriations committee. Culberson says he got the post after telling DeLay: “I’m going to say no to everything except science and national defense.”

The story is clearly meant to burnish his credentials as a fiscal conservative. But it also reflects how, in the course of rising through the political ranks, Culberson has never lost his interest in, and enthusiasm for, science.

A scientific hierarchy

Culberson sees science as a way to explore what he calls “the great mysteries of the universe.” Those mysteries include the “96% of the universe we cannot see”—a combination of dark energy and dark matter—as well as “the fundamental building blocks of matter, like the Higgs boson that they just discovered at CERN.” He would also include new medical technologies that aim to improve human health and cure dreaded diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.

But Culberson’s enthusiasm doesn’t seem to extend to the social and behavioral sciences. Those areas, not coincidentally, are hot-button issues with many conservatives. Culberson says he stands squarely with Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), a fellow Texan and chair of the House science committee, in his campaign to crack down on what they see as wasteful spending by NSF and NASA on low-priority research areas.

Most scientists have accused Smith of waging a war against science. But Culberson says it’s actually a prudent course for NSF to follow.

“I think NSF should focus more on the pure sciences, on the fundamentals, and be careful to avoid funding research projects that would damage its sterling reputation in the eyes of the public,” Culberson says. “I’d encourage them to avoid funding studies like shrimps on a treadmill—I hope we never see anything like that again—or alcoholism among prostitutes in Thailand.” (Culberson is referring to two federal grants that have become notorious in conservative circles.)

“If the private sector is interested in funding obscure or obtuse social science question, then let them,” he adds. “But NSF needs to be keenly aware of how these grants would look on the front page of the local newspaper. They are just not a productive use of our tax dollars.”

Research on global climate falls into the same category, he argues. “I think human activity has contributed in some way [to climate change]. But there have been dramatic changes in our climate over the planet’s history. We’ve been frozen solid, and we’ve been far, far hotter. I read all the time about scientific evidence of dramatically higher temperatures that are completely unrelated to human activity. There’s also a tremendous amount of data out there that is still in conflict, so I think it’s essential that we follow the facts and the science.”

Culberson says those facts also dovetail with his views of the 10th Amendment—and expose what he sees as the real reasons behind the administration’s climate change policies. “The whole thrust of President Obama’s program, and the liberal obsession with climate change, is driven by their desire to raise more money for the government,” he says. “The carbon taxes in Europe, the administration’s efforts to impose costs on industry and the public to mitigate climate change, that’s all about collecting money.”

There’s an old adage that politicians are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts. And following the facts is exactly what most scientists say they are doing when they submit grant proposals to NSF and other agencies on politically sensitive subjects. Those grants are then reviewed and scored by experts as part of the agency’s highly regarded merit review process, which culminates in a final thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision by NSF officials.

Culberson’s stance leaves him open to the charge that he is substituting his judgment for that of scientific experts. That’s especially problematic for a lawmaker who emphasizes that his support for the Europa mission is driven not by his own fascination with its frozen oceans but by his desire to reinforce the consensus of the scientific community.

The consensus Culberson is referring to is a 2011 decadal study for planetary science, written by a panel convened by the U.S. National Academies. He regards such decadal studies, which identify high-priority research areas and often help set agency spending priorities, as “the gold standard” for setting NASA’s direction. And he vows that the CJS bills his panel produces will continue to require NASA “to fund and fly” the survey’s priority missions. (At the top of the report’s list was a trip to collect, and eventually return, samples from Mars, part of a multistep approach to exploring the Red Planet that NASA is pursuing.)

“I didn’t decide to put that $100 million into NASA’s budget this year for the Europa mission,” he tells ScienceInsider. “The decadal study decided it. And I put in the technology money so that NASA could develop the penetrator that we’ll need to get below the ice and down into its ocean.”

Culberson is also a big supporter of NSF’s activities to improve science and math education. He sees the work as a key element in creating a tech-savvy workforce and a scientifically literate population.

Some might see that view as being in conflict with the 10th Amendment, which is generally seen as giving states complete control over education. But not Culberson, who emphasized the difference during a conversation that began with his criticism of NASA for straying from what he sees as its main purpose.

“OMB [The White House Office of Management and Budget] has been driving NASA for far too long … and diverting it into all these activities that are not part of NASA’s core missions, including education,” he began. “Instead, NSF should take the lead in helping to design a model science curriculum. That’s not NASA’s job. And it ought not to be done at the Department of Education, either.”

“I’d prefer to see NSF help to design, or recommend—that’s the key word—an ideal science curriculum for our public schools and universities,” he continues. “And then states would be free to adopt it, of their own volition. But not mandate, never. In fact, I authored legislation that passed the House last year that would eliminate all federal education grants in 5 years, and eliminate all federal control over education and return it to the states.”

Nye, who is best known by his self-moniker, “the science guy,” says he’s “fascinated” by the interaction of Culberson’s faith-based political beliefs and his interest in scientific discovery. As CEO of the Planetary Society, Nye says, he sticks to the latter. “When we are in his office, we focus on Europa,” he says.

That strategy has worked well for the society: Culberson has championed its goal of boosting NASA’s spending on planetary sciences to $1.5 billion a year and takes credit for lifting up its budget to within $65 million of that amount. But NASA’s overall science budget tops $5 billion, including almost $1.8 billion for the earth sciences. And in an era of fiscal constraints, climate scientists and those in the social and behavioral sciences are hoping that Culberson will make room on his science bandwagon for their disciplines, too.

Click here to see all of our Budget 2016 coverage.

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