Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) in 2014

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Lamar Smith, the departing head of the House science panel, will leave a controversial and complicated legacy

When Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) announced last week that he would not run for re-election in 2018, after 32 years in Congress, many scientists reacted with glee.

Smith’s current 5-year tenure as chairman of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, they say, has been a relentless attack on the integrity of the scientific enterprise, with a special focus on undermining peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF), blocking the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate industrial excesses, and curbing research on climate change. Smith’s use of subpoenas—he is the first science panel chairman to gain the power to issue those legally enforceable orders to produce documents or testify—has led to bitterness among researchers who argue he abused his power to attack individual scientists and attempt to smear their reputations. And some science lobbyists say the committee has become a cesspool of bitter partisanship; they fondly recall a time when panel Republicans and Democrats joined hands on important legislation designed to strengthen federal support for research and innovation that was backed by the academic community.

But before Smith became chairman of the science committee in late 2012, he spent 2 years as the head of the judiciary committee. And longtime observers of Congress note that he built precisely that kind of bipartisan coalition to win passage of landmark legislation reforming the U.S. patent system. The 2011 America Invents Act, which adopted the same first-to-file rule that governs patents in the rest of the world, required him to work in tandem with a Democratic administration and Senate—after winning over an academic community that was initially skeptical of the dramatic policy shift and wary of how it would affect small inventors.

“Lamar Smith really stepped up to the diplomacy that it took to bring Republicans and Democrats together,” recalls David Kappos, a partner at the law firm Cravath, Swaine, and Moore in New York City who served as director of the Patent and Trademark Office in the Obama administration. “I would say [Smith] has a philosophy in favor of scientific development and the commercialization of those scientific advances.”

The patent law is arguably Smith’s crowning legislative achievement. His short retirement statement notes with pride that he was named “one of the most effective members of Congress and Legislator of the Year,” honors that the Washington, D.C., media bestowed on him and Senator Patrick Leahy (D–VT) after they finished work on a bill that had languished for nearly a decade.

So which one—the uniter or the divider—is the real Lamar Smith?

Deep Texas roots

Smith, who will turn 70 on 19 November, grew up in a prominent San Antonio, Texas, family. His mother's family owned a large south Texas ranch—which Smith reported still owning, in part, on his most recent financial disclosure report.

Smith followed in a family tradition of religious faith, politics, and the law. He grew up steeped in the Christian Science church, which adheres to a teaching that medical ailments can be treated by prayer and faith. His current wife (his first wife died in 1991) has held a leading post at the Christian Science church's headquarters in Boston. “It’s pretty fundamental to his life,” says Jeff Wentworth, a former Republican state lawmaker from San Antonio and member of the church who has known Smith since childhood.

He is not one of those guys who would call you up and yell at you and make threats.

David Kappos

At a time when Democrats were just starting to lose control of Texas politics, Smith became a leader in San Antonio's Republican Party. After graduating in 1969 from Yale University, he did a short stint as a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, which is headquartered in Boston, before returning to Texas to attend law school at Southern Methodist University. After graduating, he began rising through the ranks of the Republican Party. He served as county party chairman, was elected state lawmaker, and then became county commissioner before winning a fierce six-way primary election in 1986 to succeed retiring Republican Representative Tom Loeffler and then trouncing his Democratic opponent.

Since that first campaign, Smith has held onto the seat in the solidly Republican district without breaking a sweat. He never became a creature of Washington, however, and friends say they do not expect him to set up shop as a lobbyist after he leaves Congress. At the same time, Smith hasn’t had a big public presence in the local political scene, either.

“I haven’t seen him in public in ages. He doesn’t have town hall meetings. You just don’t see him,” says Henry Flores, who lives in Smith’s district in San Antonio and is a political scientist at St. Mary’s University there. Instead, Smith has sought input from his district using automated phone calls, then holding "virtual" town halls in which he answers some of the questions put to him over the phone.

Smith has adapted a similar arms-length relationship with the media. He grants relatively few interviews (and has declined dozens of requests from ScienceInsider over the years to discuss the work of the science committee). That cone of silence extends to the committee’s hearings and business meetings in the Rayburn building on Capitol Hill: There’s a sign banning anyone from approaching legislators sitting on the raised dais in the front of the hearing room. At the same time, Smith writes op-eds on issues of the day that appear frequently in the trade press and local papers.

Smith is unfailingly polite in public, and is routinely described as “gentlemanly.” Kappos, a Democrat who considers Smith a friend, says: “He is not one of those guys who would call you up and yell at you and make threats.”

He’s also not one to toot his own horn. “He met with our leadership soon after becoming [science committee] chairman in 2013,” recalls John Vaughan, a senior fellow at the Association of American Universities, a Washington, D.C.–based coalition of major research universities, who tracks intellectual property issues. “And a short time later, at a social event, he came up to me and asked how he had done.” Vaughan recalls Smith telling him: “I was terrified … I had never been in such an august group of people.” 

Smith made similar remarks at a 2012 forum sponsored by AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider), in which he confessed that he dropped his plans to major in physics at Yale after attending a freshman physics lecture attended by “the future Einsteins of the world.” 

A battle royal

Smith was forced to relinquish his judiciary gavel because of party rules that limit committee leaders to 6-year terms. He immediately won the top position on the science committee, on which he had served since entering Congress. (He has said the science panel was among his top choices of assignments.)

Many research advocates and some Democrats on the panel were hopeful that the bipartisanship he had displayed on the patent legislation would carry over to research issues. “[M]any Washington-based lobbyists … privately said that they hoped Smith would win the job,” ScienceInsider reported at the time. “They see him as a pragmatic lawmaker who is most likely to revive the science committee, which has been perceived as relatively quiet under current chairman Representative Ralph Hall (R–TX).”

These bills are the culmination of one of the most anti-science and anti-health campaigns I’ve witnessed in my 22 years as a member of Congress.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX)

The insiders got part of their wish. Under Smith’s leadership, the science committee became anything but quiet. But there was little or no honeymoon period for the new chairman and the research community and panel Democrats. Instead, the committee almost immediately became a platform for a series of increasingly partisan and bitter quarrels over politics and policy. 

It began in April 2013, when the community got wind of draft legislation from the committee to reauthorize programs at NSF. Among other things, the bill called for the NSF director to personally certify every research project was “groundbreaking … not duplicative … and in the national interest.”

The language triggered an unprecedented, all-out war between Smith and NSF officials over the meaning of the seemingly innocuous phrase “national interest.” Smith insisted he was merely trying to ensure that NSF spent its money wisely. But NSF and research leaders said it was code for favoring applied research over basic research, and the natural sciences over the social sciences.

Smith’s staffers threw gasoline on the fire with explanations that exposed their unfamiliarity with how NSF vetted research proposals. The standoff escalated when Smith dispatched staffers to NSF’s headquarters to read dozens of individual grants in search of those that Smith and committee Republicans regarded as frivolous and wasteful.

Democrats on the committee roundly criticized their Republican colleagues for such moves, which they say are politicizing science. And Smith has done little to dispel fears that he is at the forefront of what some critics have dubbed a Republican “war on science” by tackling a number of other incendiary issues. Here are three notable examples:

  • In mid-2013, Smith used his subpoena power for the first time in a bid to force EPA officials to provide the committee with the raw data underlying the so-called Six Cities Study, a landmark 1993 study that established an association between air pollution and premature deaths in major metropolitan areas, as well as a second related study. EPA later drew on the studies in establishing new air pollution limits. Smith said the subpoena was designed to reveal flaws in the “secret science” that EPA used to justify its regulations. But his critics regarded the move as part of a longstanding effort by industry groups and anti-regulatory lawmakers to roll back the regulations. After a lengthy battle lasting years, the agency and Smith appear to have reached a standoff. Opponents of the subpoena say EPA has no authority to hand over the data, because it belonged to the scientists who had collected it. They also argue that it isn’t possible to share the raw data without violating privacy agreements made with study participants.

EPA has an extensive track record of twisting the science to justify their actions.

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)
  • In 2014, Smith and his allies successfully won House passage of two controversial bills calling for a dramatic revamp of how EPA uses scientific evidence and advisors. One bill called for altering how the agency selects members of its science advisory boards, while the other “secret science” bill would have required EPA to base regulations only on “reproducible” and “publicly available” data. Smith said such moves were needed because “EPA has an extensive track record of twisting the science to justify their actions,” and greater transparency and accountability were needed. But his critics charged the bills were thinly disguised attempts to make it much more difficult for EPA to issue new health and safety rules. “These bills are the culmination of one of the most anti-science and anti-health campaigns I’ve witnessed in my 22 years as a member of Congress,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top Democrat on the science committee. Although the House has since passed similar versions of both bills, neither has become law. But Smith won a major related victory recently when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt used his administrative power to remake the composition of the agency’s advisory boards.
  • In October 2015, Smith again used his subpoena power to demand that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hand over emails and other documents related to a 2015 Science paper in which NOAA scientists and others conclude there had been no “pause” in global warming in recent decades. Smith repeatedly suggested that the study, led by NOAA climate researcher Thomas Karl, was rushed into publication by President Barack Obama’s administration in order to bolster its climate policies. Smith’s move led to months of public dueling, charges, and countercharges. So far, however, the committee has publicly produced no evidence of wrongdoing.

Some room for compromise

Such aggressive, headline-grabbing moves aren’t atypical in Washington’s increasingly partisan and tribal political climate. And the top Democrat on the science committee’s research subcommittee, Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL), agrees that it has been nearly impossible for members of his party to find common ground with Smith on many sensitive issues because they have become political litmus tests. “He’s not going to change his mind on climate change and questions about adding to the budget deficit," Lipinski says. “So I knew that there was no sense in negotiating with him on those things. We just agree to disagree.”

He’s not going to change his mind on climate change and questions about adding to the budget deficit. So I knew that there was no sense in negotiating with him on those things. We just agree to disagree.

Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL)

But Lipinski thinks that Smith has been open to compromise on other issues that are also important to scientists. “I started on Day One by asking to meet with him,” Lipinski recalls. “I wanted to talk about what we could do to require the government to come up with a strategy for American manufacturing, a topic that I care a lot about.”

Lipinski’s bill ended up being attached to another piece of legislation backed by the White House to create a network of manufacturing research hubs. “I was surprised that [Smith] supported it because it was an Obama initiative,” Lipinski says. “But it passed the House and eventually got attached” to an annual spending bill.

Johnson declined to comment when asked to describe Smith’s legacy. But she hasn’t been shy over the years about criticizing his leadership and asserting that the committee’s actions have damaged the country’s scientific enterprise. This fall, for example, she excoriated Smith for his continued investigation into the Karl study.

“I hope that my Majority Science Committee colleagues will stop trying to politicize science, and not give comfort to those who are attempting to do so,” she said in an 18 September press release. “Instead, our Committee needs to focus on core scientific issues that our nation should be addressing, one of which is how we should be addressing the reality of climate change.”

Smith still has one more year at the helm of the committee. And the Democratic minority has been an ally in advocating for bipartisan bills covering several noncontroversial issues, notably increasing opportunities for women and minorities in science and improving computer science education. But there’s little reason to expect any thaw in their relationship on hot-button issues such as climate change and environmental policy. Indeed, Smith has promised to support the agenda of President Donald Trump and has boasted of being the first member of Congress to donate to Trump’s campaign. 

One way to bridge such deep divides would be an electorate that tells Washington policymakers it is tired of partisan wrangling, along with the emergence of new leadership on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Absent those seismic changes, however, it’s hard to see how Smith’s departure will significantly alter the national political landscape for science.

With reporting by David Malakoff.