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Representative John Culberson (R-TX) huddles earlier this year with Charles Elachi (left) and Sam Thurman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, during the attempted launch of a satellite that measures soil moisture.

Representative John Culberson (R-TX) huddles earlier this year with Charles Elachi (left) and Sam Thurman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, during the attempted launch of a satellite that measures soil moisture.


Q&A: John Culberson’s unique vision for science

Representative John Culberson (R–TX) is ready to “do whatever it takes” to keep the United States ahead of the rest of the world in science. But is the U.S. scientific community on board with that?

Culberson is still fine-tuning that strategy as he completes his first year as chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Justice (CSJ) appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives, which sets the budgets of NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Commerce’s sizable investment in research. However, one thing is already clear: His scientific priorities so far have left many scientists scratching their heads, if not shaking their fists.

ScienceInsider spoke with the 59-year-old lawyer/legislator only a few hours after Congress had passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the entire government for the last 9 months of the 2016 fiscal year. Culberson was glowing with pride about a $175 million Christmas present to NASA that will accelerate planning a mission to bore into the jovian moon Europa, whose underground liquid ocean he believes stands the best chance of harboring life outside Earth. The fact that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said publicly that many planetary scientists think such a mission may be premature is simply an example of bureaucratic inertia, according to Culberson.

NSF watchers are still recovering from fending off what they regarded as a nearly fatal blow from Culberson to the agency’s autonomy and its grantsmaking process: a directive that some disciplines are more important than others, and that Congress knows best what research to fund. And demographers are still wary of what might happen to two mainstays of the U.S. statistical community—the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) and its parent, the decennial census itself. Culberson had proposed deep cuts because he and many other conservative Republicans regard some of their questions as an unwarranted and wasteful intrusion into the private lives of their constituents.

Culberson sees it differently, of course, and went to some length to explain his actions this year as subcommittee chairman. Here is a transcript of our 18 December conversation with him. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What were your priorities for the extra $4.3 billion that CSJ received from the October budget agreement?

A: My top priority was federal law enforcement, in particular, the [Federal Bureau of Investigation], to protect us against terrorism at home and cyberterror attacks. And my next priority was to make sure that NASA and NSF have all the resources they need to accomplish their vital missions.

Q: NASA ended up well above the request, but not NSF. Did you have to make tradeoffs?

A: Well, I pushed as hard as I could to get as much money as possible for [NSF]. And I think they are very pleased with the increase. I remain committed to do the very best possible to ensure that NSF is fully funded.

Q: Why did you eliminate the so-called 70% rule (giving that percentage of NSF’s research funds to four of its six research directorates)?

A: There was strong opposition from other parts of Congress to that language. … And with all legislation, you have to compromise. We made sure that the increase went to all of the directorates except for the behavioral sciences, which we held flat.

Q: What message are you sending to NSF and the community with that stipulation?

A: We want NSF’s mission to stay focused on the hard sciences and the cutting-edge research they are doing in the hard sciences.

Q: The social and behavioral community says their research and expertise is essential to solving some of the toughest problems facing society. You seem to disagree?

A: That’s not the case. They do important work. But as part of the final compromise they were held flat. But they were protected from any cuts.

Q: Why did you remove the reference to Section 106 of the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act (relating to NSF’s certification that all grants satisfy a list of criteria for meeting the national interest)?

A: I had strong opposition from other parts of the Congress. However, the final language does require that NSF continue the process that they have been following since 1 January, to certify that every grant they issue is in the national interest.

Q: Is there anything else NSF should be doing to increase transparency and accountability in its grantsmaking process?

A: Anything that can be done to improve transparency and accountability is always a good thing. But I’m a big believer in letting the scientists drive the work, and in keeping the competitive grant application process as free from political influence as possible.

Q: Is there any need to continue examining individual awards, as the House science committee has been doing for the past 18 months?

A: [Science committee] Chairman Lamar Smith [R–TX] is my colleague from Texas and a good friend, and I admire him immensely. They are doing good work on the science committee. Our job is to ensure that the agencies under our jurisdiction are funded in priority order and that they are able to carry out their missions.

Q: Turning to NASA, you boosted spending for the Europa clipper mission $35 million higher than the House’s earlier level, to almost six times the administration’s request of $30 million. What do you hope to achieve with that extra funding?

A: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL] is absolutely confident that they can achieve the goals of the decadal survey recommendation for this top priority mission with an orbiter and a lander. The goal here is to discover life on another world. That’s the reason the Europa mission has been the top priority of the past two decadal surveys.

The scientific community agrees that the place with the greatest chance of harboring life outside of Earth are the oceans of Europa. I have been briefed extensively on the planning and design of the mission. It’s obvious that the only way to confirm there’s life in the oceans of Europa is to land on the surface and sample the ice. And JPL and Goddard [Space Flight Center] can do that, based on their experience with the Mars landings.

The United States is uniquely qualified to accomplish a challenging landing like this. And the scientists and engineers at JPL are absolutely confident that they can carry it out successfully.

The [U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] decadal surveys recommended this mission because it’s the project most likely to be the first to identify life from another world. And when the engineers and scientists walked me through it, it’s obvious that the only way to accomplish that goal is to land on the surface and test the ice.

So why do the mission unless you are going to land on the surface and confirm that there is life on another world? That will be a transformational moment in human civilization, much larger than Neil Armstrong’s stepping onto the moon. That is why I’m so passionate about the Europa mission.

Europa has had no advocate, until now. And I know in my heart that there is life on other worlds, and that we will most likely discover it in the oceans of Europa. And that moment will galvanize public opinion, transform our view of the universe, and the American taxpayers will be ready to take NASA up to the next level.

So if we are going to return NASA to the glory of the Apollo era, in the short term, and allow NASA to seek out new life, it’s going to require a transformational moment that will encourage people to support NASA at the necessary level, and that will be the discovery of life in another world, and that will occur in the oceans of Europa.

NASA has neglected Europa for too long. It has always funded and flown the flagship missions of the decadal surveys, until recently under the Obama and the Bush administrations, when they neglected the Europa mission.

 In this bill, I also created an Ocean Worlds Exploration Program. This first Europa mission will be part of a bigger and broader set of missions to explore the oceans of Encelades and the seas of Titan, and beyond. And we will need the heavy lift capability of the [Space Launch System] rocket for all of those missions.

Q: How much will the lander add to the cost of the Europa mission?

A: It’s already been budgeted for, and JPL and Ames can handle it comfortably within the scope of the funding levels we were able to achieve in this bill, with the help of Senator [Richard] Shelby [R–MI, chair of the Senate appropriations committee] and his colleagues.

Q: Earth sciences at NASA will get $230 million more in 2016 than the House level. Will that money be well spent, in your opinion?

A: Yes. I have complete faith in the scientists and engineers at NASA. I know that the work they do is important.

When it comes to the condition of the Earth’s atmosphere, whether it’s paleoclimate or current climate or future climate, just give us the facts. And then it’s our responsibility as policymakers to make decisions based on actual data and the facts.

Q: So you see the earth sciences as an important mission for NASA? Some of your colleagues disagree.

A: There is a wide variety of important missions that NASA flies that are designed to examine the paleoclimate and current climate and give us some idea of what lies ahead. And I think it’s an important part of NASA’s mission to not only look outward but also to keep track of gravity anomalies and to monitor a whole variety of conditions on the Earth.

Q: Turning to the Census Bureau, the bill brings its budget for the ACS and the decennial census close to the president’s request. Do you think this money will be well spent, or do you continue to have concerns about how those programs are managed and their impact on Americans?

A: I’ll be monitoring the [ACS] work very closely. I do not want to see them harassing American citizens or invading their privacy. I continue to believe that the ACS should not compel people to reveal details about their personal lives. An American’s most fundamental right is the right to be left alone and not have the government invade their privacy.

I made sure that the Department of Commerce has enough money to perform its constitutional duty to do a 2020 Census. But we want to make sure that the money is spent wisely and that they don’t have another [computer] disaster like they did for 2010.

Q: The census director has said that the additional money is needed to meet congressional goals of reducing costs and easing the burden on respondents. Does this give them a better chance of success?

A: Yes. We’ve given them the support they need to complete their mission. And I’m going to be providing careful oversight to make sure they do.

Q: Is 2016 a high-water mark for science because of the additional funds available in the 2-year budget agreement? And are you worried that 2017 will be flat and you won’t be able to continue these new initiatives or even preserve current levels of activity?

A: I’m a zealous advocate for scientific research and space exploration, have been my whole life. And I will continue to be a passionate and aggressive advocate for NASA and [NSF] to ensure that America’s position as the world leader in research and space exploration is unchallenged. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that America stays number one in the world, protecting the high ground in space and our leadership in cutting-edge scientific research.

*Correction: 28 December, 10:40 a.m.: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, not Ames Research Center, is partnering with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the proposed Europa mission.