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John Culberson

Representative John Culberson (R–TX)

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Q&A: Key legislator disses White House science office

The White House science office hasn’t been very productive under President Barack Obama, says the chairman of a key congressional research spending panel. And Representative John Culberson (R–TX) says he’d like to see it downsized.

Culberson, whose House of Representatives subcommittee oversees the budgets for NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has never been a fan of John Holdren, Obama’s science adviser. And his latest comments are likely to further heighten anxiety among scientific leaders about how the U.S. research enterprise will fare under President-elect Donald Trump.

The commerce, justice, and science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee that Culberson chairs also oversees the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP), which Congress created in 1976. The office has traditionally been led by the president’s science adviser, and Holdren also co-chairs the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an eminent group of outsiders.

But Culberson says that arrangement isn’t working well. “I’d be hard-pressed to identify any tangible, specific accomplishments or achievements by that office,” he told ScienceInsider yesterday in a phone interview from his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C.

His unhappiness with the current scientific bureaucracy reflects his overall governing philosophy, in which smaller is better. “The president needs a science adviser to keep him posted and give him guidance on all of those areas,” he says. “But I don’t know that [OSTP] needs to have a large staff or be a big operation. … In my mind there are already too many termite mounds in Washington[, D.C]. We need to shrink the size of government in any way we can.”

OSTP is a tiny stitch in the fabric of federal science. Its $5.5 million budget would be a rounding error for most federal agencies, and about half of its 120-person staff is on loan from elsewhere in the government. At the same time, the Obama administration has given it a prominent role in coordinating science and technology across all agencies. (Congress has done likewise in various pieces of legislation over the years.)

[I]n my mind there are already too many termite mounds in Washington[, D.C]. We need to shrink the size of government in any way we can.

Representative John Culberson (R-TX)

Last week the leaders of 29 scientific and academic organizations (including AAAS, which publishes Science), implored Trump to maintain its high profile, starting with the prompt selection of a successor to Holdren who can help fill other science jobs in his administration.

“We urge that you quickly appoint a science advisor with the title of Assistant to the President for Science and Technology,” they wrote in a letter to the president-elect. “This senior-level advisor can assist you in determining effective ways to use science and technology to address major national challenges. Moreover, this individual can coordinate relevant science and technology policy and personnel decisions within the executive branch of government.”

CJS is one of 12 panels in the House (there’s also a dozen in the Senate) that oversee federal spending. Since becoming CJS chairman in January 2015, Culberson has used his position as a “cardinal” to advocate for his scientific priorities, starting with a multi–billion-dollar NASA mission to a jovian moon that some scientists believe may harbor life.

He will be trying to protect those priorities—which include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and border security—as Congress spends the next 2 weeks cobbling together another short-term spending bill to keep the government open. The current agreement, called a continuing resolution (CR), runs out on 9 December. And although a CR is intended to hold agencies to their current budget, legislators have the authority to make exceptions.

Culberson discussed the CR and many other issues with ScienceInsider. Here is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Q: Does it matter when President-elect Trump chooses a science adviser?

A: It’s always helpful for a new administration to act early in choosing people for key positions. And the science adviser and NASA administrator are a very important part of preserving American leadership in scientific research and space exploration.

Q: Have you spoken with the transition team?

A: Yes, I’ve been in contact with them and made a number of suggestions. I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure the CJS bill is in good shape for the new administration.

Q: Do you know who is handling science and space issues during the transition?

A: I’ve been in touch with several people on the team, and [Vice President–elect] Mike Pence is a friend and I’ve spoken with him, too. I’m confident the new president will appoint the best person to head NASA and to be his science adviser.

Q: Would you like to see any changes to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy?

A: I’d be hard-pressed to identify any tangible, specific accomplishments or achievements of the office. It’s important that we make government as efficient as possible. I think the president obviously needs a science adviser. But there are other places where he can get good advice. [NSF] is the nation’s leader in scientific research, and NASA is responsible for preserving America’s leadership in space exploration. NOAA is responsible for making sure that weather forecasting and climate data is the best that it can be, and so on.

The president needs a science adviser to keep him posted on new developments and to give him guidance in all of those areas. But I don’t know that [OSTP] needs a large staff or a big operation.

Q: Is there a role for PCAST?

A: Well, that’s up to the new president. But in my mind there are already too many termite mounds in Washington. We need to shrink the size of government in any way we can. And we have too many advisory committees advising advisory committees, in my opinion.

Q: The 21st Century Cures Act (a medical research bill now before Congress) would create a Research Policy Board to try to reduce excessive regulations affecting academic research. It’s based on a report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Do you think that’s a good idea?

A: I’ve got a lot of faith in the National Academies, and I look to them for guidance on the work that I do in the CJS bill. My admiration for the academy is one reason that I put into the bill the requirement that NASA follow the recommendations of the decadal studies in all the areas they cover. They do great work, and I would always be inclined to follow their recommendations.

Q: Who would you like to see as NASA administrator, and what qualities and experience should they have?

A: I’ve got a superb candidate in mind. But I’m going to leave that up to the new president.

Q: Would you accept the job if asked?

A: I love representing the people of west Houston[, Texas], and I can’t think of a better job than helping the Department of Justice, [NSF], NASA, and the commerce department be the best they can be. This is a job I’ve always dreamed of doing, and it’s been everything I hoped for and more. I’ve been able to map out a strategy for NASA to follow the decadal surveys and ensure it is on track to discover life in the oceans of Europa and then launch the first interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri by 2069, through the work of my subcommittee.

Q: Have you talked to the Trump transition team about Europa?

A: Right now they are focused on filling the top positions within the administration. But I’ve had good conversations with them on the need to make sure that the U.S. space program is the best on earth and that it will be an American spacecraft that discovers life on another world and achieves interstellar travel and explores an Earth-like planet around a nearby star. There’s lots of support for that in the incoming Congress and in the new administration, and I’m looking forward to make those dreams come through.

Q: Some have suggested reviving the National Space Council. Would that be useful?

A: I’d have to see what the new administration proposes. But I think there are too many layers of government and advisory committees. A simplified and unified chain of command at NASA that is less political would help the agency immensely. And I will continue to try to make the NASA administrator more like the FBI director [in serving a 10-year term], so it can focus on its mission and worry less about changes in administration. The agency needs stability and certainty and adequate funding to accomplish everything on its plate.

Q: There’s been talk of moving earth sciences out of NASA.

A: At this point that is very speculative. There’s strong support in Congress for keeping a close eye on planet Earth and understanding our complex planet. And the future level of funding and who’s responsible for earth science will be an ongoing debate with the new administration and the incoming Congress. I’m quite confident there will continue to be strong support for the earth sciences as well as planetary sciences and the human space flight program throughout Congress and in the new administration.

Q: Would that be within NASA, or somewhere else in government?

A: It will continue to be a topic of ongoing discussion. But nobody in the earth sciences community should be concerned in the least. All of us in Congress are strong supporters of keeping a close eye on planet Earth.

Q: Would you like science and cyber facilities to be part of a bill to rebuild U.S. roads, ports, and other infrastructure?

A: I think it’s important that the United States maintains its leadership in particle physics, and I think it’s unfortunate that we have not. And we have also fallen behind in building the world’s biggest and faster supercomputers. We need to maintain American leadership in astronomy. I’d like to see NSF more deeply involved in the construction and design of the Giant Magellan Telescope, for example. And the radio telescope in [Arecibo,] Puerto Rico, and at Green Bank[, West Virginia,] are getting a little elderly. In order to preserve American leadership in critical areas of scientific discovery and technological achievement, we will need to make the necessary investments in scientific infrastructure. And that will require strong support for NSF and NASA.

Q: Would that be part of an NSF and NASA bill, or part of an infrastructure bill? And would it need to be paid for?

A: It’ll all be part of the debate we’ll be having in the months ahead. But I’m very concerned that America may be slipping in the areas I’ve just mentioned, and I’m going to work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Q: What’s the biggest downside for researchers if Congress extends the CR through March 2017 or later?

A: We want to make sure that any of the major construction projects, like the vitally important SLS [Space Launch System] rocket system and the Orion human flight program, have stable and predictable funding so that they are not interrupted. That’s the most important thing in defining a CR. And I’m quite confident that they will all be taken care of.

Q: And what’s the timing on that?

A: That’s being worked out now. We’ll know certainly by the end of next week.