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Representative John Culberson (R–TX, left) listens to a U.S. Navy officer during a tour of a California base in 2011.

U.S. Navy/Erika N. Manzano

Senior Republican lawmaker has some advice for U.S. science marchers

The chairman of a congressional spending panel that oversees a wide swath of U.S. science agencies has some unusual advice for scientists planning to march on 22 April: Don’t talk about research. Instead, demand that Congress find a way to cut mandatory spending programs.

Representative John Culberson (R–TX), is chairman of the commerce, science, and justice (CJS) appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Its $56 billion portfolio includes NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Census Bureau.

First elected in 2000, Culberson is a self-proclaimed fan of science and a tireless promoter of space exploration, notably a robotic mission to find life on a moon of Jupiter. But he is also a fiscal and social conservative. He believes the only way that the federal government will be able to provide adequate funding for research is by controlling how much it spends on so-called entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and interest on the country’s $20 trillion national debt. Currently, those so-called mandatory programs account for roughly 70% of all annual federal spending. The rest, called discretionary spending, covers everything else, including research, defense, transportation, housing, law enforcement, education, and environmental protection.

Yesterday, Culberson’s CJS panel held a hearing on members’ spending wishes for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year. After the hearing, ScienceInsider asked him about the marches planned for Washington, D.C., and dozens of other cities around the country and in other countries, and he said he hadn’t heard about them. He’s not alone. Several legislators who serve on key science committees have said the same thing to ScienceInsider in the month since the idea was hatched.

After being told that the marchers want to highlight the importance of research and the use of scientific evidence to make policy, Culberson immediately embraced the concept. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “It’s essential that scientists and engineers organize and speak up and be heard. One of the fundamental problems that the scientific community has had over the years is a reluctance to get engaged in political campaigns and the legislative process.”

That idea has become increasing popular among scientists, spawning groups that promise to teach them how to run for elected office. But then Culberson went down a new path, offering advice that most of them probably haven’t heard.

“If they want to protect research and space exploration,” Culberson said, “they have to insist that members of Congress reverse the looming bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. Those mandatory programs are devouring a larger share of annual federal revenue. If we don’t address this financial crisis, there won’t be any money for science.”