Kim Schrier, a pediatrician, played up her technical training in a winning congressional campaign.

AP PHOTO/Elaine Thompson

With Democrats in control of U.S. House, science panel gets fresh start

The results of last week’s divisive midterm elections, with Democrats reclaiming control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Republicans likely strengthening their hold on the Senate, have allowed both parties to claim victory. U.S. scientists are also experiencing mixed emotions.

Many are pleased with what they expect to be a more data-driven approach to science policy under the new Democratic chair of the House science committee. But they also face the sobering reality that, by Science’s count, only seven of the 49 House candidates with technical backgrounds were victorious. And environmental activists are chagrined by the defeat of a proposed tax on carbon emissions in Washington and an Arizona initiative to increase that state’s reliance on renewable energy, although Nevada voters took a first step toward adopting a similar policy.

In the House, Democrats picked up nearly 40 seats. That outcome gives them control of the 435-seat body for the first time since 2010, meaning they will appoint committee chairs and decide which bills get a vote.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) is in line to replace the retiring Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) as chair of the science committee. The two Texans represent a stark contrast. Trained as a psychiatric nurse, Johnson has promised to “restore the credibility” of a committee that for 6 years has challenged the findings of climate scientists and questioned the need for many environmental regulations.

“We were not really following our charter [under Smith],” says Johnson, who joined the panel as a new legislator in 1993 and for the past 8 years has been its top Democrat. Instead, she says, “We were trying to uncover any information that would undercut scientific findings and avoid facing what the scientific data were showing us.”

Smith, a lawyer who came to Congress in 1989, regularly convened hearings designed to highlight the views of those opposed to federal action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. He also used his unilateral power to issue investigative subpoenas—an authority traditionally given to just a few committee heads—to attack climate science he found suspect. Johnson hopes to shift the debate from “ignoring what’s happening” to discussing “what we should be doing to save our planet and the lives and money it takes to clean up after weather-related disasters.”

That move and other changes in tone could help repair a breach between the panel and the scientific community. “Stakeholders have told me they stopped asking for meetings [with the Republican majority] because they didn’t see the point,” says one Democratic staffer. “That’s going to change, because we will be listening.”

All seven winners with technical backgrounds are Democrats, and six were first-time candidates. Two toppled Republican incumbents; the rest won open seats. Four are women—a pediatrician, a nurse, an industrial engineer, and a retired U.S. Navy commander—helping boost overall female representation in the House to nearly 25%.

Newly elected lawmakers rarely get appointed to the appropriations committee and other panels with influence over key sectors of the economy, such as tax and fiscal policy. Accordingly, they are often overrepresented on the science committee. But none of the soon-to-be House members with technical backgrounds is lobbying for a spot on the science panel.

The new STEM Democrats

Seven candidates with science backgrounds won seats last week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

TrainingNameState
Biochemical engineerSean CastenIllinois
Ocean engineer Joe CunninghamSouth Carolina
Industrial engineer Chrissy HoulahanPennsylvania
Nuclear engineer Elaine LuriaVirginia
PediatricianKim SchrierWashington
NurseLauren UnderwoodIllinois
DentistJeff Van DrewNew Jersey

“I don’t know enough at this point about what the science committee does to have an opinion,” says Representative-elect Sean Casten (D–IL), a biochemical engineer who founded a company that helps firms become more energy efficient and who defeated Representative Peter Roskam (R) in a suburban Chicago district. “While I worked in basic science for half a dozen years in my youth, I feel more confident in my ability to deploy and apply basic science than to create it. So committees that deal with infrastructure and financial services, energy, and environmental policy are closer to areas where I can apply my skills.”

Representative-elect Lauren Underwood (D), who ousted Representative Randy Hultgren (R) in a north-central Illinois district, hopes to apply her background as a nurse and health care analyst to win a seat on one of two panels that oversee federal health care policy. That’s also true for Representative-elect Kim Schrier (D–WA), a pediatrician who won an open seat outside of Seattle.

“Health care is where people are really hurting now,” Schrier says. “I felt I could really lend my expertise to finding better ways of providing it that bring costs down and improve outcomes. … I’m also really excited to be the only woman doctor in Congress at a time when women’s reproductive rights are being attacked.”

Representative-elect Chrissy Houlahan (D–PA), who won an open seat in the Philadelphia suburbs, says her training as an industrial engineer is just one of many facets of her identity. “I’m a veteran, an entrepreneur, a mom, and an educator as well,” says Houlahan, who helped her husband grow a sports apparel company and briefly taught high school chemistry before leading a foundation that promotes early literacy. “I feel that I am part of a wave of people elected who provide diversity on a lot of levels.”

Climate change is an existential issue for two new members representing coastal districts. In South Carolina, Representative-elect Joe Cunningham (D), an ocean engineer turned environmental lawyer, hammered his opponent for voicing support of President Donald Trump’s plan to lift a ban on offshore drilling along the Atlantic coast, a pivotal issue for his constituents.

Representative-elect Elaine Luria (D–VA) says her 20-year career in the Navy helps her understand both the civilian and military components of sea-level rise. And she thinks the public is already on board. “People see our roads flooding and the sea level rising,” she says about her southeastern Virginia district. “I have yet to talk to anyone who doesn’t think climate change is real.”

Before these new members can take their seats in January 2019, the current class of legislators must finish work on a spending bill for the 2019 fiscal year that began on 1 October. An earlier agreement to increase overall spending in 2018 and 2019 allowed Congress to pass budgets for about two-thirds of the government, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy. But budgets for the remaining agencies, including NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and several science agencies within the Department of Commerce, have been frozen under a continuing resolution that expires on 7 December. Disagreement over Trump’s request to build a wall between the United States and Mexico stands in the way of a final deal by the lame-duck Congress.

The annual battle over spending could intensify next year. The divided Congress will have to deal with a 2011 law aimed at reducing the federal deficit over a decade. That law imposes spending caps, and could force lawmakers to cut a combined $126 billion from civilian and military budgets unless the Democratic House and Republican-controlled Senate can broker a deal to raise the caps.

Some legislators long associated with science issues won’t be around for those debates. Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL), a NASA enthusiast who once flew aboard the space shuttle, appears to have lost his bid for reelection. In the House, the losers included Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who chairs a House appropriations subcommittee that sets spending levels for several science agencies, including NASA and NSF, and has pushed for NASA to develop a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The science committee will lose Hultgren, a cheerleader for basic energy research, as well as Representative Barbara Comstock (R–VA), who chairs the research subcommittee, and Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA), a persistent doubter of climate science.

The frontrunner to take Culberson’s spending gavel is Representative José Serrano (D–NY), an advocate for science with a special interest in the Census Bureau. Representative Nita Lowey (D–NY) is poised to lead the full appropriations committee, and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D–CT) is the favorite to lead the subcommittee that oversees NIH. Both have been supportive of federal investments in research.

Meanwhile, some science candidates who didn’t win last week see a silver lining. Randy Wadkins, a professor of biochemistry at The University of Mississippi in Oxford, was the only academic scientist to make it onto the general election ballot. And although he lost by a two-to-one margin to an incumbent Republican, he says his campaign “might have been the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life, science-wise.”

Seeking a House seat gave him a platform to connect with people “who were interested in science and wanted to do something,” he says. “A lot of us lost. But some of us won. And that’s my take-home message: This isn’t the end of scientists running for Congress; it’s just the beginning.”