After 8 years in the political wilderness, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) is relishing the chance to “restore the credibility” of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. With Democrats winning control of the House, Johnson is in line to move from ranking member to chair of the panel when the 116th Congress convenes in January 2019. And she says ending the committee’s ideologically driven fights over climate change, management of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other research topics is high on her agenda.
She feels that the polarizing 6-year tenure of Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the current science panel chair who is retiring, was an anomaly for the typically low-key panel she joined as a new member in 1993. She is hoping her Republican colleagues take a less partisan approach to the committee’s business now that Democrats are in charge and Smith is out of the picture.
Trained as a psychiatric nurse, the 82-year-old Johnson served for more than a decade in the Texas legislature before coming to Washington, D.C. She spoke with ScienceInsider on 9 November from her Dallas district about a range of topics, including climate policy under U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, gender discrimination in science, and how the need for members to raise money influences the committee’s roster. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: You said on election night that one of your goals is to “restore the credibility of the science committee.” When was it lost, and what will it take to recover it?
A: I think that we lost it under the leadership of Lamar Smith. And to restore it is to follow the charter of the committee. I’m not saying that it will be easy, because we still have a Cabinet and a president that is not necessarily on our side in terms of scientific endeavors. However, it should not keep the committee from functioning as it should function.
Q: What was the committee doing instead?
A: We were doing more digging, trying to uncover any information that would undercut scientific findings, avoid facing what the scientific data were showing us, and attempting to annihilate much of [NSF] by doing overreach and telling NSF what to fund, which is really not our role. There were a number of things [Smith did] that I disagreed with. But [Democrats] were not in charge. And I think that there were Republican members of the committee who didn’t agree with the leadership, but they just didn’t challenge it.
Q: To what extent did NSF bring that scrutiny on itself, such as its problems managing construction of the National Ecological Observatory Network?
A: No agency is perfect, and if you poke around enough you’ll probably find something. But NSF did have, and has had, a sterling reputation with its peer-review system and choosing what areas to fund. And I felt they had done a pretty good job.
All agencies could stand some oversight, which is our responsibility. But I think it can be done with an open mind in a way that allows the committee and the agency to function. Just because you disagree with a particular award should not be the reason to try and destroy the whole agency. … [Under Smith, Republican staffers examined hundreds of NSF grants in search of those it felt were a waste of tax dollars.] We do have oversight authority, but we don’t have the responsibility to tell them what to fund.
Q: What are the most pressing areas for oversight?
A: We have to get back to examining climate change. We obviously are experiencing a great deal of climate change, and we’ve had lots of denying. I don’t believe that much of that denying was sincere; I think it was governed by the leadership of the committee. I think it’s nonsense for us to sit here and ignore that it’s happening and waste our time without having any plan for what we should be doing to save our planet and the lives and the money it takes to clean up after disasters.
Q: Are you saying some Republican members might accept climate change but couldn’t admit that?
A: I think that might be some of it, and some of them have admitted they see a change but say that human activity doesn’t have anything to do with it. Well, I think that’s something we need to clarify. It is clear that something is causing it, and whatever the activity might be is probably generated by human beings.
Q: Will the committee try any new approaches to educate the public and members?
A: Honestly, I think the general public has a pretty good idea and some knowledge of climate change. What we need to do is get real inside Congress and look at some reasonable, sensible, and intellectual approaches to address the issue. I think the whole world is aware that we are in the midst of lots of global weather change. I think it was a mistake for us to withdraw from the Paris [climate] treaty. I don’t know if that can be restored, but we can certainly try to make those contacts.
We see the weather is changing. The type of floods, the destruction from the winds, we cannot just continue to just clean up after this happens. We can look at making use of resilient materials, and in where we locate businesses and homes. I think that it might make more sense to focus on building a wall on the Gulf [of Mexico] at Houston[, Texas,] rather than a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
Q: Do you support a carbon tax?
A: I think that needs to be a consideration. It’s clear we must reduce emissions. We had the same skepticism from industry when we started to get rid of leaded gas. But now it’s been accepted, and we see it’s created a better environment. So we have to bite the bullet and make some changes. I don’t believe that we’ll have nearly as much resistance from business that we anticipate. It’s a matter of working together, and of making sure that we take the necessary steps without undue delays.
Q: Will the committee be trying to move legislation, or just tee up issues in advance of the 2020 election?
A: I think we have to take it one step at a time. We have to start with sound science. I don’t believe there are any miraculous steps we can take, because we know the political environment we’re in. We know that the White House seems incapable of looking at research on climate change and accepting it. I don’t really know who can communicate that message to the president. He’s chosen Cabinet members who agree with him on what steps they think are necessary not to protect the environment, but to protect businesses.
Q: Do you think Kelvin Droegemeier, who has been nominated as head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, can bring him that message?
A: I don’t know [Droegemeier]. But I plan to get to know him and see if we can have a conversation. I cannot say I know many of the people that this administration has chosen for scientific positions.
Q: Will you have subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify, as Smith did?
A: We have it now. We’ll have to review whether we want to keep it or change it. But it will certainly be on the table to discuss.
Q: Would you like to have it?
A: I think it would be good to have a bipartisan agreement [to issue a subpoena], and I would seek that bipartisan cooperation. But there might be times when we couldn’t have it.
Q: You are one of the biggest advocates for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in Congress. What are your priorities with respect to diversity, K–12 education, undergraduate and graduate training, and the scientific workforce?
A: We have to explore all of them, because we haven’t seen the progress that’s needed among our young people. And yet we know we cannot concede the world stage. We have the brains out there; we just need to encourage them. And that’s why I was so unhappy with the president’s proposal to eliminate education at NASA. NASA has been a leading agency in capturing the attention of students in science.
Q: Do you think the scientific culture itself has contributed to the problem of sexual harassment in the scientific workplace?
A: Yes, I do. We’ve done several studies, going back to when [Maryland Republican] Connie Morella was on the committee [in the 1990s], and found that women did not receive an equal share of the credit and the opportunity in science. And not much has changed since then. We really want to continue to make sure that young bright female minds are just as important as everyone else in pursuing these careers. We see that a majority of students going to medical school are women, so we’ve made some impact there. But we need to make an impact across the board, especially in engineering and math. We cannot afford to sacrifice 50% of our brain power.
Q: This administration has raised the issue of academic espionage and has pointed to the large number of foreign-born scientists working in the United States as a contributing factor. Is that issue on your radar?
A: Well, that’s something we always need to keep in mind. But I must say that major scientific endeavors usually are universal, and they involve scientists from around the world. We are aware of national security and must find ways to avoid being sabotaged. But we also need to continue to build those international relationships as we do the research. This nation cannot afford to be the only one involved in these projects, because they require support from many countries.
Q: Is the U.S. research enterprise healthy?
A: I think it is. But its vulnerability rests on whether we in Congress can keep up with our responsibility to provide the financial support it needs. We have imported much of our talent. And we should be in the business of attempting to furnish our own talent. Agencies need to put more emphasis on recruiting and encouraging young, diverse talent to go into STEM.
Q: You’re going to have several slots to fill on the committee. How will you sell new members on joining?
A: We’re looking at those with STEM backgrounds, and I think the environment [on the committee] will be much improved. People with STEM degrees are some of the smartest people in Congress, and they are very no-nonsense people. And you could say that, in the last 6 years, in many ways, they have wasted their time sitting on the committee.
But that will certainly not be the case in the next Congress.
Q: Any plans for restructuring?
A: We know it will take us a while to get back on course. We need to regenerate interest and develop sound goals for the committee. I can’t imagine that the leadership of the Republican party will be quite as negative as the leadership we have had on the committee for the last 6 years.
I served as a ranking member under [former Texas Representative] Ralph Hall, and we did not have the same level of rancor as we had under Lamar Smith.
Q: What was it like in 1993, when you joined the committee, and Representative George Brown (D–CA) was chairman?
A: George Brown was quite a professional, a very learned, STEM-oriented person, and he provided great opportunities for committee members to learn. And I thought that was an ideal situation.
Q: Why did you want to serve on the committee?
A: I was living in the area around Texas Instruments, where Dr. Jack Kilby had developed the first integrated circuit, and I knew it would have a great impact on scientific products for the nation. In fact, my first piece of legislation [in the Texas legislature] was to try and get more women involved in science, back in 1974. So after I was elected to Congress, Mr. Brown sent me a letter encouraging me to join. And I did, and I’ve been glad ever since that I did.
Q: Are you worried that some Democrats will leave the science committee for what they consider to be better assignments now that their party is in charge?
A: Yes, that has happened in the past because science is a committee for intellectuals. It is not one of those committees that is going to be on television every day, and it’s not a committee that draws a big pool of people who are ready to make contributions. So a lot of members think that they have to choose energy and commerce or armed services or somewhere where they can attract contributions, because you are under pressure every moment to raise money. So that’s one challenge. You must be interested in the intellectual future of the nation.