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Some takeaways for science from yesterday’s U.S. elections

For scientists, the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives isn’t the only important result from last night’s midterm election. Although some races are still too close to call, and others are awaiting the counting of early votes and absentee ballots, here are some other highlights:

Four House incumbents active on science issues have been defeated, and a fifth is trailing.

  • Representative Barbara Comstock (R–VA), who leads the research subcommittee of the House science committee, lost to Democrat Jennifer Wexton. Comstock was considered to be one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents heading into election night. 
  • Representative Randy Hultgren (R–IL), also a member of the science committee, was ousted by Democrat Lauren Underwood, a nurse and health policy analyst.
  • Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA), who has served on the science panel for 3 decades, trails Democrat Harley Rouda by 2700 votes.
  • Representative Carlos Curbelo (RFL), a co-leader of the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, lost his race to Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D). His defeat, coupled with losses by other Republicans who are members of the caucus, has put its future in doubt.

Seven of the 19 House candidates with science, engineering, and medical credentials (including Underwood) have won seats in the next Congress (see a list of the winners, below). All the winners are Democrats, and four of the seven female scientists on the ballot were victorious.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) is the presumed new chair of the House science committee, succeeding the retiring Representative Lamar Smith (R). In a statement released last night, Johnson said she would have three priorities “If I am fortunate enough to be elected chair.” One is ensuring “that the United States remains the global leader in innovation, which will require attention to a wide range of activities,” including supporting “a robust federally funded R&D enterprise,” and “defending the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks.” A second is addressing the “challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real.” The third is restoring “the credibility of the science committee as a place where science is respected and recognized as a crucial input to good policymaking.” It is not yet clear whether the new Democratic leadership of the House will allow the science panel chair to retain the power to unilaterally issue investigative subpoenas, which outgoing chair Smith used to demand information from climate scientists and others. If so, observers expect the panel to use that power to aggressively investigate a range of actions taken by President Donald Trump’s administration on climate, energy, and environmental policy.

The House spending panels that oversee science agencies will also get new leaders. In general, however, research spending has enjoyed bipartisan support, so the changes might be more in style and emphasis than in substance.

In the Senate, Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida, a strong supporter of NASA who once orbited Earth on the space shuttle, is trailing in his re-election bid.

State ballot initiatives related to climate and energy issues generally fared poorly on election day. In Washington, voters rejected an effort to impose a tax on carbon emissions. In Colorado, a bid to greatly restrict the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) failed. In Arizona, a measure aimed at increasing the state’s use of renewable energy went down in defeat, although Nevada appears to have taken the first step toward adopting a similar policy. (But that measure still must prevail in a second vote, in 2020.) In Florida, voters supported a measure to ban offshore drilling in state waters. (The same measure also prohibits indoor vaping.)

Here are the seven science candidates that ScienceInsider has been tracking who won their races:

  • Joe Cunningham (D)—First district, South Carolina
  • Elaine Luria (D)—Second district, Virginia
  • Chrissy Houlahan (D)—Sixth district, Pennsylvania
  • Jeff van Drew (D)—Second district, New Jersey
  • Lauren Underwood (D)—14th district, Illinois
  • Sean Casten (D)—Sixth district, Illinois
  • Kim Schrier (D)—Eighth district, Washington

With reporting by David Malakoff.