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How One GOP-Controlled Committee Is Waging a War on Science

The GOP’s relentless promotion of the fossil-fuel industry is undermining the nation's scientific credibility.

At a March 26 hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Republican congressmen took turns attacking President Obama's top science advisor, John Holdren. On climate change, their statements became increasingly heated, accusatory, and bizarre.

Southern California conservative Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) challenged Holdren on the fact that about 97 percent of the world's practicing climate scientists agree that human activity is responsible for climate change. "Why can't anybody admit that you've got a group of people putting out a bogus figure here?" he charged.

Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) noted that the earth had warmed in between ice ages, without any people around. So how could humans be blamed for the current warming?

"Just because we're alive now," he reasoned, "the tectonic plate shifts aren't gonna stop, the hurricanes [and] tsunamis aren't gonna stop, the asteroid strikes aren't gonna stop."

Finally, Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), an air-conditioning company founder from Pearland, Texas, noted to Holdren, a climate scientist and MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient, that "I may want to get your cell phone, because if we go through cycles of global warming and then back to global cooling, I need to know when to buy my long coat on sale."

Soon after, a Scientific American headline concluded that the committee was becoming "a national embarrassment."

Since Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) took over as chairman of the House Science Committee in the beginning of 2013, the GOP majority has been waging a war. Its enemies list is long: The Environmental Protection Agency. The National Science Foundation. Rules that prevent industries from polluting the air and groundwater. Climate scientists studying the effects of a warming planet. The very notion of non-politicized, peer-reviewed scientific inquiry.

For years, the House Science Committee was a quiet congressional backwater. Typically, its most contentious battles were over the future of American space exploration.

Smith has changed that. The traditionally collegial committee has been pursuing a more aggressive and party-driven agenda –- one that's closely aligned with the GOP’s relentless promotion of the fossil-fuel industry. Though critics say Smith's campaign has been scattershot and at least somewhat dysfunctional, they're alarmed about what could result from the various bills he's pushed over the last 18 months.

Stocked with corporate-trained lobbyists in key staff positions, the committee's majority has repeatedly attacked the EPA from several different vantage points. The committee participated in the congressional GOP's efforts to block or limit virtually all regulations on coal, oil and natural gas facilities – including a reinvigorated effort to delegitimize and ultimately scrap the most important existing such laws like the Clean Air Act by tarnishing seminal studies conducted by researchers with Harvard University and the American Cancer Society. After encountering resistance to that effort, committee Republicans went much further by pushing a bill that would disallow the EPA from using any confidential data or information – a measure seemingly designed to completely disrupt its ability to protect the public.

The GOP majority likewise has taken the lead in efforts to place tight reins on the National Science Foundation by attempting to exert political control over federally funded scientific research, an effort that has science advocates up in arms.

Through the "EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act," the committee's majority is trying to alter the way the EPA selects and uses its internal Science Advisory Boards, which are meant to provide independent review of the science conducted by the agency. One of the bill's main consequences, a committee Democrat concluded, would be to ensure "an overrepresentation of industry voices" on the panels.

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