Checking the House Science Committee's New Subpoena Power | Commentary

What is Congress asking of scientists?

I admit it — I don’t spend a lot of time delving into the rules of the House of Representatives. But this week’s announcement of rules for the new Congress alarmed me.

The Science Committee chairman is now empowered to “authorize and issue subpoenas” and “authorize the staff of the Committee to conduct depositions” in pursuit of investigations — without agreement from the ranking member. That’s a lot of power, and it’s not clear how it’s going to get used. But given the recent history of committee members and their staffs, I’m worried.

I write not only as an observer of science policy, but also from my own experience. I’ve held research grants from the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies; worked as a NOAA scientist; and served as a science advisor for government agencies including NOAA and the U.S. Navy. It’s an honor to carry out science on behalf of the public, and I take very seriously my responsibility to do my best work for taxpayers. That includes sharing my work with the public, and I welcome opportunities to do so.

But these rules are something else entirely. What do they mean for scientists like me? Could I be subpoenaed to appear before the committee, or compelled to give a deposition, to justify in a political setting the decisions I make in my research?

There’s a big difference between being asked to testify, as I have done many times, and getting a subpoena. A subpoena is a legal document literally ordering your presence before a court or committee. It suggests wrongdoing or reluctance to participate, regardless of the substance. Subpoenas and legal depositions are intimidating by their very nature.

That’s why Congress has usually limited subpoena powers, restricting their use to particular committees and often requiring a majority vote or agreement by the ranking member. This new rule signals an intention to ramp up use of subpoenas, with or without bipartisan support.

These new powers raise more questions than they answer.

Last year, for example, the committee attacked the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific analysis on air pollution, incorrectly claiming the agency was withholding scientific information from the public. Will federal agency scientists be subpoenaed to appear before the committee, or compelled to give a deposition, to justify decisions they made in evaluating research?

What about independent researchers who volunteer to serve on government advisory panels? The committee held several recent hearings calling into question the integrity of the EPA Science Board. If the board’s conclusions are not to the committee’s liking, will individual board members be deposed?

What about university scientists who receive government funding? Committee staff have spent hours scouring National Science Foundation records to find grants they consider “wasteful.” Will those scientists be subpoenaed to explain their work?

Scientists routinely work with datasets that include sensitive information that might not be explicitly protected by law. Could a subpoena require them to turn over unpublished data or private medical records?

Used indiscriminately, this authority could have a chilling effect on scientific research. Most scientists aren’t paid enough to keep a lawyer on retainer in case they get dragged into a legal proceeding and placed under oath. We’re not really equipped to defend highly technical research against political point-scoring. When scientists know they could get targeted in this way, they might decide researching contentious scientific issues or engaging in public service isn’t worth the trouble — and that’s a big problem.

Science, inside and outside federal agencies, boosts our economy, drives innovation and protects Americans’ health. Scientists take our ethical and legal obligations, and the responsibility we owe to taxpayers, seriously. But we can’t do the job America depends on us to do when we are afraid of the consequences if politicians don’t like the results, or if we have to spend more time and resources protecting ourselves from political attack than testing hypotheses and conducting experiments. And until we know more about how the Science Committee plans to use its new authority, everyone who carries out scientific research at the federal level is going to feel that risk.

That’s not saying the committee will abuse these new powers — but the past behavior of politicians towards scientists gives us reason to be worried. Congressional leaders should do us favor and clarify what these new powers mean, and how they’ll be used, so that scientists can focus on the job they’re supposed to do.

Dr. Andrew A. Rosenberg directs the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is a professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of New Hampshire and a lead author of the National Climate Assessment. Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders Newsletter.