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The Far Right's Assault on Science Won't Help Economy | Commentary

It wasn’t too many years ago that the Environmental Protection Agency came under fire for promulgating regulations that critics claimed had insufficient scientific validity. The pendulum now seems to have swung the other way, if a policy provision in the “Department of Energy Research and Development Act of 2014” is any indicator.

Buried in the bill, which the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will consider shortly, is language that would bar federal agencies from using the results of research supported by the Department of Energy in developing “regulatory assessments or determinations.” What in the world is going on?

Taken in isolation, the prohibition might simply reflect a poor choice of words, at best, or ineptitude, at worst. But coming on the heels of that same committee’s proscriptions governing the activities of the National Science Foundation, as articulated in the “FIRST Act of 2014,” I suspect there is something far more insidious at work.

By almost any read, the FIRST Act treats scientists as self-serving elitists — untrustworthy scoundrels who are willing to do anything to secure funding for their pet research projects. The DOE authorization bill doesn’t cast such aspersions on the practitioners themselves, but by attacking the validity of science for policymaking purposes, it achieves the same end.

The assault on science and scientists calls to mind Chris Mooney’s polemic, “The Republican War on Science,” published almost a decade ago. I remember reading it at the time and finding it more of a didactic diatribe than a painstaking political analysis. I still harbor that view, but I have to admit that today there are many more members of Congress who fit Mooney’s description.

Unlike Mooney, however, I wouldn’t paint all of them with the same broad anti-Republican brush. There are, after all, quite a number of GOP defenders of the scientific credo. And they run the gamut from establishment types such as Virginia Reps. Frank R. Wolf and Eric Cantor and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, to tea party favorites such as Ted Yoho of Florida and Randy Hultgren of Illinois.

But the anti-science din emanating from the right has been growing, and the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is clearly providing a megaphone for some of the most strident voices. That’s a pity, because the committee has long been a bastion for informed dialog, spared of hyper-partisan bickering and with a goal of fostering the American scientific enterprise that has made our nation the technological envy of the world.

For as long as I can remember, the Science, Space and Technology chairman, Democrat or Republican, has abided by a tradition of providing science a safe haven from the worst of Washington’s political sniping. My good friend, the late D. Allan Bromley, who was physics department chair during my tenure at Yale and who later served as President George Bush’s science adviser, drummed into me the need for keeping science above the political fray.

A steadfast Republican, Allan counted as allies Olin Teague, Don Fuqua, Bob Roe and George Brown, all Democrats who held the committee’s top post between 1973 and 1995. And although the policy emphasis of the committee shifted when Republicans took control of the House in 1995, Bob Walker, current incumbent Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Sherry Boehlert, who served as chairmen between 1995 and 2007, never tied science to a political whipping post.

But today, House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, seems unable to rein in the anti-science attacks coming from the far right. Without question, those attacks are fueled by a strong anti-government fervor, but they are woefully misguided and extremely dangerous.

Fifty years ago, we faced few challenges to our technological superiority. The 21st century world is a vastly different place. Europe and Asia have caught up, and with their strong commitment to science, they are dispossessing us of our No. 1 ranking.

Attacking science and scientists in Washington may help right-wing radicals score political points back home. But it will do little to help our nation succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace of ideas, discoveries and innovation. My advice to them is simple: Leave politics at the door when you enter the House Science, Space and Technology chamber.

Michael S. Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky Professor of Physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.

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