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How politics will spin science

Jeff Miller / UW-Madison file

An instructur holds up a culture dish containing human embryonic stem cells during a lab course at the University of Wisconsin.

Political shifts will produce a fresh set of skirmishes over science issues ranging from stem cells to spaceflight. And when it comes to climate change, the skirmishes could well escalate into a war over science.

"I'm not looking forward to seeing that," said Chris Mooney, who wrote "The Republican War on Science" in 2005. But based on some of the comments made during the campaign, House Republicans might well go on the offensive on climate policy.

Here's a quick rundown on the top issues:

Climate change and energy policy
In the wake of his Election Day "shellacking," even President Barack Obama acknowledged that his controversial plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through a carbon trading system would have to be put on hold. "Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat," Obama told reporters. "It's not the only way. I'm going to be looking for other means to address this problem." 

Another way to skin the climate-change cat would be for the Environmental Protection Agency to take a more active role in regulating carbon emissions -- and back in June, the Senate turned back an effort to clamp down on the EPA's efforts in that area. A new, more conservative Congress could revive the anti-regulation campaign and raise fresh questions about the science behind climate claims. That's exactly what Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said he would do during the campaign. (It's not yet clear, however, whether the new House leadership will let him do it.) 

Mooney thinks this is how a new war in science will start: "The way in which it will be most manifest is through House members grandstanding and holding hearings and investigations over climate scientists and their e-mails. But in fact, this has already been looked at, and the scientists have been exonerated. There's no 'there' there."

Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy analyst who criticizes the international response to climate change in a new book titled "The Climate Fix," said it's "perfectly fine to ask questions about the integrity of the science."

"But if that is a tactic in a larger battle over energy policy, it politicizes science, and it also detracts attention from developing energy policy," he told me. "After all this talk about 'the Republican war on science,' I would fully expect that turnabout is fair play, and we're going to see the House playing the same sorts of political strategies with the Obama administration. Whatever side is doing it, the leadership has to try to rise above that and not get sucked into some kind of left-vs.-right battle."

Mooney said lawmakers should forgo the finger-pointing over Climategate and instead work out new policies for breaking America's addiction to fossil fuels. "While they dawdle and refuse to do anything on climate, they're also dawdling and refusing to do anything about clean energy, and when they do that, they're setting the U.S. up for a big fall," Mooney said.

Pielke agreed: "With China spending hundreds of billions of dollars on energy innovation, and with Germany, India and others making investments as well, it'd be a real shame to see Congress lose itself in a petty battle over politicized science," he told me.

In an ideal world, the power shift could provide an opening for fresh policy approaches. "Perhaps this is an opportunity to think about how to design an energy and climate policy that can survive over many, many Congresses," Pielke said. "We ought to be talking about science policy, not science politics." 

Stem cells
When Obama took office, he hoped to ease federal limits on funding for embryonic stem cell research, but that policy change has been tied up for months due to a restraining order issued by a federal judge. Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, expects the stem-cell standoff to continue, in part because of Congress' new composition.

Caplan said "the key challenge was whether Congress would finally not enact the Dickey-Wicker Amendment," which provides the legislative basis for the funding limits. House GOP leaders have been strongly supportive of the amendment, first passed in 1995.

"The Dickey Amendment keeps coming back, so I think this is very bad news for embryonic stem cell researchers," Caplan told me. "If the Dickey Amendment comes back, [opponents of the research] can tie it up some more. To me, this is really a sign that stem cell funding from the federal government for the next two years is not reliable. Given state deficits, people are going to move on to other areas of stem cell research not involving embryonic cells or cloning."

The issue received extra attention in Wisconsin, where human embryonic stem cells were first isolated and cultured in 1998. Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker said he supported a ban on human embryonic stem cell research, and his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, ran a TV ad claiming that Walker's stand would stymie cures for juvenile diabetes and other illnesses. Walker won, and with the GOP in charge of the governor's mansion as well as the legislature, a ban on stem cell research or cloning could conceivably come up for legislative action, as it did in 2005.

The big difference this time around is that stem cells are seen as an important part of the biotech industry, with states vying for private investment. Proponents of stem cell research say cracking down in one state would merely send companies to another state -- for instance, California, which elected Democrat Jerry Brown as governor. "I like stem cells," Brown said during the campaign.

Caplan said the Republican tsunami could bode well for another biotech frontier: synthetic biology, which involves re-engineering existing genomes to create new strains of organisms. The controversial technology is currently being studied by a presidential commission. "A technology that can create not only medicine and fuel, but also jobs, is likely to get a better reception in the newly constituted Congress," he said.

Human spaceflight
Congress already rewrote Obama's space policy before the election. The NASA authorization bill -- signed into law by the president just as lawmakers went into their pre-election recess -- calls for an extra shuttle flight to be flown next summer, makes a modest commitment to develop commercial space transports for the International Space Station and fast-tracks development efforts for a new heavy-lift rocket.

The only problem is that NASA still lacks the official congressional go-ahead to spend funds for the shuttle flight and other programs covered by NASA's $19 billion budget. That go-ahead has to come in a separate appropriations bill that Congress is expected to take up before the end of the year during a lame-duck session.

Space policy analyst John Logsdon said there would likely be pressure over the next few weeks to trim back NASA's budget, but he suspected that the extra shuttle flight would still get funded. "The argument for doing it, given the intention to keep the International Space Station going, is stronger than the fiscal constraints," he told me.

But something else might have to give. One of the possible targets is the $1.3 billion authorized over the next three years for a commercial crew initiative. But two of the Republicans likely to be part of the new House leadership -- Virginia's Eric Cantor and California's Kevin McCarthy -- come from districts that play a big role in the commercial space industry. Another potential target is the "21st Century Space Launch Complex" program, aimed at modernizing NASA's Kennedy Space Center at a cost of about $400 million a year.

One cause for celebration among commercial space advocates was the defeat of Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., who raised objections to legislation setting safety standards for private-sector spaceships. Oberstar said the provisions were too lax and would encourage a "tombstone mentality" for commercial spaceflight. With Oberstar no longer in the House, prospects have brightened for extending the current regulatory regime.

Research funding
Basic research has occasionally been used as a punching bag by Republicans seeking to call attention to scientific excesses. For example, the controversial GOP candidate for Delaware's Senate seat, Christine O'Donnell, got into trouble over a 2007 quote decrying the development of "mice with fully functioning human brains." (She appeared to be referring to experiments involving human brain cells that were grown in mice for stem cell research.) During the 2008 campaign, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin went after fruit-fly research.

With the GOP in charge of the House, will funny-sounding research projects become an endangered species? David Goldston, who was chief of staff for the House Science Committee from 2001 to 2006 when it was under Republican control, doesn't think so. But he does expect science spending to come under closer scrutiny, just as other spending programs will.

"Most Republicans have beeen supportive of basic research, but I think there's going to be an internal battle over how the budget is shaped," he told me. "You could see some of these new Tea Party advocates coming in with a new attitude. ... A lot of these science issues are going to split the Republican Party, and it's going to take some time to see how those splits play out."

Even in a budget-cutting era, Pielke believes that basic research will survive largely intact. He recalled that the late Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., often ridiculed federally funded research by giving out Golden Fleece Awards.

"While there is bipartisan willingness to make fun of silly government expenditures, history also shows that there's tremendous bipartisan support for research and development," he said. "In the U.K. they just went through this enormous round of budget cuts, and one of the only areas that was protected was R&D."

What do you think? Will science survive the next two years relatively unscathed, or are we in for an escalating war on science? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 2 p.m. ET Nov. 4: Space News notes that two of the House Republicans likely to take key roles in NASA's future budgets have been strong critics of Obama's space policy. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who is likely to head the House Appropriations Committee, has said Obama's plan would cede space supremacy to other countries such as China -- and he's also had some reservations about the move toward spaceflight commercialization (although one of the companies involved in that move, Orbital Sciences, is headquartered in his district). Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, who is in line to head the House Science and Technology Committee, has said that NASA was "floundering" due to the White House's change in direction. Both lawmakers, however, voted for the NASA authorization bill that was pushed through Congress last month.

It's also important to note that federal research funding is coming off a $31 billion boost that was provided by Obama's economic stimulus package, and with House Republicans in a budget-cutting mood, that kind of largesse won't be seen again. Last month, Nature reported that researchers are concerned about a "cliff effect," in which projects funded by stimulus money fall off a cliff when the money runs out. Among the potential targets are the long-suffering America COMPETES Act and research projects that may now seem politically incorrect, such as the FutureGen carbon capture and storage initiative

Goldston now serves as director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, but for this report, he was speaking only as a former Republican aide and not as an NRDC representative.

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