House conservatives stop science bill, fearing liberal climate agenda

Source: Evan Lehmann, E&E reporte • Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2013

House leaders abruptly pulled a bill yesterday that sought to honor top scientists after conservative groups expressed concern that President Obama might politicize the position to advance his agenda on climate change

The measure, H.R. 1891, would allow a president to name three scientists as unpaid laureates to inspire school-age Americans to pursue degrees in science and engineering. The bill, introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the Science Committee, was scheduled for an easy vote yesterday on the suspension calendar, typically meant for noncontroversial legislation.

That was before conservative advocates noticed it. Larry Hart, director of government relations at the American Conservative Union, which holds the annual CPAC conference for far-right activists in the Republican Party, said he was “flabbergasted” that the measure would be voted on without a debate.

Hart said that liberal scientists like physicist James Hansen could be enshrined as “nonpartisan, nonideological” laureates with increased credibility to promote Obama’s worldview, like the idea that climate change is dangerous and the result of burning fossil fuels.

“What they’re looking to do was to have somebody with that title give their version of what science is and attack those that, for example, don’t agree with their views on climate change, that don’t agree with their views on Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases and things like that,” Hart said.

“I think that Zoe Lofgren knew exactly why she wrote this bill,” he said.

But Lofgren, who learned yesterday morning that the bill was being taken off the floor, said that’s an “absurd assertion.” She said that science-based organizations approached her about honoring the achievement of researchers with the laureate designation. The title is not meant exclusively for climate scientists.

“It’s a volunteer position, and it’s meant to promote science, serve as a role model for the country to inspire young people to study science,” Lofgren said.

“It’s like, are we now gonna repeal the existence of the poet laureate?” she added. “It’s to be an inspiration thing. It’s not a cost item.”

Lobby groups concerned about James Hansen

The move comes as Republicans are suffering accusations by Democrats and their allies that the GOP is out of touch on scientific topics like climate change. Naming laureates seems like a good way to honor science and promote technical degrees in a bipartisan way, said Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which endorsed the bill.

“This is an excellent idea to increase public awareness and appreciation about science by having people designated to be in effect science cheerleaders,” Leshner said yesterday. “There are no downsides. What could be bad about this?”

After Hart noticed that the measure was set for passage under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds vote but doesn’t allow debate or amendments, he called leadership aides to say he was “very worried.”

He sent letters to every Republican lawmaker Monday night to urge them to vote “no,” and then he called Freedom Action, the advocacy arm of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and other energy groups to find allies.

“Although the bill seems innocuous, it will provide the opportunity for President Obama to make an appointment of someone (or more than one person) who will share his view that science should serve political ends on such issues as climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases,” Hart’s letter said.

Among those answering his call was Myron Ebell, who oversees climate issues at CEI. He expressed concern to a reporter Monday that the bill could result in Obama naming laureates like Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist who cautioned in 1968 that human population growth could cause mass starvation, or Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. He also pointed to Hansen.

“They get all of these honors, and yet they get it because they’re politically correct, not because they’re a distinguished scientist or have achieved a lot,” Ebell said. “Now, of course, some very distinguished scientists who have achieved a lot also get honors, but there is a certain class in the scientific community where their politics is what promotes them to what leads to these awards and honors, like being elected to the Royal Society. I’m afraid, for the government to have a science laureate, that’s what we would get.”

The bill is not dead. A Republican aide for the Science Committee said that Smith, a co-sponsor, is “working to address members’ concerns.” He plans to mark up the measure this fall, giving lawmakers the ability to amend it be