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This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science
See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 5

Does Congress Get a Passing Grade on Science?

Scientific American asks leaders of a dozen House and Senate committees for written answers to eight policy questions related to science and technology
capitol, congressional answers, science debate



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Presidential candidates snatch the most attention during election seasons, and science usually gets scant mention. Science and technology, however, underpin some of the biggest problems facing the U.S., which is why Scientific American partnered with ScienceDebate.org to ask Pres. Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney to talk about 14 top challenges facing the country that are ultimately rooted in science.

But even the most science-savvy chief executive needs scientifically literate partners in Congress to implement sound initiatives. After all, the nation's laws ultimately get debated and passed on the floors of the House of Representatives and Senate. Because most of Congress's legislative work occurs within committees, we thought it made sense to find out how the top-ranking members of those committees approach issues that have some sort of foundation in science.

We chose eight of the original 14 questions that seemed to be most clearly legislative matters. Next we identified about a dozen congressional committees (including Appropriations and Budget) and two subcommittees that were likely to pay the largest roles on these issues. We then reached out to the committee chair and ranking member of these committees as well as the House and Senate majority and minority leaders. Finally, we did not contact representatives who were retiring.

Our targeted survey produced a 28 percent response rate, which we think is pretty good for our first effort at surveying the legislative leadership on science. Naturally, we would like it to be higher.

Of the 32 congressional leaders contacted, nine responded with either complete or partial answers, six declined our requests and 17 never got back to us, despite repeated e-mail and telephone requests. Of the congressional members who responded, two are Republicans and seven are Democrats.

The responders typically took the opportunity to point out their past legislative efforts as well as support or undermine current proposals from others. If they offered possible solutions, outlines were tentative. Some responses, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller's on the government's role in managing the Internet, are involved and lengthy. At the other end of the spectrum, Rep. John Mica kept his brief: for example, he answered one question in 10 words by pointing out that innovations in technology can solve freshwater problems.

All nine acknowledged climate change. Rep. Ralph Hall, however, prevaricated about the extent of humans' influence—citing great debate and uncertainty among experts.

We turned to Web sites and past statements made by the nonresponders to fill in the gaps. For example, we used public statements of the Senate majority and minority leaders as well as the speaker of the House to cobble together approximate positions. For the remaining legislative leaders in science- and technology-related policy, we ask for your help. If you find any public statement they have made addressing any of the questions, shoot an e-mail to submit@sciam.com with a link to the source.

We sent out initial requests in late July and early August. Each congressional member received at least six e-mails and six phone calls to their press offices to remind them that we were seeking written responses. The party leaders of the House and Senate—Speaker of the House John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—each received at least eight e-mails and six phone calls.

By September 30 nine members of Congress had sent answers and six officials declined to address the questions; the remaining 17 have not responded at the time of this writing. The door is still open: If any of the silent legislators send replies, we will post their responses.

We have responses to all eight questions from Reps. Henry Waxman (Committee on Energy and Commerce), Chris Van Hollen (Committee on the Budget), Ralph Hall (Committee on Science, Space and Technology), Timothy Bishop (Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment) and John Mica (Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure); Senators who responded were Jay Rockefeller (Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation), Tom Harkin (Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) and Dianne Feinstein (Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development). House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi answered five of the eight questions.

The following legislators declined to participate: Sens. Michael Enzi (Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) and Jeff Sessions (Committee on the Budget) as well as Speaker of the House John Boehner and Rep. Collin Peterson (Committee on Agriculture). Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's press secretary informed SA that the senator ultimately did not have time to get to the questions before the deadline. Sen. Ron Wyden's press team wrote that the member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has a policy not to respond to survey questions.

The remaining elected officials did not respond: from the House, Frank Lucas (Committee on Agriculture), Scott Garrett (Committee on the Budget), Fred Upton (Committee on Energy and Commerce), Edward J. Markey and Doc Hastings (both on the Committee on Natural Resources), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Committee on Science, Space and Technology), Bob Gibbs (Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment) and Nick Rahall (Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure); from the Senate, Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow (both on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry), Patty Murray (Committee on the Budget), Jim DeMint (Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation), Lisa Murkowski (Committee on Energy and Natural Resources), James Inhofe and Barbara Boxer (both on the Committee on Environment and Public Works), Harry Reid (majority leader) and Lamar Alexander (Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development).

We posted the responses in full and we welcome your analysis in the comments. Do congressional leaders weigh science when forming their policies? How do they plan to fund and regulate research? We are not asking politicians to be scientists, but we are asking them to consider the evidence when shaping U.S. science policy for the future.

Read the presidential candidates’ answers to all 14 questions in full at either ScienceDebate.org or Scientific American Online

Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.

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