As a result of inspiring election victories, many by first-time candidates, a dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate now have science, technology or medical backgrounds—more than ever before. We are excited by what you bring to our nation’s legislature. Of course, the current government shutdown has everyone in limbo, but as soon as it ends we hope you can quickly take charge on some crucial issues that are driven by science. We also hope you can broaden evidence-based critiques of proposed legislation and protect scientific integrity in the agencies Congress oversees.
The most glaring disregard for science is at the Environmental Protection Agency. One blatant example has been an attempt to weaken the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that were built on deep research into the health threats from mercury, arsenic, lead and other pollutants, which come in part from coal-burning power plants. We urge you to uphold those standards, and to fight the stream of reckless rollbacks by both the EPA and the Department of the Interior of measures that safeguard people and the environment. Clean water, clean air and clean land should not be sacrificed for commercial gain.
Another egregious step you should fight is the EPA’s proposed “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule. Despite the nice-sounding name, it would force EPA to use only studies that make all data publicly available—including sensitive, personal information about individuals who were involved in health studies. In effect, it would prevent EPA from using important research. A concise argument against the measure was published by the editors-in-chief of Nature, Science, PLOS, PNAS and other major journals.
Part of the Trump administration's attack on science is to eliminate experts from science advisory boards at federal agencies. We urge you to expose these actions and explain to your fellow legislators why they are so dangerous. You should join forces with the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in this effort.
When the committee was led by former chair Lamar Smith (R–Texas), it had a big ear for the fossil fuel industry. But newly elected leader Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–Texas), a longtime member, plans to switch gears. She said in a statement after the November elections that if chosen as committee chair, she would focus on “defending the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks,” and on reestablishing “the credibility of the Science Committee as a place where science is respected and recognized as a crucial input to good policymaking.”
Under her leadership, Democrats now have the numbers to address climate change head-on. Johnson has already introduced legislation to enhance research into energy and water supply—all issues where there is solid scientific research to guide legislative actions.
Johnson also introduced the National Gun Violence Research Act. It would authorize a research program overseen by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Congress could also appropriate money to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and perhaps introduce language in 2019 appropriations that says agencies have both the right and the obligation to study ways to stop gun violence.
The new Democratic majority in Congress put Johnson in her new position. Perhaps you might consider serving on committees that address issues informed by science, technology, engineering or math. STEM matters arise across the board. For example, last fall President Donald Trump signed a package of bills to address the country’s opioid epidemic. But critics say the measures do not significantly increase funding, particularly for addiction treatment. Congress could take bolder steps. You could also crack down on the marketing and sale of e-cigarettes and all forms of vaping to teenagers, by reworking existing legislation or creating new, targeted rules.
A broader effort is needed to provide Americans with better health care at lower cost. This issue was number one on various voter surveys in November, and concerns helped elect certain scientist candidates. Although legislators do not need a STEM or medical background to lead reforms, your technical credentials could help catapult you onto committees that can get health-care work done. Returning House speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that addressing high drug prices will be among the Democratic party’s first priorities. Steps can be taken to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and to stop executive orders from weakening it, too.
If you are more interested in technology, we urge you to reinstate net neutrality rules, which the administration repealed. You can also increase oversight of how social media companies—indeed all companies—safeguard or sell personal data. Given the upcoming 2020 elections, it would be prudent to look at technological steps to fend off foreign or domestic hacking. And if you really want to wade into the techno-political waters, please consider some sort of scientific or mathematical analysis of gerrymandering.
The Brookings Institution maintains a terrific source to help you on these many issues. Its online tracker details more than 100 regulatory changes that have been put into effect, are now in the rulemaking phase, or have been repealed or delayed. This tool is organized into nine major categories, including environment, health, agriculture and transportation.
Also useful is a report published in November called “Protecting Science at Federal Agencies: How Congress Can Help.” It was prepared by a diverse set of public interest groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Project on Government Oversight and the National Federation of Federal Employees.
We wish you good luck in educating and leading the Congress. Please keep us informed.