US Representative Lamar Smith, the controversial chairman of the US House of Representatives’ science committee, will retire when his term expires late next year.
Smith, a Texas Republican, has repeatedly questioned the science behind climate change, sought to pare back the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) research portfolio and has launched dozens of probes into alleged wrongdoing by individual scientists and US government science agencies. Since taking the helm in 2013, the politician has transformed the science panel from a relatively deliberative group into an investigative weapon.
Under the rules of the House of Representatives, which limit committee chairmanships to six years, Smith would have been forced to relinquish his post on the science panel in 2019. That is one of the reasons why he decided against running for re-election, according to news reports; the other is the upcoming birth of his second grandchild. As the news of his retirement made the rounds, many scientists and environmentalists celebrated.
“It is a relief,” says Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. While many politicians have rejected the conclusions of climate science out of political expediency, she says, Smith has been more aggressive than most.
The congressman has repeatedly sought to reshape the NSF, sponsoring multiple pieces of legislation in the last several years that would require the agency to justify its grants and explain how they serve the “national interest”. He has also pushed unsuccessfully to scale back geoscience and social science programmes, among others.
Smith has notably scrutinized the work of climate scientists. In 2015, Smith sought to compel the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to turn over internal documents related to a climate-change study. The research, published in Science in 2015, sought to dispel the idea that the rate of global warming slowed down around the turn of the century. Smith went so far as to accuse a NOAA official—Thomas Karl, who has since retired—of manipulating data to advance an “extreme climate change agenda”.
In 2016, Smith came to the defense of oil giant Exxon Mobil when it was being investigated by the attorneys general of New York of Massachusetts, who wanted to know whether the firm mislead investors about the financial implications of global warming. Smith issued subpoenas to the attorneys general, as part of a broader probe that also targeted environmental groups that have accused Exxon Mobil of suppressing internal research and spreading false information about climate change.
“I think [Smith’s] position on peer review, on the NSF and climate science put him at odds with the science community,” says physicist Neal Lane, who served as NSF director and White House science adviser to former president Bill Clinton. “But it was consistent with that of the leadership in the House, which can hardly be described as pro-science.”
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on November 2, 2017.