How will Tuesday's election results affect the future of science?

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Science was rarely mentioned on the campaign trail, so what exactly does the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives mean for science? For environmental science, it looks very bad. But on other issues, there's reason for a little optimism.

The Republican platform, "The Pledge to America", never mentions the words "science", "technology", "NASA", "research and development", "evolution" or "intelligent design", "climate change", and certainly not "global warming."


That isn't, in and of itself, a bad thing. It just means the 2010 election cycle wasn't predicated on scientific issues. It does, however, make it rather more challenging to predict how government and science are going to interact over the next two years. And while it would be easy to say the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives is bad for science, the truth is a bit more complicated than that.

Environmental issues

Environmental science about climate change is likely where the most negative impacts will be felt. According to one tally, of the more than 200 Republicans in the House, only four have publicly stated their support for the current scientific consensus on global warming, and another five were the only Republicans to vote for the American Clean Energy and Security Act. It's not as though the rest of the party has been silent - multiple Republicans, including those in leadership positions, have characterized global warming as wrong at best and fraudulent at worst.


There's been a lot of speculation about a Republican-led witch hunt against climate science, in which the House Energy and Commerce Committee, potentially led by BP apologist Joe Barton, would put the science of global warming on trial. This isn't impossible - in the current political climate, pretty much nothing is - but it probably isn't all that likely.

There was, after all, immediate and significant blowback against Barton's apology to Tony Hayward, and there are doubts whether Republican leadership will let him take back the chairmanship. This may be an instance where Republican recognize the danger of overreaching and focus more on their platform issues, with any climate investigations relegated to little more than an embarrassing sideshow.


Either way, one would have to think such investigations could backfire in much the same way Joe McCarthy's investigations into communism ultimately revealed him to be nothing more than a fearmongering bully. After all, a near-unanimous overwhelming majority of scientists agree climate change is a real threat caused in part by human agency.

They even seem to have a decent majority of the public on their side - polls indicate about 60 to 65 percent of people think global warming is at least a somewhat serious problem, which suggests 2010 voters didn't cast their ballots based on candidates' environmental positions. If ever there was a time to think that maybe the truth could win out over ignorance...well, this might be it.


Funding for science

That's the headline-grabbing change, but there are more realistic, more subtle changes that could still significantly undermine climate science. Considering the Republican pledge to place a hard cap on discretionary spending, federal funding into something as politically controversial as climate research will probably be one of the first things to go. The loss of money will most likely tangibly hurt climate research - and, more importantly, research into how to mitigate its effects.


Republicans have also said they want to curtail the executive branch's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. The argument in part rests on whether the EPA has the legal authority to control carbon emissions within its current legislation-mandated purview. For now, the administration is working under a court order that classified greenhouse gas emissions as a pollutant, but Congress would have the ability to override that ruling with new legislation.

This treads into constitutional territory, and it might be an instance where a precedent set by George W. Bush could actually help the environment. The Obama administration has often embraced Bush's broad reading of executive power - presidents don't generally give up power once they've gotten it - and they could have the EPA regulate carbon emissions unimpeded until the Republicans can pass very explicit legislation against it. That would be difficult, considering they would have to get past both a Democrat-controlled Senate and the threat of a presidential veto.


Like I said at the outset, it isn't that Republicans are completely bad for science, even if it often looks that way. On climate science, yes, Republicans have taken a stand that is certainly non-scientific and arguably anti-scientific. And it doesn't help that other planks of the Republican platform, such as their opposition to evolution, fall so ridiculously far outside the scientific mainstream. (Thankfully, evolution almost certainly won't come up in the next two years. That's the sort of thing that only gets aired out when Republicans have complete control of Congress, and even then it's tough to say what they could actually do about it.)


Bipartisan science issues: Nuclear power and NASA

There are definitely some areas where Republicans could advance science, at least in theory. An expected shift away from funding for clean alternative energy solutions might shift the spotlight towards nuclear power, which remains stuck in the specter of Three Mile Island in the American consciousness. No new nuclear plants have been built in this country since the (near) disaster thirty years ago, and there's decent, though hardly universal, support for a renewed commitment to nuclear power among energy scientists.


Nuclear power might just be the kind of issue that doesn't cut across strict partisan lines, making a bipartisan solution a legitimate possibility. Of course, these days, everything seems politicized, so I may be being overly optimistic. Either way, don't expect a lot of new nuclear power plants to go up - the current political climate seems to favor rekindling old projects. In the meantime, renewed investment in fossil fuel extraction will likely be a Republican priority, which might even include going back to conventional coal.


Another issue that could actually bring parties together is NASA. Even though President Obama canceled the Constellation program to send astronauts back to the Moon, that decision hasn't yet trickled down to the agency, which is still working with a 2010 budget that includes Constellation. Congress passed Obama's new budget, but the legislation that would actually appropriate the money to specific projects hasn't yet been passed. That leaves NASA working on projects that are at least two election cycles out of date.

The best case scenario is that there is renewed discussion about what to do with NASA. Some Republicans criticized the Obama administration for removing NASA's clear sense of purpose by leaving human space exploration in doubt. The three-year plan outlined in Obama's budget likely won't be reopened for discussion, and a revival of the Constellation program is unlikely - it's not clear who actually supported Constellation other than President Bush - but Republicans may still push for a larger human role in spaceflight.


An obvious solution that could please legislators on both sides of the aisle would be to give the commercial role a larger role in spaceflight. But NASA's support would still be essential for the success of private companies, and Democratic representative Bart Gordon, who is the outgoing head of the House science committee, is skeptical it will be possible to affect such a transition without increasing NASA's funding.

The good news for NASA is that it's located in the right states. The agency creates a lot of jobs in right-leaning states like Florida and Texas, which means a number of Republican congresspeople have a very real stake in NASA's continued success. Texas Republicans Ralph Hall and Pete Olson are in line to take over the chairmanships of the science committee and the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, and both have been very vocal about their support for NASA and their hopes for a bipartisan solution.


Ultimately, the next two years are probably going to be rough ones for climate science. But I would still argue there's reason for, if not cautious optimism exactly, at least not runaway pessimism. Science was almost entirely ignored in the last election cycle, and polls suggest Republicans do not enjoy a mandate for their positions on scientific issues. There's legitimate room for bipartisan discussions on energy policy and the future of NASA, and neither issue is so entirely political that unified solutions are impossible. And, if nothing else, there's always the chance to vote for more science-friendly candidates in two years' time.

Additional Reading:
What Tomorrow's Elections Mean For Science and Technology (Gizmodo)
What Now? An Epic Election Meets the Future (The Atlantic)
5 Post-Election Implications for Energy Companies and U.S. Policy (BNET)
Elections Usher in Divided Congress, Environment, Energy Issues Remain (Environment News Service)
Money for Scientific Research May Be Scarce With a Republican-Led House (The New York Times)
Extra NASA funds unsure after election (Florida Today)