Last week, House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) outlined an ambitious agenda for his committee when Congress convenes in January. The committee was very active during the last two years, holding 123 hearings and seeing twelve laws enacted encompassing 27 bills. Among these were The America COMPETES Act, the Energy Independence and Security Act, and a host of other laws affecting the conduct and funding of science.
Saying that he leads a "committee of good ideas and consensus," Gordon noted how he hired Republican staff members after the Democrats took control of Congress. Gordon is clearly enthusiastic about science and its possibilities, consistently mentioning his concern about the standard of living for future generations.
Gordon is optimistic about the outlook for science. He discussed a recent phone call with the President-Elect, quoting Obama as saying, "I'm a science guy." Gordon spoke of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) continuing support for the Democrats' Innovation Agenda. Concluded Gordon, "A team is in place that will help us move further," later adding when speaking of Pelosi, "we are very much on the same page."
Among those areas that Gordon highlighted are the National Nanotechnology Initiative that the House moved on this year, but which stalled in the Senate.. The chairman is optimistic about this bill getting to the President's desk next year, and expects Obama to sign it. Gordon also outlined the importance of funding projects that are "twofers": providing an economic stimulus today, and a large payoff in the future. Examples include broadband technologies, health IT and nanotechnology. Of note was Gordon's emphasis on the role that NIST will play in areas such as broadband technologies and standards' measurement.
Also discussed was ARPA-E, modeled on DARPA, that would finance high risk/high reward energy research in areas such as nanotechnology, solar cells, and batteries. With science funding relatively tight, science agencies are more risk adverse and are "afraid to fail" in the research they finance. Later he spoke of being hopeful that funding might be provided for ARPA-E in the upcoming stimulus bill. Gordon also outlined the mounting shortages that the world will face for water resources, and is confident that research will provide solutions.
During a question-and-answer period, Gordon discussed the need for money to be set aside for nanotechnology health, environment, and safety research, noting its importance to the future. He also spoke of the need to strengthen STEM education, noting that the longer American students are in school the worse they do on international tests. The chairman also spoke of the need to make an effective case for science, saying. "times are tough so we must explain" the benefits of investments in science and technology.
Regarding NASA, Gordon said there needs to be a "presidential buy-in" on many important questions confronting the agency, and spoke of the need for balance between its science, aeronautics, and space exploration programs. He said that a decision about the Constellation System was a "threshold question" for the Obama Administration which would have to be decided "very soon." "My strong advice is to pay for what you ask for" Gordon said, contending that was not true in the past few years. He voiced his support for NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, and felt that Griffin should be kept through the transition, and into the next Administration. Gordon said of Griffin: "he will tell you the truth." When asked about the shuttle, Gordon said he would be "very reluctant to extend [its life] much further," citing safety and cost factors. While having concerns about depending on Russian space transportation, he noted that using their space craft would be less expensive than the shuttle.
Chairman Gordon voiced his confidence in Obama's energy and environment team. Having earlier linked energy to national defense, Gordon expects there to be more emphasis on alternative energy, and the relationship of energy to climate change. He spoke of the need for the next science advisor to be involved in these issues, and the importance of a comfortable working relationship between the President and his science advisor (note that Obama announced the following day that John Holdren had been selected to be his science advisor. Gordon also feels that Energy Secretary-Designate Steven Chu will change the "culture" at the Department of Energy, saying "I’m thrilled that the President Elect chose someone from the science community, someone who speaks our language. Dr. Chu’s nomination is an indication the incoming Administration will hold science in the highest regard. Dr. Chu is one of our nation’s leading thinkers on innovative energy research programs. I couldn’t agree more with him about the need to develop new technologies to solve our energy problems.”
A two-page Agenda Overview was released at the briefing, providing a review of the committee's intentions regarding innovation, energy, workforce, the protection of natural resources, space, transportation, security, and investigations and oversight. About the later point, this agenda stated that "the Subcommittee will work with the new Administration to end the politicization of science at Federal agencies and restore scientific integrity to policy decision-making processes."
More information about the House Science and Technology Committee can be found at the committee's website.