Democrats are preparing to take the gavel in the 116th Congress, establishing policy priorities and focusing their message for the next two years. As a retiring member and the outgoing chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, I can no longer set that agenda, but I can recommend the issues that still need Congressional attention and action.
Headlines claiming that Congress is making a “return to science” are ignoring years of progress on policies advancing research, STEM education, and space exploration. America’s continued success in technology, innovation, and energy development depends on a Science Committee that commits to working toward these goals.
Nuclear power has been a proven source of safe and emission-free electricity for over half a century and its continued development is critical to diversifying America’s energy production. This year, the president signed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act into law, which enables the American nuclear power industry to conduct civilian nuclear energy research and development that will advance our leadership in nuclear technology. Any hearings or legislation on “new” or “green” energy sources should include nuclear energy.
The committee also should continue its focus on expanding STEM education and promoting diversity in STEM fields. A large, well-trained, and diverse STEM workforce is crucial to maintaining our country’s technological competitiveness.
In the past few years the House passed a number of STEM bills and three were signed into law, including the STEM Act which strengthens ongoing STEM education efforts and includes computer science in STEM fields. The IMT Apprenticeships Act builds the workforce pipeline in STEM fields through apprenticeships. And the Women in Aerospace Education Act helps more women to get aerospace experience while they’re training to be science and math teachers.
Next on the committee’s agenda should be furthering space exploration and increasing private sector access to space. When the Republicans were in the majority, this was one of our top priorities. American commercial space policy bills were enacted to spur private aerospace competitiveness and establish NASA’s permanent priority missions as space science research and deep space human exploration.
It’s time for humans to return to the Moon and to begin preparations to travel to Mars and beyond. The Science Committee must meet these challenges head-on.
Finally, the Science Committee should maintain a commitment to open, transparent science that is accountable to taxpayers, which the committee has promoted in the past years. There are two sides to this coin. The first is transparency. The science behind regulatory decisions should be open to public review and replication to be sure policymaking is based on data instead of politics.
Scientific research should be fact-driven and not manipulated to support an agenda. This goes hand-in-hand with ensuring that federally-funded research is accountable to taxpayers, who are the source of those funds. Our oversight of the National Science Foundation led to legislation that requires transparency and accountability in taxpayer-funded science, with a focus on basic research. This should continue to be National Science Foundation policy.
Instead of touting a fictional “return to science,” my hope is that the new committee will emphasize a continued commitment to transparent, open, and forward-looking science. It was this focus that allowed the bipartisan passage of 31 of the 35 committee bills sent to the House floor this Congress, and it is this focus that will empower American scientific progress.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, is chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.