“It’s my hope that we will be considered a bipartisan committee, working together for the best interests of our country,” declared Lamar Smith (R-TX), the new chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Smith’s comments came at the outset of the first meeting of the committee to introduce its new members, adopt committee rules, and, of note, to agree to an expansive oversight plan for the next two years. Nineteen of the committee members have previously served on the committee; twenty are new.
The committee’s jurisdiction includes many department and agencies that are important to the physics community, including the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey. One of its major responsibilities is drafting legislation authorizing the programs and funding levels for these and other departments and agencies under its jurisdiction. The committee does not have jurisdiction over the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense’s science and technology programs. In all, the departments and agencies under the committee’s jurisdiction account for approximately $39 billion in spending, most of which pertains to research and development. The Science Committee was responsible for the America COMPETES Act and various reauthorization bills for the National Science Foundation and NASA. A NASA reauthorization bill and an energy R&D bill are on the committee’s agenda.
The Science Committee is one of the more bipartisan committees in the House, although this has varied throughout the years. Perhaps mindful of this uneven history, Smith, and the committee’s Ranking Republican Member, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), both stressed bipartisanship in their comments during the 15 minute organizational meeting. Johnson thanked Smith for consulting with the committee’s Democrats in drafting the committee’s rules and oversight plan. To strengthen this sense of bipartisanship Smith organized the committee’s first retreat which included Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, as well as a consultant on effective negotiation.
Remarking on this retreat, Smith observed: “Newspaper headlines insist that Capitol Hill is hopelessly gridlocked. I want the Science, Space, and Technology Committee to be the exception; a place where members on both sides can work together to promote policies that benefit all Americans. Our goal is to build on the successes of the past and promote new ideas that will lead to future innovations and technological advancements that grow our economy and improve our quality of life. This bipartisan retreat sets a good tone of cooperation for what can be a year of bipartisan achievements.” Johnson stated: “I’m pleased that the Chairman hosted this retreat and that he hopes to have a bipartisan Committee this Congress. Congress has been a tough environment these past few years, but I hope that we can all agree that science, technology, STEM education, and innovation are critical to our nation’s future. The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has much important work to do in the 113th Congress and the only way we will be able to get it done is through bipartisanship.”
An important committee responsibility is oversight, undertaken by the full committee and its subcommittees, notably its Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee. At the organization meeting a fourteen page oversight plan was approved by the committee that “reflects an accurate portrayal of its oversight intentions as of January, 2013.” “The Committee appreciates the special [oversight] function entrusted to it and will continue to tackle troubled programs and search for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in non-military research and development programs regardless of where they may be found,” the plan declares. Further, “The Committee currently has numerous outstanding requests with the GAO [Government Accountability Office] and more will be developed in the coming weeks and months. Many of these requests are bipartisan, having been signed by both the Chairmen and Ranking Members of our Committee and Subcommittees, or include multiple Committee Chairmen where there are shared interests.”
Selections from the Oversight Plan follow:
"National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) human space flight program: The Committee will continue to provide oversight of NASA’s human spaceflight program as it undergoes a period of uncertainty and transition following various Administration proposals. Specific attention will be paid to the feasibility of NASA’s plans and priorities relative to their resources and requirements."
"NASA Space Science: The Committee will monitor NASA’s efforts to prioritize, plan, launch, and operate space science missions within cost and schedule. Particular attention will be paid to programs that exceed cost estimates to ensure they do not adversely impact the development and launch of other missions."
"Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS): The Committee will evaluate the ability, cost, safety, and reliability of commercial providers to meet NASA requirements to deliver cargo and crew to the ISS."
"International Space Station (ISS) utilization and operation: The plans for operation and utilization of the ISS will continue to draw the Committee’s attention as NASA attempts to fully utilize the unique research opportunities that the facility offers, while exclusively relying on logistical services from commercial and foreign providers. Given the significant national investment to date in the facility, Congress has directed that NASA maintain a strong research and technology program to take advantage of ISS’s unique capabilities."
"Near Earth Objects: Congress provided guidance to NASA relating to Near Earth Objects in its last two authorization bills. The Committee will continue to monitor NASA’s compliance with that direction, as well as determine whether additional oversight is necessary."
"Within the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee’s jurisdiction, activities warranting further review include costs associated with cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA’s approach to develop and fund a successor to the Space Shuttle, and investment in NASA launch infrastructure. NASA has not clearly articulated what types of future human space flight missions it wishes to pursue, or their rationale."
"Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science: DOE plays a leading role in supporting basic research in the physical sciences and driving long-term innovation and economic growth. The Committee will conduct oversight of Office of Science programs to review prioritization across, and management within, its major program areas. Special attention will also be given to the cost, operation, and maintenance of DOE’s existing and planned major facilities."
"Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E): The Committee will undertake oversight of ARPA-E program funding and management in the 113th Congress, examining the appropriate role for and focus of ARPA-E in the context of DOE’s numerous other clean energy-focused programs and activities."
"Nuclear R&D: The Committee will provide oversight of the nation’s nuclear R&D activities with the goal of unleashing the potential of emissions-free energy. DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and industry stakeholders are working to advance reactor construction of new nuclear reactors. The Committee will examine how DOE R&D can best contribute to this goal through the advancement of various nuclear energy technologies."
"Federal climate research activities: The Committee will continue to monitor programs to address climate change issues across the Federal government to ensure that existing programs are necessary, appropriately focused, effectively coordinated, and properly organized to prevent duplication of efforts and waste taxpayer resources."
"National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Forecasting: The Committee will examine funding prioritization and program management challenges related to the NOAA’s mission to understand and predict changes in weather, particularly as they relate to severe weather events that threaten life and property."
"NASA Earth Science: The Committee will monitor NASA’s efforts to prioritize, plan, and implement Earth science missions within cost and schedule. Particular attention will be paid to programs that exceed cost estimates to ensure they do not adversely impact the development and launch of other NASA priorities. The Committee will also examine the impact of large increases in funding for the Earth Science Directorate relative to funding requested for other science disciplines."
"National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST): The Committee will conduct program oversight for NIST, and other programs in the Department of Commerce, paying special attention to the evaluation of their alignment with and impact on industry. NIST manages a number of multi-agency manufacturing initiatives. The Committee will scrutinize these initiatives to ensure they are operating effectively and efficiently, and to ensure that they are not encroaching on areas better served by the private sector. In another area of NIST, the Committee is aware that America’s competitive position can be dramatically improved, or weakened, depending on how standards for different products and processes are developed. NIST is the only federal agency with long-term expertise in this arena, and the Committee is concerned that the cooperation on standards development across agencies is less than optimal. Furthermore, the Committee intends to review the six laboratory units of the agency to ensure they are operating effectively in preparation for reauthorizing these activities."
"Advanced Technologies: The Committee will examine R&D programs to ensure that they are focused in areas that support the most promising new areas of technology, including bio, nano, energy and health sectors. Real improvements in the cost and accuracy of health care can be achieved through effective integration of information technology within the health care industry. NIST has a critical role to play in helping to develop standards and conformance testing processes that will protect patient privacy and minimize private sector waste. The Committee will also examine NIST’s role in the development of the smart grid, the management of cross-agency information technology (NITRD) and nanotechnology (NNI) research programs, and measurement science underpinning the biotechnology industry."
"National Science Foundation (NSF): The Committee will continue to oversee the NSF. With the recent reauthorization of the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, special attention will be paid to the implementation, execution and effectiveness of these new programs.
"Further, the Committee will look for ways to trim duplicative and unused programs in an effort to maximize available resources. The innovative work of the National Science Foundation is important to the economic prosperity and competitiveness of the United States. However, there are various activities within the Foundation that may go beyond the mission of the agency and require more scrutiny and potential cuts in order to ensure that federal investments in basic science remain primarily focused on research that actually benefits the Nation."
"Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics (STEM) K-12 oversight: STEM education is vital to the 21st Century economy. Members of the Committee have expressed interests in improving STEM education activities from pre-K through graduate and continuing education in order to cultivate a top-notch future scientific and technical workforce, including well-qualified teachers in STEM fields. Determining the appropriate forms of federal support for these outcomes is important to the Committee.
"While STEM education is critical to maintaining the scientific and technical workforce essential to our competitiveness, many duplicative, wasteful, or simply unused programs exist across a number of federal agencies and must be more closely examined and, where warranted, cut."
"Academic/Industry Partnerships: The Committee will review the effectiveness and consequences of academic/industry partnerships. Agencies and universities are again debating the level of scrutiny and control that should be applied to research in light of the possible use by our adversaries of American discoveries and inventions. At the same time, industry questions the value of controls on technology sales and argues that such controls disproportionately limit American firms in competition for global sales. How to balance these competing interests remains a perennial subject for Committee oversight."
"U.S. Antarctic and Arctic Programs: The U.S. has conducted operations on the Antarctic continent under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty System since 1959, and U.S. research activities in the Arctic predate that. The NSF serves as the steward for U.S. interests in Antarctica. Research in these extreme regions is a fundamental component to understanding the Earth and its systems. The future of the icebreaker fleet that provides vital logistical support for NSF activities in the harsh polar environments continues to be of concern."
"NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) program: The Committee will continue to monitor and oversee NSF’s MREFC program, including how priorities for projects are developed, long-term budgeting for such priorities, and decision-making with regards to ever-changing scientific community needs."
"Government-wide R&D initiatives in emerging fields: The Committee will continue to oversee the collaboration and interagency process associated with emerging fields such as networking and information technology, biotechnology, cybersecurity, and nanotechnology."
"Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository closure decision: The Committee will continue to evaluate DOE’s decision to close the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository."
"NOAA satellite modernization: The Committee will continue its close monitoring of satellite modernization at NOAA. The restructured Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) will continue to draw the Committee’s attention, as will the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites and the broader issues of research-to-operations planning and data continuity."
"Critical minerals, materials, and isotopes: The Committee will provide oversight of materials, minerals, and isotopes that are critical to U.S. national interests. Recent shortages and supply concerns associated with helium-3, rare earth elements, californium-251, and plutonium-238 highlight the need to be ever vigilant in our monitoring of critical materials, minerals and isotopes."
"Scientific integrity: The Committee will continue to collect and examine allegations of intimidation of science specialists in federal agencies, suppression or revisions of scientific finding, and mischaracterization of scientific findings because of political or other pressures. The Committee’s oversight will also involve the development and implementation of scientific integrity principles within the executive branch."