The bipartisan caucus will seek “strong and sustained” funding for the Earth and space sciences at a time when the House has targeted geosciences research for cuts.
At a well-attended reception on Capitol Hill last week, Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO) and David Jolly (R-FL) launched the House Earth and Space Science Caucus, which they will co-chair. The purpose of the caucus is “to promote and broaden awareness of the societal, economic, and scientific advancements made possible by the Earth and space sciences.” In addition to illustrating the value of these sciences to members of Congress and their staff, the caucus will push for “strong and sustained” funding for the geosciences and space sciences and advocate for their inclusion in K-12 STEM education curricula.
Polis, Jolly, and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations subcommittee, attended the reception, all three offering remarks in support of the caucus. Honda’s presence was notable given that his subcommittee writes the legislation that funds NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
In representing his constituents, Polis is a natural fit as co-chair of a caucus dedicated to the Earth and space sciences. His congressional district includes the University of Colorado at Boulder, a major science research institution that is home to the NASA-sponsored Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics; a cluster of major NIST and NOAA scientific laboratories and institutes; and the NSF-sponsored National Center for Atmospheric Research.
“In the 21st century, it’s crucial to continue to broaden awareness and align policy with Earth and space sciences,” said Polis. He continued:
“The House Earth and Space Caucus will focus on placing scientific research and evidence in the forefront of congressional and national discussions, while also continuing to support ideas that will promote STEM education programs for the next generation. I’m honored to be the Democratic co-chair…and look forward to the accomplishments we’ll achieve.”
Jolly, whose Florida district is on the low-lying peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, also emphasized the importance of looking to science to help guide policy decisions:
“The earth and space sciences exist in every congressional district around the country, yet so many times go unnoticed. Bringing attention to these issues and working with Earth and space scientists will help us better understand the breadth of research that can inform our decisions as policymakers. As the representative of a coastal district that depends upon sound science for the health of our ocean and shores, I’m committed to working with my colleagues to support federal investment in the earth and spaces sciences and to foster an exchange of ideas and information as they relate to the geosciences.”
Geosciences targeted for cuts in recent years
The creation of a caucus dedicated to the Earth and space sciences comes at a time when geosciences funding has come under increased scrutiny and at times direct attack in both chambers of Congress. In recent years, Congress has included provisions in must-pass legislation that have constrained the growth of federally-funded geosciences research or blocked specific climate change research programs from advancing.
For example, House-sponsored language included in the fiscal year 2015 appropriations law effectively blocked any of NSF’s funding increase that year from being allocated to the foundation’s geosciences research directorate. Similar House-supported language in fiscal year 2016 would have gone even further, leading to severe funding cuts in the geosciences and social sciences research directorates at NSF for the current year. That language was removed following a vigorous campaign by the scientific and university research community to get the language struck last year.
House appropriators, with support from leaders in the House Science Committee majority, have also singled out NOAA climate research for funding cuts for multiple years, thus far meeting success. In the current year, NOAA climate research is funded at $158 million, 30 percent below its fiscal year 2010 peak of $225.1 million.
Key authorizing legislation in the House has also targeted the geosciences. Last May, the full House approved the Science Committee’s America COMPETES bill that would reauthorize NSF's research directorates at specific funding levels in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The proposed funding authorization for the Geosciences Directorate in both years is $1.200 billion, a $119 million or 9 percent cut from the level at which the directorate is funded in the current year.
While the House has been the arena for most of the attempts at geosciences funding cuts in recent years, at least one senator has jumped onto the bandwagon as well. At a hearing last year, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) called into question the current level of federal investment in the Earth sciences at NASA and whether the geosciences count as a “hard science.” Despite Cruz’s foray, NASA’s Earth Science Division has thus far been spared the downsizing appropriators have given NSF geosciences or NOAA climate research. NASA Earth Science has received steady funding increases in recent years that are commensurate with the overall annual funding increases for the Science Mission Directorate.
When Honda spoke at Wednesday’s reception, he made clear that as an appropriator he intends to use the clout of his ranking member position to continue to back science, including the Earth and space sciences:
“Having a better understanding of natural systems allows for more informed policy. Policy makers have long undervalued the importance of scientific research in helping inform decisions, especially in our strategy to address the effects of climate change. This Space and Earth Science Caucus will look to change that. We need to ensure the sciences are given robust support and funding as well as a strong voice in government to help shape the policies and conversations to make our planet and country a better place for all.”
Caucus alliance seeking additional members
The caucus is supported organizationally by the Earth & Space Science Caucus Alliance, which includes the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the American Geosciences Institute, the Soil Science Society, and the National Groundwater Association.
AGU will chair the alliance through the 115th Congress. Those interested in joining or assisting the alliance or learning more should contact Brittany Webster (bwebster [at] agu.org).