• Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

'Healthy Skeptic' on Climate Change Promises Hearings by Science Subcommittee

9 February 2011 10:00 am

The House of Representatives science committee's panel on basic research and education plans to hold hearings on climate change to present more views on the topic, says its new chair, freshman Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL).

Brooks, a lawyer and veteran elected state and county official from Huntsville whose district includes NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, leapt over more senior members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to head the panel that oversees research activities at the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Commerce. He says that he hasn't seen "anything that convinces me" global warming is real, much less caused by human activity. And he's more than a little skeptical about the motives of those urging the U.S. government and the rest of the world to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

I'm also old enough to remember when the same left-wing part of our society was creating a global cooling scare in order to generate funds for their pet projects. So 30-some years ago the big scare was global cooling, and once they drained that [topic], they shifted to global warming. So I'm approaching the issue with a healthy degree of skepticism. If the evidence is there to prove it, then so be it.

Brooks, 56, says he's trying to keep an open mind on a number of issues that come before the subcommittee, including federal funding of academic research, support for training future scientists and engineers, and an immigration policy that welcomes foreign-born scientists "who are highly skilled and who will generate more tax dollars than they will consume" while excluding all other immigrants. He relishes the opportunity to explore technological issues for which he once showed an aptitude, he adds, noting that he turned to politics because of his disappointment with the outcome of the Vietnam War after the U.S. government chose not to "get into it to win."

Here is an edited transcript of his conversation yesterday with ScienceInsider.

Q: Is human activity causing global warming?
That's a difficult question to answer because I've talked to scientists on both sides of the fence, especially at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Some say yes, and some say no. I'm also old enough to remember when the same left-wing part of our society was creating a global cooling scare in order to generate funds for their pet projects. So 30-some years ago, the big scare was global cooling, and once they drained the government, they shifted to global warming. So I'm approaching the issue with a healthy degree of skepticism. If the evidence is there to prove it, then so be it.

Q: What evidence would be convincing, in your mind?
I'm going to leave that up to the proponents. For right now, the fact that there may be some global warming doesn't necessarily establish that it's caused by humans. If you look at climatological data going back centuries or millennia, we have periods of cooling, like the Ice Age, and warming. So it's cyclical. So how are the proponents going to convince us that it's not just part of a cyclical pattern? After we hold hearings on this subject, I'll know more. And we're going to have public hearings on the topic.

Q: Leaving that aside, should the government take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
Well, let me give you some background. I've been a member of the Sierra Club on occasion, and I was attacked in the Republican primary for having been a member of the Sierra Club. I very much believe in controlling pollution so we have better air to breathe and better water to drink and the proper disposal of hazardous waste. And I like going to our national parks. I'm very much the outdoorsman.

But having said that, with respect to carbon dioxide emissions, there's some good associated with that, to the extent that we have higher levels of carbon dioxide. That means that plant life grows better, because it is an essential gas for all forms of plant life.

Does that mean I want more of it? I don't know about the adverse effects of carbon dioxide on human beings. I'm not familiar with any, at present levels. But other pollutants, like sulfur dioxides and nitrous oxides, we know they have harmful effects on people, and we need to reduce them.

But I haven't seen anything that convinces me, keeping in mind I haven't had any public hearings on the topic yet. I haven't heard a bank of scientists going into the details of their methodologies that get beyond the fluff and that are something one needs to pay attention to, to formulate a sound opinion.

Q: There have been lots of hearings over the years by Congress, including the science committee ... .
But I haven't been on those committees.

Q: Where will you turn to get impartial advice on the subject?
M.B.: Scientists who are both proponents and opponents.

Q: Do you believe that federal research should be exempt from a rollback in federal spending to 2008 levels?
I would love for that to happen. But we just don't have the money. ... We have no choice but to look at everything. If we don't balance our budget over a short period of time, the federal government is going to collapse and there won't be money for any of these things. So if we're going to save money for research and advancement in science, we're going to have to get our house in order now.

Q: Do you think the government should increase funding on research once things turn around?
Do you mean if the budgetary situation turns around? I don't see that happening in the next 4 to 5 years. We've got a $1.5 trillion budget deficit, and Admiral Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has declared it the number one security threat to the country. And if our creditors would cut us off, there would be zero money for national defense or NSF or anything else.

Q: Should universities focus more on education rather than research?
I think both are important.

Q: Are they putting the federal research money to good use now?
If it's like most government programs, I would expect to find some grants that are very productive, some that are less productive, and some that have little or no productivity.

Q: How do you measure that productivity? Jobs created, publications, new knowledge generated?
All of those are factors. And you don't want to focus on one over the other. It comes down to judgment, based on the information we uncover as we conduct public hearings.

Q: Does the country have enough scientists and engineers?
I'm doing my part. I have two sons who are engineers. ... My younger son is a senior in aerospace engineering at Auburn University, and my older son is a mechanical engineer. And my father was an electrical engineer. I'm the aberrant one. I went into political science and law school, although all my aptitude tests said I should go into engineering because my scores were highest in those areas.

Q: So why didn't you become an engineer?
Quite frankly, it was the Vietnam War. I saw how the government was sending our youth into harm's way with one hand tied behind their backs and expecting them to fight. My view was that we need to either get into it to win, and use all means at our disposal, or you don't get into it at all. So that experience in the 1960s and 1970s impressed upon me the magnitude and power of the federal government, and the impact it can have on all of us if that power is not used wisely.

Q: Getting back to whether the supply of scientists is adequate ...
No, I don't think we have enough scientists and engineers.

Q: So what should the federal government do?
I'm not sure of the best role. It may be to provide additional scholarships to produce incentives for people to educate themselves in science and math and engineering. Or it may be giving students who graduate with those degrees a tax credit as an incentive to go into those fields. There are plenty of things we can do, and I don't know the best route. What do you suggest?

Q: There are a lot of programs currently, aimed at different levels of the education pipeline.
Well, in K-12 you have STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] programs. In college you have financial incentives, although people who are getting into science and math already have a significant incentive, and that is well-paying jobs. They are highly marketable. So we should be exploring anything we can do within our current financial limitations.

Q: Do you think legislation to restrict immigration will limit the flow of foreign scientific talent into the country? Is that a concern?
No, it's not a concern, and the reason is that I think we should very much restrict immigration in a general sense and expel illegal immigrants while adopting sound immigration policies that permit immigrants who are highly skilled and who will generate more tax dollars than they will consume. So foreigners who are scientists and engineers are exactly the type of people we want to welcome. And illegal immigration is a separate issue. Our policies should allow only those people who will be net producers rather than consumers of tax dollars.

Q: Can we afford a robust space program?
Yes, and I think we should have one.

Q: At the expense of robotic missions?
I think it ought to be at the expense of programs across the government that are of lesser priority, in particular the wealth-transfer programs that generate little or no wealth for America.

Q: You mean outside of NASA?
We've got entitlement programs and interest on the debt that exceed our overall revenue.

Q: Are you opposed to earmarks for academic research?
I haven't thought about it in the context of research, but in the House Republican caucus, I voted to allow earmarks.

Q: And your reason?
That there are plenty of legitimate federal programs, like national defense and highway construction, that are appropriate for the earmarking process. I think it is also uniquely within the purview of the Congress to prioritize what roads we're going to build and what weapons systems we will R&D and then implement.