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U.S. Science Laureate Bill Hits Roadblock

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

Climate science skeptics have derailed a congressional proposal to create the honorary position of U.S. science laureate. But proponents haven’t abandoned the idea of giving someone a national platform to foster public understanding of science and serve as a role model.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to give swift approval to a bill introduced this spring by a bipartisan coalition of legislators in both the House and the Senate. The legislation would allow the president to name not more than three laureates at a time to an unpaid position that could last up to 2 years. The idea was considered so innocuous that it was to be brought up under special rules requiring a two-thirds majority and allowing no amendments.

The bill was never discussed in any committee, however, and Larry Hart of the American Conservative Union hit the roof when he saw it on the House calendar for the next day. (The Washington, D.C.-based group calls itself “the oldest and largest grassroots conservative organization in the nation.”) In a letter to other conservative organizations and every House member, Hart said the bill would give President Barack Obama the opportunity to appoint someone “who will share his view that science should serve political ends, on such issues as climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases.” He also called the bill “a needless addition to the long list of presidential appointments.”

The House Republican leadership reacted immediately, pulling the bill from the floor schedule. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) had introduced the bill along with Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chairs the House science committee, and a House Democratic aide says “we had expected it to pass easily. It’s no secret that Ms. Lofgren and chairman Smith don’t see eye-to-eye on many things. But they agree on the value of creating this honorary position.”

A staffer for another co-sponsor, Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL), took issue with Hart’s characterization of the bill as a vehicle for the president to advance his political agenda. “This is not a presidential appointment, and there would be no taxpayer money involved,” the aide said. “This bill is simply a chance to show our children that discovery science is important and that science can be an exciting and rewarding career.”

Supporters say the next step is to take the bill off its fast track and give legislators a chance to debate its merits. “The committee plans to mark up the bill this fall so that Members have an opportunity to offer amendments before reporting the bill back to the full House for consideration,” says a science committee aide. Proponents don’t expect the bill’s substance to change but are hoping that going through the normal process will smooth its passage. “It still seems like a pretty noncontroversial idea,” the Hultgren staffer says.

But Hart says that he’d like the bill’s supporters to clarify several provisions, including the number of laureates, length of service, and type of duties they would perform. And climate skeptic Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute says slowing the pace won’t change his organization’s stance on the bill. “There’s no way to make it work,” Ebell says. “It would still give scientists an opportunity to pontificate, and we’re opposed to it.”

Posted in Climate, People & Events, Scientific Community