The U.S. scientific community stands to lose one of its staunchest congressional supporters—and occasional harshest critic—after Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) announced today that he is retiring from Congress at the end of 2014.
The 74-year-old Wolf, who was first elected in 1980, is now the chairman of a spending panel that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Department of Commerce. Over the years, he has used that powerful position to advocate for increased federal support for research, improved science education, and the importance of technology and innovation to bolster the U.S. economy. He was one of four legislators who requested the wildly influential 2005 National Academies report on how to strengthen U.S. science, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. It led to the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which helped bolster political support for increased research spending.
Wolf’s expansive vision for NSF once included a proposal to create a $1 billion prize to address important societal needs, funded by the private sector but managed by the agency’s renowned system of peer review. The idea never became a reality, but it captured his belief in the value of science. It also addressed his ongoing concerns about the need to curb overall government spending and shrink the massive federal debt.
At the same time, Wolf has been a sharp critic of what he regards as the U.S. government’s naivety toward China. A passionate defender of human rights and religious freedom, he was appalled by that country’s civil rights record and viewed any scientific collaboration with China as misguided—as well as an open invitation to economic espionage. In 2011, for example, he inserted language into a spending bill that blocked the White House and NASA from carrying out any joint activities with China. That language remains in effect, although it has been modified to allow cooperative efforts that the president deems to be in the national interest.
Those stances leave space scientists with mixed feelings about Wolf’s departure. “He was a friend to the planetary community,” says Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, noting that Wolf pushed back against budget cuts that NASA has sought to make to its planetary science budget in the last 2 years. At the same time, Wolf’s aggressive efforts to keep Chinese nationals out of NASA facilities angered many space researchers. “It’s been rather difficult working with our Chinese colleagues because of his strictures,” says a university astronomer who did not wish to be named.
In his statement to the press, Wolf cited his religious beliefs as the driving force for his decision not to seek reelection in November 2014. “As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation, and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Wolf said. “I plan to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom – both domestic and international – as well as matters of the culture and the American family.”
The rules of his own party may also have played a part in his decision. Although he has been reelected repeatedly by comfortable margins to a district in northern Virginia that has become increasingly purple, Wolf would no longer have served as chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations subcommittee in 2015 because of a 6-year limit imposed by the Republican leadership. He is the longest-serving member of the Virginia delegation and the second most senior Republican on the full Appropriations Committee.
With reporting by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.