How does the 2012 election change policies on science, space & technology?

Every election year brings about changes to the US Senate and House of Representatives.  But for scientists, it’s important to pay attention to the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  This committee presides over all federal, non-defense scientific research and development spending.  In other words, this committee has jurisdiction over NASA, DOE, NIH, NSF, and NOAA policy to make sure US tax dollars are being spent in accordance with committee views.  Despite the grand name, the committee actually has little power over how tax dollar are spent, which is decided by the Senate appropriations committee.  However, they do make important broad policy decisions and can conduct oversight hearings on the above mentioned agencies.

During this election year, let’s take a moment to reflect upon some of the current and outgoing members to this committee.  After all, 10 current members have either been defeated or are retiring.  That is almost a third of the committee and could lead to changes on how scientific policy is determined over the next couple of years.

Let’s start by bidding a glorious adieu to Congressman Todd Akin (R-Missouri) who lost his re-election campaign.  You might remember Congressman Akin’s recent viral comments on “legitimate rape” that he made on August 19, 2012.  I won’t subject our readers to his complete lack of human physiology, but if you’re interested in you can read it here.  If Congressman Akin is this clueless on 7th grade reproduction, I would hate to learn about his views on more complex scientific policy.  Thank you Missouri residents for driving US scientific policy forward one politician at a time.

Congressman Paul Broun (R-Georgia) who was unopposed in his recent re-election campaign is also a current member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  Congressman Broun believes that evolution, embryology and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”  These remarks actually prompted James Leebens-Mack, a plant biologists at the University of Georgia start a Facebook write-in campaign for Charles Darwin to run against Paul Broun.  Apparently being deceased for 130 years didn’t stop more than 4000 people from inking Darwin’s name against Congressman Broun in Dr. Leebens-Mack district.  Let’s hope Paul Broun will start paying attention to this portion of his constituents.

Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland), the second oldest member of the US House of Representatives, and one of the few with a doctoral degree, lost re-election this past week.  Congressman Bartlett often backed increased funding for basic research especially in the area of renewable energy.  We’ll be lucky if a like-minded individual fills this seat.

The committee will most likely be welcoming back physicist Bill Foster (D-Illinois) who recently won election in his district and subsequently ousted a current committee member, Judy Biggert.  Foster was a former member of this committee during his seven year stint as a Congressman.  Science support actually played a large role in this election campaign since Foster’s Congressional district included the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

In addition, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is in the process of electing a new chair.  The current chair, Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas) has reached his term limit for committee chair.  With Republican majority in the US House of Representatives, three conservative members have shown interest in the position including Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (California), Lamar Smith (Texas), and James Sensenbrenner (Wisconsin).  James Sensenbrenner was previously chair of this committee during the Clinton administration.  Unfortunately, all three have denied climate change, so don’t expect major recommendations for clean energy from this committee anytime soon.

Let us know how you think membership changes to this committee will reflect US science policy in the upcoming years.

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While You Were at the Bench: Week 38

In case you were glued to your lab bench, here is a roundup of this week in science.

United States science budgets will be cut by 8.2% starting January 2nd, 2013 unless Congress gets its act together and approves a budget to drastically reduce spending.  This means NIH and NSF budgets could be trimmed by 2.5 billion and 551 million respectively.  Ouch!

Noncontact atomic force microscopy developed by IBM scientists has allowed detection of individual chemical bonds within a single molecule.  This has important implications for graphene structures and devices.  Where can I preorder tickets for that space elevator?  For those without access, view a summary of the article here.

Just in time for flu season, researchers have unraveled the crystal structure of the human protein responsible for neutralizing the influenza A virus.  This could lead to the development of a universal flu vaccine.

After controlling for caloric intake and hours spent watching television (among a plethora of other factors), researchers found that children and adolescents with the highest levels of urinary bisphenol A (BPA) were 2.6 times more likely to be obese compared with those who had the lowest urinary concentrations.  And people think I’m over protective for limiting my daughter’s exposure to BPA.  A synopsis of the article can be found here.

In the coming months, an estimated 200 papers authored by anaesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, formerly of Toho University in Tokyo are expected to be retracted due to data fabrication.  It’s unfortunate that such an important aspect of medical research has been rocked by hundreds of retractions these past 3 years.

After outfitting bumblebees with miniature radar antenna and tracking their movements, researchers determined how bumblebees use trial-and-error to quickly determine the shortest distance between objects.  Algorithms describing these learning patterns could be used in robotics for exploring unfamiliar terrain.   Now if we can just get sharks with some frickin laser beams.

Try to stay out of the lab and enjoy your weekend.

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