Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas who is the new chairperson of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is proving that elections make a difference.
Johnson plans a full and active agenda for the committee to address the challenge of climate change and ensure U.S. global leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas. Also on the agenda is to “restore the credibility” of the committee “as a place where science is respected and recognized as a crucial input to good policymaking,” Johnson said in a statement after the Democrats won back the House in last November’s midterm elections.
The committee promises to have a very different focus than it did under its former chair, retired Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Smith has called climate scientists “alarmists,” and his hometown newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, has criticized Smith for the “abuse of his position” as committee chair.
Johnson spoke this week with Eos about the agenda of the Science Committee, which she calls a “committee of the future.”
Impact of the Shutdown
With the partial government shutdown, now in its 27th day, the committee has lost time in getting organized, and Johnson’s office currently does not know when committee members will be appointed.
However, she is eager to move forward. “For what we have missed in the past 6 years,” during Smith’s chairmanship, “we’ve got to make up a lot of lost time and a lot of ground in a short period of time. So the sooner we get started, the better,” Johnson told Eos. Johnson has served on the committee since being sworn into the House in 1993. “We had such denial” about climate change under Smith, said Johnson, the first woman and first African American to chair the committee. “The deniers are a dying breed, we hope.”
Johnson lamented the government shutdown and the “great impact” that it is having on science and scientists, with the near-total shutdown of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal science agencies. “This country was built upon a system that expected it to function. When you interrupt that, the interruption is a lot deeper and greater than what meets the eye,” she said. “So many people are distracted because of the personal burdens that this [shutdown] places on them. Even if we open today, catch up has to come because emotionally and mentally and physically, we’ve got to get ourselves going again, turn on the lights, turn on the heat.”
Bringing Back Credibility to the Committee
Johnson said that it was difficult to be in the minority on the committee when Smith was chairman. “It was not easy to be in the wilderness for so many years, because I kept thinking every day how we”—the committee—”were misstepping and essentially wasting time and trying to interfere with the various agencies that were looking and planning for the future rather than supporting them. That part of it we will end,” she said.
The committee under Smith was “a wilderness of true information” that “spent so much time going back to try to undo decided research results, for what reason I still don’t understand,” she said. Johnson said that agencies, including NSF and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “were just bashed for no reason to interrupt and interfere with the research that we need findings going forward. I’ve not been able to understand up to this day why that was useful.”
Taking on Climate Change
Johnson previously has called climate change “perhaps the biggest challenge of our time.” In her interview with Eos, Johnson explained why she believes this to be the case.
“If you read all the information that is coming from researchers all over, you will see that we are almost in a crisis shaped by neglect and not accepting that we’ve got to change our ways in how we use various forms of energy, and how easy it is for us to begin to make some of these corrections, of which we continue to ignore,” she said.
“We’re talking about a planet situation, not a neighborhood situation, not a state situation. Although I would say that some neighborhoods in some states are worse than others,” Johnson said. “We’re talking about setting goals for the future existence of human beings on this planet. And it is a global issue. And, as our history has planted us as leaders on the planet, we are expected to be leaders. And here we are denying that such a thing has even occurred when we get information every day about the melting in the Arctic, the bodies of water getting fuller, the planet is hotter than it’s ever been. All of these effects affect human existence and how we have to deal with that. We’ve got to get that information out. We’ve got to start taking those small steps that make a dent after a period of time to change some of that.”
For the past 6 years, the attitude “was more protecting the fossil fuel industry [and] denying that some change needs to come, rather than ushering in some direction of change,” Johnson said. She already has discussed climate change with the CEO of ExxonMobil, who, according to Johnson, expressed his concern about the United States withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. “It is not either us or them,” said Johnson, who represents parts of Dallas County and the surrounding area. ExxonMobil’s world headquarters are near her district and used to be within the district. “It is working together with industries because new technology will bring about new good paying jobs.”
Working Together on Issues?
Energy secretary Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, also visited with Johnson to see how they can work together on issues. “The mere fact that the change in leadership in the committee has come has made many of these people feel the responsibility of saying, Don’t look at me as just the enemy. You know, I’m willing to be at the table,” Johnson said.
“That’s good news,” she said. “We will take them up on that and make sure that we have good hearings to spread good sound information and results of research so we can get [on] a sensible path.”
Climate Change Hearings
Johnson said committee hearings about climate change could focus on many different angles, including climate change research. “We’ve got to hear from the researchers, the scientists, and we’ve got to do lots of that, because we haven’t had any of it in the past 6 years. And we are doing it as much for the members of the committee in order to get them ready to look at what we must do,” Johnson said. “We want to saturate the committee with that knowledge”—about climate change—“to make it look stupid to be in denial. That’s our number one goal.”
She said, however, that it is “yet to be determined” about any specific investigations about climate change. “We will have a very active committee. I intend to encourage subcommittees to meet. We will discuss what they have in mind and see if we can come up with a joint plan,” Johnson said.
Johnson also noted that her committee is working with other committees that have similar jurisdictions “and see if we can’t do something more coordinated.” Those other committees with overlapping jurisdiction related to climate change include the House Committee on Natural Resources, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and a new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced in December.
The Science, Natural Resources, and Energy and Commerce committees plan to hold a coordinated series of hearings over a 2-day period early this year “to assess the effects of climate change and the need for action,” according to an announcement by the three committee chairs on 14 November. That is still the plan, but the government shutdown has delayed things, Johnson said.
Where Does the Climate Crisis Committee Fit In?
Johnson said that her understanding about the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is that many of its members would be drawn from those who are on the other three committees that currently have jurisdiction over climate issues. She said that the select committee could make recommendations but that, unlike the standing committees, it would not have legislative or subpoena authority.
“We could do the same thing with standing committees, but this was something I think that was committed to some of the new people [in Congress]. We will work with them to see whether or not we’ve got two or three tracks running or whether we can collaborate together, especially since many of them will be coming from our three committees. I don’t anticipate that there will be friction” between the select committee and the standing committees, she said. “I anticipate perhaps that there will be a more in-depth study so that we can come up with some very sound recommendations.”
Common Sense of What Is Possible
Select committee chair Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) was quoted earlier this month in The Hill as saying that the committee will be “clearly in the spirit of the Green New Deal.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), an early supporter of the Green New Deal, an initiative calling for bold action to address climate change, has tweeted that she applauds the select committee but that it is too weak without subpoena power.
Johnson told Eos that “it’s difficult to tell” whether the Green New Deal is too ambitious, too naïve, or right on track. “I just know this: Whatever we are going to do is not going to happen overnight. Whatever we are going to do, we have got to make sure that every step is a sound step based on sound research and based on what we can afford to do at the time. So it’s good to have the ambitiousness. It’s good to have many of the ideas, but common sense has to set in at some point, too, of what’s possible,” she said. “Without the ambitiousness, I think sometimes we might miss an opportunity, but with the ambitiousness, we still have to have a pace of which we can achieve.”
Supporting Science and Science Agencies
With the Science Committee having jurisdiction over much of the nation’s nondefense federal research and development portfolio, Johnson highlighted her support for federal science agencies, many of which, including NSF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), came under attack by the committee’s previous chair, Rep. Smith.
NSF, Johnson said, is “one of the best-run national science foundations in the world with peer review.” NOAA, she commented, “is one of the most important agencies we have,” and she wants to see NOAA “have the free hand to do [its] work.” She also expressed concern that 2 years into the Trump administration, NOAA still does not have an administrator.
Johnson said several other concerns include the direction of the EPA and environmental rollbacks there, questions about the Trump administration’s proposal to end direct funding for the International Space Station by 2025, and getting detailed information about the administration’s proposed Space Force.
Johnson said that she has not yet met Kelvin Droegemeier, the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, whom many in the science community have praised while also questioning whether President Trump will listen to him. Droegemeier should “stay close to the scientific findings,” Johnson advised. “We’ve got to have people who are willing to defend what our findings are. We pay a lot for research, and we do it for a purpose. We do it because we need the knowledge, and when we get that knowledge, we should not be muffled.”
Pushing STEM and Inclusiveness in Science
Another priority for Johnson is STEM education and inclusiveness for women and minorities in STEM professions. “Whatever we have gained in this country, we’ve given just half of the brain power credit. And we know that we would do much better with using all of our brain power,” said Johnson, who last year introduced the STEM Opportunities Act and this year introduced the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act. “No matter which way you look at it, genders are different. They bring different things to the table. We must be inclusive, and especially with minority women and minorities in general.”
Johnson emphasized the need to start STEM education early to excite children’s curiosity in science. “When you see a seven and eight year old repeating every word that a rapper says, then we want that seven and eight year old to repeat something they’ve seen in space or something they’ve read or some movie they’ve seen that is scientifically oriented,” she said. “We want that same type of repetitiveness and stimulation going through that mind to try to make sure that we don’t miss a single brain cell being directed in a very useful area. We know that they might not be able to make as much money, but the satisfaction is so much greater when you can impact the world.”
A Way Forward
Johnson, who has called for Republicans and Democrats on her committee to work together, recognizes that congressional progress on climate change and other issues could be difficult in the current political environment, with President Trump moving in the opposite direction and with Republicans controlling the Senate.
However, she remains optimistic about making progress. “We are not going to do miracles overnight, but we can chart a way to get there step by step.”
“We ought to do what our responsibility is, and then try to sell it this way,” she said. “I do not believe that we have a public who would deny the good sound work of a committee or the findings of where we need to go in order to protect the people and the lives on this planet.”
What would Johnson want to tell President Trump about climate change? “I would try to convince him how important it is to face the truth,” the chairperson told Eos.
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer