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Moderate takes key science role in Congress

Nature volume 409, page 125 (11 January 2001) | Download Citation



A moderate Republican with a keen interest in environmental and energy issues has been named as chair the Science Committee in the US House of Representatives.

Man in the middle: Boehlert has used his moderation to build influence on Capitol Hill. Image: AP

The selection of Sherwood Boehlert (Republican, New York) to head the panel is good news for the scientific community at a time when it awaits, with uncertainty and even some trepidation, news of the science administrators in President George W. Bush's administration.

Sherry Boehlert is regarded as smart, sympathetic to science and — critically for the science panel — effective at getting results in Congress. Since 1995, when Republicans won control of the House, Boehlert has skilfully exploited his position as a moderate Republican to foster influence, especially on environmental policy.

“I'm looking forward to an exciting couple of years,” Boehlert said in an interview the day after his selection. “Science policy is of critical importance to our future as a nation.” He pledged to work for additional funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), and other agencies under the committee's jurisdiction.

“We've got a wide-open portfolio, and it would be presumptuous of me to lay out an agenda at this stage. But one thing we will need to do is to help to develop a comprehensive, coherent energy policy.”

The Science Committee oversees most US research that is not medical or military, including the space agency NASA and civilian research at the Department of Energy as well as the NSF and NIST. As the only committee in either house of Congress devoted to science, it has traditionally served as an important forum for scientific issues.

But under its past two chairs, Robert Walker (Republican, Pennsylvania) and James Sensenbrenner (Republican, Wisconsin), science lobbyists have seen the committee as partisan and insufficiently committed to the cause of the research agencies under its jurisdiction.

Sensenbrenner alienated the scientific community by failing to back a bill that would have authorized the doubling of research spending, and by pursuing what many saw as a political vendetta against the Advanced Neutron Spallation Source project at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Boehlert's arrival is likely to result in a resumption of the wide-ranging discussion of science that the committee conducted under its most recent Democratic chairman, the late and much-lamented George Brown. “We are going to move in the direction of committee staff having solid scientific backgrounds,” says Boehlert.

As for fears that his moderate reputation will weaken the committee — Boehlert is the only one of 13 Republican House committee chairs named last week who is not seen as a conservative — he views it as a strength.

“I don't sense any isolation,” he says. “I'm where the overwhelming majority of the American people are — in the middle ground.”

Boehlert also hopes that his friendship with Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), which dates from their arrival in the House together in 1982, will help the Science Committee to get Senate attention for its legislative ideas. McCain is chair of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

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