Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, chairman of the House of Representatives science committee since 2013 and a burr in the side of countless social and climate scientists, will not seek re-election in 2018, he announced today. His time on the committee has been marked by continual attempts to erode federal support of certain kinds of science he determined were not “high quality,” in particular social and behavioral science and anything that might acknowledge the reality of climate change.
Since the House originates spending bills, and this committee authorizes budgets for the National Science Foundation, this is arguably the most important legislative panel that affects social and behavioral science. His decision potentially reorders the contentious terrain surrounding social — and general — science funding. Smith likely would not have returned as chair of the science panel even if he were re-elected and the GOP were to retain a majority in the House, since he was bumping up against a Republican-enforced six-year term limit as a committee chair.
“I love my job,” Smith told the Dallas Morning News. “If I were able to continue as chairman of the science committee… I would be running for reelection.”
Smith also noted his chairmanship, but not the tension, in announcing his departure.
“For several reasons, this seems like a good time to pass on the privilege of representing the 21st District to someone else,” he was quoted in a statement. “At the end of this Congress, I will have completed my six-year term as Chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. I have one new grandchild and a second arriving soon!!”
Smith’s efforts to defenestrate social science research usually takes the form of arguing that much of it is wasteful, frivolous, or not high quality, and thus not worthy of taxpayer money that should go to other scientific research in a permanent binary. “When NSF funds projects that don’t meet such standards,” he said last year in promoting on his his perennial ‘national interest’ bills, “there is less money to support scientific research that keeps our country at the forefront of innovation.”
In another binary, Smith’s House sparring partner has most often been another Texan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson. “Chairman Smith has been investigating [National Science Foundation] grants he doesn’t like since he became chairman of the committee,” she said in a representative example of their banter from 2015. “This legislative effort is very much connected to his effort to impose his own, political level of review on NSF’s gold standard merit-review process.”
Science commentators have routinely used the term “anti-science” to describe Smith and the science committee under his hand, especially as he increased the tempo of using the committee’s subpoena power against those who accept climate-change.
With a year left of his chairmanship to go — “[T]here is still much to do. There is legislation to enact, dozens of hearings to hold, and hundreds of votes to cast,” his statement reads — scientists contacted by this site were wary of commenting on Smith’s standing down.
Smith, who represents a traditionally Republican district that includes tonier parts of the major cities of San Antonio and Austin, and then blooms in a large piece of south central Texas hill country to the west of those metropolises, has served 16 terms in Congress. While the district has been solidly Republican by design, Donald Trump won there less handily than did Mitt Romney, and a Democratic challenger who has focused in part of Smith’s anti-climate science stances has raising dramatically more campaign funding that has Smith to date.
Before taking his leadership role at the Science Committee, he chaired the powerful Judiciary Committee and the Ethics Committee. He also founded the Border Security Caucus and Media Fairness Caucus in the House. In a floor speech earlier this year, he urged Americans to get their new directly from Donald Trump, and not the news media: “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”