The Dire Forecasts for U.K. Science Underestimated the Outcome

While the shape of the next U.K. government is still being haggled over, several accounts have already assessed one important outcome from yesterday’s election.

The decline of U.K. science experience in the Parliament is worse than expected.  The Times had estimated that the number of MPs with a science background and/or serious engagement with science issues would drop from 86 to 77.  It dropped to 71.  Oddly enough this mirrors a poorer than expected showing by the Liberal Democrats, who managed to lose seats compared to their standing in the previous Parliament.

Perhaps the chief casualty among those science supporters who lost their seat is Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman.  He came less than 200 votes shy of retaining his seat.  Even the Labour science minister noted that the loss of Dr. Harris will be keenly felt in Parliament.

Between the retirements and election losses, only one of the current members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee will be in the next Parliament.

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Is the National Science Foundation Constitutional?

Apparently one member of the House Science and Technology Committee thinks the answer is no.

Representative Paul Broun, Republican of Georgia, apparently believes this as it was offered by his office as an explanation for his no vote on a resolution recognizing the National Science Foundation’s 60th anniversary (the organization was founded in 1950).  Specifically, that the agency is not covered under the powers granted to Congress in Article 1, Section 8.

I’ll put aside differences of constitutional interpretation to make another point.  Rep. Broun currently sits as Ranking Member of the Science and Technology Committee’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee.  While he has made one good inquiry that I’m familiar with – bugging the Office of Science and Technology Policy about its recommendations on scientific integrity – a belief that at least one agency that he has power to investigate shouldn’t exist presents the appearance of a conflict of interest.  I suspect his interest in rigid ideological consistency will trump his Congressional responsibilities.

This is troubling because it makes his motivations on investigations involving that agency – and any others he thinks are inappropriate for the federal government to have – suspect.  Does he really think there’s a problem deserving of investigation, or is he looking for an excuse to rail against an agency because he doesn’t like it?  Going forward, my initial instinct will be not to trust him.  While he argued for cutting back (or cutting out) most of the spending in the America COMPETES legislation (I watched the epic markup session), I did not hear him make constitutional claims about any of the agencies covered by the bill.  Perhaps he was aware he was being recorded.

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