It seemed entirely harmless: the creation of an honorary and unpaid position of science laureate of the United States to travel around the country and inspire children to be future scientists.
But Republicans in Congress last week quashed the initiative, which had gained rare bipartisan support, on the grounds that a science laureate might support action on climate change.
The bill had been scheduled for swift approval last week. It would have allowed Barack Obama to name up to three laureates at a time to the two-year term. The posts would all be unpaid, and appointees’ credentials would be vetted by the National Academy of Sciences.
But after urging from the American Conservative Union, which bills itself as the country’s largest and oldest grassroots conservative organisation, Republicans in the House leadership pulled the science laureate bill off the schedule, and sent it for revision.
In a letter to members of Congress, Larry Hart, a former Republican congressional aide and the legislative director of the ACU, warned a science laureate might give Barack Obama another chance to advance the case for climate action.
“Although the bill seems innocuous, it will provide the opportunity for President Obama to make an appointment of someone (or more than one person) who will share his view that science should serve political ends, on such issues as climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases,” Hart wrote in the letter.
A staffer for one of the Republican co-sponsors of the bill told Science Insider, which first reported on the cancelled vote, that the opposition to a science ambassador was wrong-headed.
As first proposed last spring, the idea of a science laureate was intended to encourage American schoolchildren to choose science as a career — especially girls and minorities.
“The U.S. Science Laureate will be a national role model who can encourage students to learn more about the sciences,” Senator Mazie Hirono, the Hawaii Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement at the time.
“By elevating great American scientific communicators, we can empower students — especially girls and minorities — to get excited about science.” The Republicans’ decision to scuttle the post — putting off a potential vote — looked bound to solidify the party’s reputation for denying the science underlying climate change in particular, as well as being generally anti-science.
Some Republicans have begun to privately express concern about being seen as the anti-science party. But so far they remain in the minority. More than half of Republicans in the house and 65 per cent of Republicans in the Senate deny the existence of climate change or oppose action on climate change, according to an analysis by the Centre for American Progress.
Republicans in the House have voted 53 times to block action on climate or energy-saving measures such as the phasing out of incandescent bulbs. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013