Joe Barton, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sherwood Boehlert, chair of the House Science Committee, aren't exactly known for being the best of pals. Their "rocky relationship," as one former Capitol Hill science-policy staffer put it, appears to date back to the early 1990s, when Boehlert led the successful opposition to the multibillion-dollar Superconducting Supercollider project, a massive underground atom smasher that would have been sited at Waxahachie, Texas, in Barton's district. Later Barton would recall that "one of the biggest disappointments that I will ever have was when they killed the [Superconducting Supercollider] on the House floor." Nowadays, adds another staffer, "there's no love lost" between Barton and Boehlert.
Some of that animosity seemed on display recently when Boehlert sent Barton a sharply worded letter rebuking him for opening a controversial investigation of climate scientist Michael Mann and Mann's colleagues. It's an inquiry in which Barton has awkwardly positioned himself as a scientific data auditor trying to get to the bottom of a complicated debate about the history of the earth's climate, in the process posing questions about such arcane topics as the "R2 statistic for the temperature reconstruction" and "archived Gaspe tree ring data." Barton has also demanded funding, grant, and data archive information arcing back over the entire careers of the scientists he's pestering, a request that seriously alarmed many academic scientists and their defenders -- including Sherwood Boehlert.
"I am writing to express my strenuous objections to what I see as the misguided and illegitimate investigation you have launched," began Boehlert's letter to Barton -- and it didn't lose any steam from there. "The insensitivity toward the workings of science demonstrated in your investigative letter may reflect your Committee's inexperience in the areas you are investigating," snapped Boehlert, who seemed particularly piqued that Barton had strayed into the Science Committee's jurisdictional territory by investigating climate research. "The only conceivable explanation for the investigation," Boehlert later continued, "is to attempt to intimidate a prominent scientist and to have Congress put its thumbs on the scales of a scientific debate. This is at best foolhardy; when it comes to scientific debates, Congress is all thumbs.'"
The heated language here sounds personal, but there's much more lurking behind this spat than dislike or a turf war. First, the current rift between these two senior Republicans reflects the stark differences in outlook between a northeastern, pro-environment moderate (Boehlert) and a conservative, Texan pal of the energy industry (Barton). More importantly still, it reflects two radically different viewpoints on a key question of science policy: What protocols ought to exist to ensure the quality of, and access to, scientific data that serve as the basis for policy relevant conclusions? And alternatively, to what extent should scientists themselves be shielded from burdensome data requests that may in some cases verge upon harassment?
At first glance, this might appear an obscure topic. But in fact, it has been at the center of repeated skirmishes over the years between the Barton camp (let's call it "industry science") and the Boehlert camp (let's call it "university science"). In 1998, for example, Republican Senator Richard Shelby slipped through Congress an appropriations rider -- now known as the "Shelby Amendment" -- allowing the use of the Freedom of Information Act to procure "all data" resulting from publicly funded research. Industry cheered, but the academic community was incensed, fearing the Barton-style intimidation and harassment of researchers who had produced controversial, policy-relevant results.
A few years later, meanwhile, Republican Representative Jo Ann Emerson slipped through another controversial appropriations rider, the "Data Quality Act," which now allows interested parties (especially industry) to wage detailed warfare on scientific studies that could lead to government regulatory action. Once again, the scientific community showed considerable concern, even as "data quality" has since become a buzzword for defenders of industry science. Barton's committee has repeatedly cited the concept to defend the climate-science investigation that it has opened.
Seen in this context, Barton's current inquiry -- an attack on the "hockey stick" work, which provides dramatic evidence of an unprecedented modern-day temperature spike and has repeatedly been challenged by conservative, industry-friendly groups -- seems a logical extension of regulated businesses' unceasing campaign to find new ways of challenging inconvenient scientific results. It's not enough, apparently, that companies farm out research to their own scientists who tend to reach industry-friendly conclusions. Industry groups also want to be able to "get the data" underlying academic and other scientific studies that could prompt adverse government regulatory action affecting their profit margins. Then they can attack, undermine, or dispute the research, perhaps by passing the data on to friendly think tanks, or even their own scientists, to reanalyze.
Suffice it to say, then, that this intense interest in "data access" and "data quality" is not a matter of pure intellectual curiosity. In fact, the entire strategy of generating sympathetic science while disputing science coming from other quarters -- particularly academic research -- has been dubbed "manufacturing uncertainty." It's certainly a technique that has been brought to bear in the climate-change area, where work suggesting that humans are heating the planet, such as that of Mann and his colleagues, has been singled out for attack even though multiple other studies support the same conclusions.
But as his letter rebuking Barton makes clear, Boehlert stands well apart from this industry-friendly "data quality" tradition. He doesn't think that academic scientists ought to be harassed just because they may have produced controversial results, and he doesn't think that congressional committees (rather than scientific journals) are appropriate places to resolve complicated disputes over data. Unconvinced by clever rhetoric about scientific openness and the sharing of information, Boehlert appears wise to the ways in which special interests go on the offensive when they see research they don't like. Requests for "data" can actually furnish a clever way of singling out individual studies for attack even when much other research is completely consistent, a politically canny tactic that has nothing whatsoever to do with ensuring the validity and quality of scientific results.
The current battle between Sherry Boehlert and Joe Barton, then, goes far beyond jurisdictional positioning over which committee gets to look into climate research. It's about nothing less than whether special interests and their political allies will be allowed to upend the scientific process and harass researchers whose results they don't like -- or whether, instead, Congress will make an honest attempt to understand policy-relevant scientific information without, as Boehlert might put it, "putting its thumbs on the scales." In the case of the "hockey stick" and other climate-change research, nothing less than the fate of the planet itself may be at stake.
Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a columnist for The American Prospect Online. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.1