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Scientists Await Budget After Cabinet Picks Avoid Confirmation Clashes



Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson (left) and Scott Pruitt, the president's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, are among the Cabinet nominees who avoided controversial statements during their confirmation hearings. | Left: Office of the president-elect/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0 (Cropped for formatting), Right: Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped for formatting)

Those who feared that Senate confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees would hear Republican nominees or lawmakers declare an abandonment of science can perhaps breathe a little easier – at least for now.

Upcoming budget proposals will give a clearer picture of the new administration’s intentions regarding the federal government’s scientific endeavors.

Science issues have not been discussed in depth at any of the confirmation hearings before Senate committees. But in prepared statements and when questions have been raised, Trump’s nominees have taken a middle-of-the-road approach.

Aiming to avoid potholes on the road to confirmation, and aided by supportive GOP senators, the nominees have avoided controversial statements that could cost them votes – even when that has meant disagreeing with some of the president’s campaign positions.

The nominees, instead, have offered themselves as prospective public servants dedicated to following the law, respectful of the agencies they will head, guided by science and facts and eager for collaboration across the aisle.

Every nominee who has been asked has declined to endorse Trump’s earlier description of global warming as a “hoax” perpetrated by China to gain an economic advantage over the United States. Nominees also have proclaimed the value of federal science programs whenever the topic has come up.

While there are reports the administration will propose deep budget cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency and in the Energy Department’s extensive research portfolio, there have been no suggestions by nominees that they would curtail science-related programs or, as Trump has promised, largely dismantle the EPA.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, who is awaiting Senate confirmation as secretary of Energy, said he regrets his previous proposal to eliminate that department, having gained new respect for its broad mission and research functions. “I am a major proponent of maintaining American leadership in the area of scientific inquiry,” Perry told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I support the academic and government mission of basic research, even when it will not yield benefits for a generation. Our scientists and labs are the envy of the world.”

Nominees for national security-related posts, including Perry, who would oversee the nuclear weapons arsenal, also assured senators they support more extensive government efforts to improve cybersecurity and the ability to withstand cyberattacks.

The distancing from the president has been most striking on climate change. Both Perry and Scott Pruitt, Trump’s choice to head the EPA, acknowledged during their confirmation hearings that climate change is occurring and that human activity is part of the story, though neither was ready to say to what extent greenhouse gas emissions are responsible.

While none of Trump’s nominees have called for specific measures to control global warming, or have expressed any support for efforts undertaken by the Obama administration, neither have they dismissed the threat posed by rising temperatures.

“The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs,” Perry declared.

Pruitt, a persistent EPA courtroom foe as Oklahoma’s attorney general, told the Environment & Public Works Committee “I do not believe climate change is a hoax.”

He said it is appropriate for EPA to address emissions of greenhouse gasses methane and carbon dioxide, using regulatory processes determined by law. Energy production and environmental protection are not an either-or proposition, he told senators.

“Climate is changing, that’s indisputable,” Interior secretary nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “Man has had an influence. I think that’s also indisputable as well. . . . I think where there’s debate on it is what that influence is, what can we do about it. . . .I don’t believe it’s a hoax.”

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, who will have a role in the new administration’s approach to the 2015 Paris Agreement, told the Foreign Relations Committee that after following the climate change issue “over about 20 years as an engineer and scientist and understanding the evolution of the science,” he has concluded that “the risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken.”

But the former chairman of Exxon Mobil Corp. added that he does not view climate change as “the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do.”

Challenged by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on whether he would back the conclusions of scientists that clashed with corporate financial interests, Health and Human Services secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., was unwilling to go quite as far as other nominees in acknowledging global warming and a human contribution.

“The climate is obviously changing, continuously changing,” Price told the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. “The question from the science standpoint is what impact does human behavior have on that and how to mitigate it. That needs study.”

Wilbur Ross, nominated to be Commerce secretary, initially stopped short of pledging to continue a policy adopted in 2011 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allowing scientists conducting ocean and climate research to make public their findings without official permission. Environmentalists have warned that the new administration may stifle research that fuels concern about global warming.

But in a later written response to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Ross wrote, “I believe science should be left to scientists. If confirmed, I intend to see that the department provides the public with as much factual and accurate data as we have available. . . . Barring some national security concern, I see no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public. To be clear, by peer review I mean scientific review and not a political filter.”

Some environmentalists have suggested the new administration may stifle research that fuels concern about global warming. Ross said he supports “dissemination of valid information to the public.”

With Trump promising to restore the economic vitality of the coal industry and curb efforts made by the Obama administration to restrict emissions from coal-burning power plants, western senators were eager to know if the new administration will lift a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land.

Interior nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., declined to promise such a step. But he said “the war on coal is real” and called the moratorium an inappropriate “one-size-fits-all approach.” Coal, Zinke told the Environment committee, is “a great part of our energy mix.” He called for expanding research and development to reduce harmful emissions from coal burning.

[Associated image: President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees are in the midst of confirmation hearings with the U.S. Senate. | Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0]