Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, sounded the starting gun for an intensified contest in Congress over federal science on Tuesday, sparring with a former Democratic congressman who now leads the nation's top science association.
The standoff pitted Smith, a long-time crusader against mainstream climate science, against Rush Holt, who now heads the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science.
They debated proposed limits on how the government uses science and clashed over one particular hot-button scientific study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that refuted theories of a pause in global warming. That "pause" has been a favored arguing point among those who deny climate change.
The two men played familiar roles as adversaries in what is expected to be a much broader struggle over climate science and scientific integrity in the coming months.
In one case, Smith demanded that an article by government scientists in the peer-reviewed journal Science be retracted. Holt brushed the suggestion aside.
The NOAA study in question, from 2015, has been affirmed by several other scientific researchers.
Smith, however, pointed to questions about the research raised Sunday by a former NOAA scientist in the British tabloid The Daily Mail, as evidence of what he called "falsifying data to justify a partisan agenda." The article, written by David Rose, has been roundly criticized by climate scientists, diplomats, and others, who have pointed out a number of flaws and errors. A graph that ran with the story had to be corrected because of an incorrect and misleading baseline, pointed out on Twitter by a NASA scientist.
Rose based the article's conclusions on comments by former NOAA scientist John Bates, who said other NOAA scientists had rushed that study to publication despite issues with some data. But on Tuesday, Bates said in an interview that he was not accusing the scientists of tampering with data.
"This is not the making of a big scandal," said Holt, who is in effect the publisher of Science. "This is an internal dispute between two factions in an agency. There is nothing in the Karl paper that, in our current analysis, suggests retraction."
Smith shot back, "I encourage you to talk to Dr. Bates, because what he's said to me is that they falsified data. It may be more serious than you think."
The NOAA research has become a political lightning rod; its findings undercut a key talking point of opponents of climate action, who frequently argued that there was no warming since 1998. Smith has used his chairmanship of the House Science Committee to take on NOAA, subpoenaing the agency for release of the scientists' emails. The conservative legal group, Judicial Watch, joined the fray, filing suit to force NOAA to release 8,000 pages of the researchers' communications.
It is just one front in a war that Smith plans to wage to reshape the conduct of science by the federal government.
He said he will soon revive a bill he has introduced repeatedly, but which had no chance of enactment in the Obama administration: the Secret Science Reform Act. It would require federal agencies to use only scientific research that is public and reproducible to inform regulation. Smith expressed hope that his proposal will have legs under President Donald Trump.
"With the transition to a new administration, there is now an opportunity to right the ship at the EPA and steer the agency in the right direction," he said in opening the hearing, which, despite the focus on NOAA, was called "Making the EPA Great Again."
One of the committee's Democrats, Don Beyer of Virginia, took on Smith, donning a red Trump-style baseball cap labeled "Keeping the EPA Great," when it was his turn to speak.
"Under President Obama, EPA took action to tackle climate change which most scientists agree is the major threat to the planet and the human race," Beyer said. "It will not help anyone by disputing climate science with stories from white nationalist websites like Breitbart or tabloids like the Daily Mail." (The House Science Committee's official Twitter feed has retweeted both in recent weeks.) Smith, unfazed, said that if he had his own baseball cap, it would read, "Keeping the EPA Honest."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Eddie Johnson of Texas, said she was "disappointed but not really surprised" that the first hearing of the new Congress was "focused on attacking EPA, so often the theme of these hearings."
But Smith has plenty of support on a committee where the Republicans largely share his denial of climate science. "We have people telling us global warming is causing the drought in California. Now it's global warming causing the flooding in California," said Dana Rohrabacher, (R-Calif.) "We have all these contradicting results. We have every reason to be skeptical that our scientific community is maintaining its integrity."
Holt said he was asking not for trust in scientists, but for trust in the scientific process. "We shouldn't second-guess the results or let one's dislike for an outcome lead one to challenge outcomes for unscientific reasons," he said.