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Bitter political climate chills some scientific pursuits

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The House of Representatives Science, Space & Technology Committee has been operating in lockstep with the combative political climate this election season. Since last year, the committee chair has issued more than 25 subpoenas to investigate science agencies and others. But rather than bring misdeeds to light, some scientists say the efforts are having a chilling effect, according to an article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society.

Jeff Johnson, a special correspondent to C&EN, reports that Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and the chair of the House science committee, has unilaterally launched the probes over the vehement objections of committee Democrats. The subjects of the probes include the peer-review process at the National Science Foundation, climate change research at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and security at the National Institute of Standards & Technology. Most recently, Smith has also been trying to obtain correspondence between eight environmental advocacy groups and state attorneys general in connection to a science-based fraud investigation of ExxonMobil.

In response to the latest investigation, more than 2,000 scientists signed a letter to Smith urging him to end the probe, which they perceive as an effort to protect oil companies and suppress science. One signer says the hostile climate is indeed having a harmful side effect: Some scientists are shying away from conducting research that could draw unwanted political ire. A former Republican chair of the committee, Sherwood Boehlert, laments the current infighting, but says he's hopeful that the upcoming election will help Congress get back on a more productive and collegial track.

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