Rep. Frank D. Lucas, the new chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee — he calls it the “fun committee” — plans to focus his panel on ensuring that the historic funding appropriated by the last Congress for science, tech and energy research is well spent.
But Lucas also laid out an expansive agenda for the panel: independence for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal program to develop unmanned drones, advances in fusion energy and research money for institutions other than those on the coasts.
Typically a little-noticed committee, the Science panel will go to work in the current Congress with the potential for an ongoing distraction thanks to the appointment of Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., whose record of fabrications in his campaign for Congress last fall has put him under intense scrutiny, including from investigators. Santos told his Republican colleagues at their weekly conference meeting Tuesday that he wouldn’t serve on any committees while investigations play out.
Lucas, now in his 15th term in Congress, looked at the big picture in an interview.
“We will continue to focus on the things that are five weeks, five months, five years, five decades — maybe five centuries is too long, but 150 years from now,” Lucas said. “That’s why I call it the fun committee.”
Beginning with oversight of what is known as the CHIPS and science law enacted last July.
“That investment represents a fundamentally amazing amount of resources committed to a particular genre,” Lucas said in an interview in his office, referring to the bipartisan legislation that funded semiconductor research and science efforts.
“If it is successful, then I could see, whether it’s the near future or the intermediate future, potentially all down the road, the same kind of big investments, whether it’s AI or quantum,” he said.
That law appropriated more than $50 billion for federal grants to tech companies to restart domestic manufacturing of semiconductor chips and provided about $34 billion to the Energy Department for research over five years on energy science, advanced computing and fusion energy.
The bill provided another $102 billion over five years for the National Science Foundation to drive research on 10 key science and technology areas that will determine U.S. global leadership. But Congress has to revisit and reallocate each yearly installment of the NSF money.
“I just want to establish an accountability record,” Lucas said as he described plans for his committee to question White House and agency officials on how the money is being allocated and under what formulas.
Fusion energy, which powers the sun, is a “classic example” of the long-term vision of the committee, Lucas said, noting the Energy Department’s December announcement that scientists at national labs had achieved a breakthrough in fusion by producing more energy than it took to create.
Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm called it “one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century.”
Commercial applications of fusion energy are still decades away, Lucas said, adding, “How do we make sure that’s going to happen? How do we make investments that enable us to survive?”
Unlike more powerful congressional committees that write the tax code or appropriate annual budgets and drive the daily news cycle, “we are primarily the research people,” Lucas said.
Lucas, a former House Agriculture chairman whose family has run its Oklahoma farm since the early 20th century, said he’s aiming to get the Science panel to approve legislation that would make the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration an independent federal agency, removing it from the Commerce Department.
The agency, which operates the National Weather Service and carries out environmental observation and mapping of fisheries, has been operating under an executive order since President Richard Nixon established it in 1970. Lucas said in December, when he released draft legislation, that as an independent agency, NOAA could focus on its “core mission of protecting life and property.”
NOAA itself traces its origins back more than 200 years, saying it’s the “oldest science agency” in the United States. And congressional intentions to give it the imprimatur of authorizing legislation recur regularly.
Lucas said he would work on NASA legislation that reaffirms and provides guidance to the space agency on its Artemis mission to send humans back to the Moon and then fly astronauts to Mars.
Lucas also noted his draft bill in the last Congress to develop a coordinated federal program to accelerate development of unmanned drones and advanced air mobility research. He said it’s his third priority. That legislation would promote civilian applications of drones, including wildfire prediction, agriculture and others, Lucas said.
He also said the U.S. needs to do a better job of matching its scientists, engineers and technicians to the opportunities, what he calls the supply chain.
“The fact of the matter is, there are parts of the country where this critical human resource may not have access to or the ability to appreciate the opportunities are out there,” he said.
The CHIPS and science law ensures that research dollars are available to universities and scientists outside the major research hubs on the East Coast and West Coast. The law directs the National Science Foundation to gradually increase its annual grant funding to underfunded states to 20 percent by 2029, boosting it from 12.6 percent that went to 28 underfunded states and territories in 2021.
The NSF’s fiscal 2023 budget is $9.9 billion, up $1 billion from a year earlier.
Congress also last year established the National Engineering Biology Research and Development Initiative, and the White House in September issued an executive order on biotechnology and bio manufacturing calling for work to accelerate “solutions in health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and national and economic security.”
“Biotech is the future of the world,” Lucas said, adding that it’s important for Congress to establish that the technology is safe and practical because several groups in the United States and around the world have been opposing biotech research that involves modifying plant genes for various uses.
“I can’t imagine still raising crops that my grandfather raised, and if my grandchildren are farming the way I farm now, we’re going to starve on this planet,” Lucas said. So we have to move forward and we will benefit from it,” he said, referring to biotech advances.