Bridenstine Attempts to Soften Anti-Science Image with The Science Guy

Bill Nye in Washington. (Credit: Planetary Society)

Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (the Science Guy) is defending his controversial decision to attend President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address this evening as a guest of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), whose nomination to serve as NASA administrator is facing a tough fight in the Senate.

In a string of Tweets, Nye he was not endorsing Bridenstine or the Trump Administration by attending the annual address. [Emphasis mine]

Tomorrow night I will attend the State of the Union as a guest of Congressman Jim Bridenstine – nominee for NASA Administrator – who extended me an invitation in my role as CEO of The Planetary Society.

The Society is the world’s largest and most influential non-governmental nonpartisan space organization, co-founded by Carl Sagan. While the Congressman and I disagree on a great many issues – we share a deep respect for NASA and its achievements and a strong interest in the future of space exploration.

My attendance tomorrow should not be interpreted as an endorsement of this administration, or of Congressman Bridenstine’s nomination, or seen as an acceptance of the recent attacks on science and the scientific community.

The U.S. Space Program has long been a source of American technical achievement, a symbol of our innovative spirit, and a source of national pride. There are extraordinary opportunities for our country, and for all humanity, in the continued exploration of space.

Historically, the Space Program has brought Americans together, and during his address, I hope to hear the President’s plans to continue exploring the space frontier.

As several Twitter followers have pointed out, the caveats that Nye places on his attendance might matter far less than the spin that Bridenstine and his allies on the right will impart to it.

Lo and behold, the spin has already begun. Just take a look at this story in the Conservative Review, which includes the following claim from the Congressman’s office about why he invited The Science Guy to the speech.

They both believe in a science-driven national space program. They also believe that space exploration uniquely inspires people to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, the statement continues. Both [the congressman and Nye] believe that NASA is the world’s preeminent agency to conduct the science necessary to understand our changing planet.

The story makes no mention of it, but Bridenstine’s embrace of NASA’s role in studying “our changing planet” is a recent development that roughly coincided with his campaign to run the space agency. His record during his five years in Congress demonstrates the exact opposite when it comes to climate change and NASA’s role in studying it.

The Congressman once took to the House floor to deny that global warming was occurring and to demand an apology from President Barack Obama for spending 30 times more studying a non-existent climate change problem than improving the nation’s weather forecasting capabilities. PolitFact rated Bridenstine’s claim as mostly false, saying he exaggerated the gap in spending using incorrect numbers.

Bridenstine has pushed for better forecasting during his time in Congress due to the number of tornadoes that touch down in his state. Although weather forecasting and climate change research are related, they are not the same. In April 2017, Trump signed a bill co-sponsored by Bridenstine that required NOAA to “re-balance” its spending away from climate change and toward weather forecasting.

The Congressman also introduced the American Space Renaissance Act that would have removed Earth science from the list of NASA’s goals in favor of a pioneering doctrine focused on sending astronauts to the moon and other destinations in deep space. Under the bill, any programs not in line with that doctrine — such as climate change research — would be canceled, privatized or moved to other federal agencies.

Bridenstine has since softened his stance on global warming, saying he believes it is occurring but is not sure why or what the impacts will be of it. This is the same position taken by the Trump Administration, which has been slashing climate research across the government. The Administration proposed cutting five NASA Earth science missions in its proposed FY 2018 budget, which Congress has yet to pass four months into the fiscal year.

Bridenstine has said that he would follow the decadal survey that sets priorities for Earth science. How much of the decadal survey NASA will be able to accomplish will depend upon funding levels provided by a Republican-controlled White House and Congress that are not overly supportive of these programs.

Nye’s attendance at the speech comes as Bridenstine’s nomination faces a close vote in a Senate the Republicans control by a narrow 51-49 margin. Democrats appear united in their opposition due the nominee’s positions on climate change and other issues. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has joined Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in criticizing Trump for nominating a highly partisan politician to lead a space agency that enjoys broad bi-partisan support in Congress.

Bridenstine’s invitation to Nye appears to be an attempt to soften his image on science. The Science Guy can protest all he wants about how his attendance does not constitute an endorsement of Bridenstine or Trump. But, the State of the Union Address is an exercise in political theater where impressions and spin matter far more than intentions.