Ever since President Trump nominated Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) to lead NASA, there has been public outcry from the scientific community and concerned politicians. Most objections center around Bridenstine's complete lack of scientific credentials and his adamant denial of human-caused climate change. Given his track record, many are worried that Bridenstine will place political ideology over science.
On Wednesday, during a nomination hearing in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Bridenstine did nothing to dispel these fears.
"Now, as much as ever, NASA needs and deserves an administrator who is up to the challenge of leading the agency through this critical juncture," said Senator Nelson (R-Fl.) in an opening statement.
"The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive," he added before stating that the leader of NASA should should be non-partisan and shouldn't let politics trump science.
"I want to make sure that NASA remains, as you said, apolitical, and I will do that to the best of my ability should I be confirmed," Bridenstine promised. Yet his later statements largely mimicked politically-charged skeptics of climate change research.
"While your time as a pilot and your service to our country in the military is certainly commendable, it doesn't make you qualified to make the complex and nuanced engineering, safety and budgetary decision for which the head of NASA must be accountable," continued Senator Nelson.
"What is troubling to members of this committee is your past statements on climate change…and from a scientific perspective it has sparked great concern from climate experts."
During the hearing, Bridenstine merely fed these concerns. When asked whether he thought global warming theories should not drive national energy policy without clear evidence, Bridenstine bumbled through an obvious answer.
He acknowledged that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and that humans have contributed to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yet, when he was asked to what extent humans have contributed Bridenstine said, "That is a question I do not have an answer to."
Senator Schatz was not happy with this response. He argued that if Bridenstine does not have a scientific background he should defer to the scientific consensus.
"If that's the scientific consensus, that it is primarily driven by human activity, what I will tell you is - " began Bridenstine before he was interrupted by Schatz.
"You don't know that that's the scientific consenus?" asked the baffled Senator.
Bridenstine replied, "I think right now, we're just scratching the surface as to the entire system of the Earth, and one of the great missions of NASA is the Earth Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate, and with your help and support, we want to make sure that we're getting absolute best science."
"NASA is the only agency in the world that can do this kind of science, and really the best agency in the world, and we need to make sure that we're understanding it better every day," he added.
NASA provides some of the best climate science research in the world. It has a $2 billion budget for its Earth Science Division, and the agency has provided invaluable measurements on global temperature spikes, rising seas and the steady rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Yet, in the past Bridenstine has suggested moving earth science research out of the agency altogether. At one point, he even asked President Obama to apologize for spending so much money on climate research.
Given Bridenstine's track record, critics are concerned that he will undermine key scientific responsibilities of the agency.
"Anyone who does not support Earth science research at NASA should not be confirmed as administrator," said the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in a statement.
The full Senate is expected to vote on Bridenstine's confirmation next week.