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Bill Nye the Science Guy
Planetary Society Bill Nye flashes a Vulcan greeting during a 2014 visit to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Planetary Society Photo)

Bill Nye the Science Guy is going to the State of the Union Address, but as a guest of President Donald Trump’s choice for NASA administrator. And therein lies the rub.

The NASA nominee is U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., who became notorious as a climate policy opponent during the Obama administration. In 2013, for instance, Bridenstine called on President Barack Obama to apologize for spending so much money on climate research.

Bridenstine backtracked a bit last year during Senate hearings on his NASA nomination. He said he didn’t know whether climate change was being driven primarily by human activities, “but I do know that humans have absolutely contributed to global warming.”

Such statements may have helped smooth relations with Nye, who has spoken up long and loudly for climate science and measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. He explained why he accepted Bridenstine’s invitation to Capitol Hill on Monday in a Facebook posting:

Nye’s explanation didn’t go over well with some other science advocates, including a Colorado-based group called 500 Women Scientists.

“As scientists, we cannot stand by while Nye lends our community’s credibility to a man who would undermine the United States’ most prominent science agency,” the group wrote in a blog posting for Scientific American. “And we cannot stand by while Nye uses his public persona as a science entertainer to support an administration that is expressly xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and anti-science.”

500 Women Scientists didn’t stop with the State of the Union: They took Nye to task for debating creationists and climate deniers, on the grounds that such debates gave undue weight to his opponents’ views (and ended up boosting the coffers of anti-science campaigns).

The Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier volleyed back, saying that it’s important to acknowledge Bridenstine’s shift toward the mainstream on climate science.

“If pro-science activists want to see their policies succeed, by definition they will have to gain new supporters, and in so doing they will have to change people’s minds — and embrace it when it happens,” he wrote.

Bill Nye and Jim Bridenstine
Bill Nye and U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., face the cameras during a recent meeting to discuss space policy issues. (Jim Bridenstine Office Photo via Planetary Society)

Will the brouhaha bruise Bill Nye’s image, which was burnished during the Obama years by presidential selfies at the White House? Probably not much. Nye, who started out as a Boeing engineer and worked his way up as a TV personality on “Almost Live” in Seattle and on PBS’ children’s show, is secure in his Planetary Society gig as well as his hosting duties for “Bill Nye Saves the World” on Netflix.

But will Nye’s appearance shore up Bridenstine’s nomination, which has been languishing in the Senate for months? Probably not much. Climate policy really isn’t the sticking point, as evidenced by the fact that the Senate had no trouble confirming EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s nomination (even though he sued the agency many times as Oklahoma attorney general).

The sticking point is politics: On one level, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has spoken against Bridenstine’s nomination on the grounds that NASA shouldn’t be led by a politician with a notably partisan history.

On another level, Bridenstine’s partisan history has come back to bite him: During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Oklahoman was a strong backer of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and said some unkind things about Florida Sen. Mario Rubio, one of Cruz’s GOP primary rivals.

It’s assumed that Bridenstine’s confirmation is on hold because he doesn’t have enough GOP senators on his side. “I know that at this point, they do not have the votes to pass him,” E&E News quoted Nelson as saying last week.

Rubio appears to be a big part of the reason. Although he hasn’t spoken out publicly against Bridenstine, he has joined with Nelson in voicing concern about politicizing the NASA nomination.

Sounds like it’s already too late for that.

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