If you’ve been paying attention to recent presidential debates, you’ve noticed that the current election has been a rancorous one. Presidential front runners from both parties have been vehemently, at times even bitterly, defending their positions concerning military, economic, foreign, immigration, and social policies. These issues, along with pettier campaign business concerning who lied about what and who’s a true progressive or a true conservative, have dominated recent news cycles.
Science, however, has not been a big part of the conversation. Scientifically-driven policy issues have gotten little airtime, and the debate around how to use science in policy-making has been superficial at best.
Prominent scientists tend to agree. “Science is more lacking in this presidential election than ever before,” scientist and science policy activist Lawrence Krauss recently remarked. “You don’t see any substantial discussion of key science issues like climate change, healthcare, and scientific innovation in economic growth.”
Krauss is a co-founder of sciencedebate.org, a non-profit organization seeking to foster meaningful discussion of issues pertaining to science, research, and innovation amongst presidential hopefuls.
“We think that candidates for president should be debating science, tech, health and environmental issues on TV, so that voters know where they stand,” explains sciencedebate.org.
Back in 2012, sciencedebate.org collected written responses to science policy questions from the Obama and Romney camps, which were published by Scientific American. This year, the organization is working on organizing a live national debate focused on such issues, and is urging the public to insist on such a discussion.
Why should we care?
As graduate students in the sciences, we at Science Buffs have a personal stake in the next president’s stance on key science issues. Our livelihoods, whether in academia or industry, directly depend on it.
As for why candidates and the public should care about science issues, Krauss explained that “science issues are ultimately going to affect every major policy question the next administration has to deal with… It’s science issues that will most impact the health and the welfare of the county over the next decade.” Specifically, science and technology drive economic prosperity, innovation, ensure we remain globally competitive, and keep us healthy, safe, and secure. Obviously these issues affect everyone, and we need to see more substantial discussion on how the candidates intend to use science in their policymaking.
So, what have the candidates been saying about science, health, and technology so far?
The Grand Old Party: Conspicuously silent on science
It’s clear from this year’s debates that GOP front runners agree on very few things– but they do share a mutual love for Ronald Reagan, a general disdain for federal oversight over energy policy, and have all signed a blood oath of silence on the topic of climate. Just kidding. But maybe.
Ted Cruz has been the most vocal about energy policy, but he largely ignores the climate impact of his energy policies and instead talks about what these could mean for the economy. He’s a big fan of the American Energy Renaissance Act, which, according to Cruz, will allow us to tap into abundant natural resources without restrictions or subsidies from the government. Cruz believes it will expand the American energy market and create jobs. This legislation would remove current federal restrictions over energy resources. For instance, it will keep federal agencies and the EPA from restricting and regulating greenhouse gas emissions and allow states to regulate hydraulic fracking as well as decide what to do with energy resources on federal land within each state’s borders. It would also make way for the Keystone pipeline.
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s views on energy policy are unclear. In a January debate, Sanders called Trump out for his twitter statement claiming that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Trump said he was joking when asked about this in a later interview with Fox news.
Trump has, however, made several statements concerning other scientific and public health issues, such as vaccinations. Though the current scientific consensus denies a link between vaccines and autism, Trump made statements supporting this link during last year’s debates, and supports parent’s right to make this decision for their children. In addition, Trump has publicly expressed concern for New Hampshire’s staggering rates of heroin abuse; his policy for this major public health problem includes building walls around US borders to keep drugs out.
Dr. Ben Carson’s and Marco Rubio’s current views on climate are also unclear. Like Trump, both have refrained from directly addressing this issue in recent debates. Both seem to agree with Cruz’s views on energy policy, with Dr. Carson citing the need to “get the government out of our lives” to take advantage of opportunities in energy.
Dr. Carson has not used his medical training to directly counter Trump’s vaccination comments concerning autism, but has stated that the scientific studies have not been able to substantiate such claims.
The Democrats: Strong on climate change, but not much else
Across the aisle, the Democrat candidates have actually been asked directly to debate science-driven issues a few times, and in general, the candidates agree on many issues. Climate change is a top priority, renewable energy technologies are the way of the future, prescription drug prices are too high, and the government must work hand in hand with technology experts to balance privacy with national security.
Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton recognize the scientific consensus on climate change and plan to follow climate scientists’ advice that action must be taken quickly and decisively. Sanders cites climate change as the greatest threat to national security, arguing that as climate change limits resources worldwide, terrorism will grow. Clinton has spoken of climate change as an opportunity to grow the economy by investing in clean energy, science, and research, and bringing half a billion solar panels into use.
In other science-driven issues, Clinton has been the most vocal about researching the health benefits of marijuana. Recognizing that we don’t fully understand which ailments medical marijuana can be effectively used for, what the optimal doses are, or which kinds of marijuana work best, Clinton called for changing marijuana to a Schedule II drug. This would allow the NIH and research universities to more easily find the answers to these questions. Clinton also did not shy away from the high rates of heroin overdose plaguing New Hampshire, and her solution includes better access to treatment, working with doctors who prescribe opioids, and equipping police departments with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.
For Sanders, many important science issues are intertwined with campaign financing. In every debate Sanders has spoken passionately about the financing and lobbying coming from the fossil fuel industry, directly linking them to the GOP’s unwillingness to address climate change as a human-caused issue. Similarly, Sanders has linked high prescription drug prices and lack of price regulation to lobbying from pharmaceutical companies.
On a few occasions, the Democratic candidates have alluded to the scientific triumphs of America’s past. While still in the race, Martin O’Malley likened his ambitious clean energy plan to the “intentional engineering challenge” of the 1960s space race. Clinton, in her discussion of encryption technology, spoke of a “Manhattan-like” project that could bring together law enforcement and the tech community. Yet, no candidate has directly said they would increase funding of science to accomplish these goals.
While these presidential candidates have talked about the scientifically driven issues of energy, climate, vaccines, technology, healthcare, and medical marijuana, they too often separate the science from the issues, resulting in a superficial discussion. A live debate crafted to force GOP candidates to acknowledge scientifically driven issues and compel both parties to defend their views and consider the environmental and public health impact of their policies would be highly informative, plus fun to watch.
And, if you have been paying attention to the nomination process, you probably know that the Colorado caucus is happening tonight! You can look up where to caucus for both the GOP and the Democrats on the Colorado Secretary of State’s website.
By Aggie Mika and Amanda Grennell