Thursday, August 11, 2016

Science Debates Needed for Presidential Candidates

Science is critical to every facet of our lives, and scientific innovation has been a part of American government since George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Despite being hamstrung by the Republican Congress, President Obama has been a big supporter of science research to the point of hosting annual White House Science Fairs. But what do the current candidates to take over the job of President say about science?

Science Debate is needed.

We do have a basic idea of where the candidates stand. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton explicitly said, and I quote, "I believe in science," in her acceptance speech at the convention. She went on to say she believes "climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs."

Republican nominee Donald Trump, in contrast, called climate change a "hoax," and claimed it "was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."

Jill Stein, ironically the "Green Party" nominee and a former medical doctor, nonetheless has espoused anti-science positions on vaccinations, homeopathy, and GMOs. Critics have accused her of pandering to the anti-science left wing as much as Trump has pandered to the anti-science right wing.

Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson scores relatively well on basic science literacy in one survey but comes out as anti-vaccination and anti-GMO on another survey. That said, the basic rule of libertarians is to spend as little money and engage in as little government activity as possible, which suggests he would be in favor of cutting science budgets in the executive branch.

Even with these basic overviews, however, we don't know how much priority the candidates would put on science once elected. Issues such as climate change are critical to continue the progress made by President Obama. Other issues such as fracking require more complex assessments and decision making, so here again the ability of the new president to deal with science-based issues is critical. On top of this, of course, are the funding requirements of science agencies like NASA, NOAA, EPA, FDA, NSF, and others. These agencies conduct basic research as well as fund external researchers in addition to their more overt roles.

ScienceDebate.Org is a non-profit organization organized by Shawn Otto, author of the book The War on Science as well as a previous book called Fool Me Twice. Dozens of science organizations have combined efforts to produce 20 Questions related to science to ask the presidential candidate. Questions related to their views on basic science, the anticipated level of priority for their administration, levels of funding, views on education, innovation, public health, water, energy, food, vaccination, and many more. Even immigration has a science component, and one question asks "Would you support any changes in immigration policy regarding scientists and engineers who receive their graduate degree at an American university? Conversely, what is your opinion of recent controversy over employment and the H1-B Visa program?"

Ideally there would be a separate Science Debate in which these questions can be asked directly of the candidates. Barring that, the public should encourage standard debate moderators for the three presidential and one vice presidential debates to ask these questions. Even written responses to the questions would provide the public with input on where the candidates stand on science-based issues. And the public does want that input.

So all of us should be reaching out to the candidates, to debate moderators, and to others in our communities to have these all-important questions addressed by the candidates.

For more info on Science Debate, go to their website.