Political Science

Romney and Obama don lab coats. 

Creative Commons photo by Vox Efx, via Flickr

Politicians like to stick to their strengths. They gloss over messes with eloquence and moralistic pandering, which are — most of the time — fairly effective strategies. While some issues are addressed simplistically or didactically overemphasized, some are neglected altogether. Science usually falls into the latter category, as the needs of the scientific community are broad and often do not align themselves with one particular constituency over the other. The most likely reason, however, that the political sphere too often neglects scientific issues is that politicians themselves are almost never scientists. Science is not their strength, and in a field that impacts environmental conservation, energy production, technological innovation, agriculture, and health, no one candidate is going to support all of the goals of the scientific community.

However, in a world increasingly reliant on scientific production — production of both objects and ideas — politicians, especially presidential candidates, must prepare themselves to utilize and cater to the scientific community. Moreover, in a public grossly underexposed to the sciences, every mention of science in the media matters, especially within the highly monitored context of political campaigns.

Scientific American partnered with ScienceDebate.org, an independent initiative seeking to advance the national discussion on scientific issues and their effects on policy, to draw up a call to action for President Obama and Governor Romney to answer fourteen of the most pressing science policy questions of today. The candidates responded. There was certainly no clear winner — both candidates struggled with some aspects and flourished in others. The questions covered topics from public health, the energy sector, environmental protection, research and innovation, to science education.

In contrast to the bitter partisan divides that currently infect the U.S. political system, President Obama and Governor Romney seemed to agree on several key issues. Both candidates state the importance of addressing climate change and the reality of its negative environmental changes. Mr. Romney, unlike some other members of the GOP, does not dismiss global warming as a myth, nor does he believe that human activity has no effect on the phenomenon. He does say, however, that “the science [regarding global warming] is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response.” Romney goes on to explain that as global warming has both causal roots and consequences for the international community, not the U.S. alone, our action in directing funding towards reducing American emissions is misguided. Mr. Romney sees the President’s green initiatives as both cost-ineffective and insignificant in terms of the underlying cause of global warming, which is international in scope. Mr. Romney proposes government support for the development of low-emissions technologies and further investment in nuclear power as an alternative energy source. And in keeping with his general platform, Mr. Romney calls for a decrease in regulation of the industries that would produce efficient technologies for energy independence. President Obama stressed his administration’s effort to move away from dependence on foreign oil and referred to the caps the federal government has set on emissions across several industries. President Obama also refers to the importance of international communication on the subject of climate change, and promises continued discussion with both developing and developed nations.

One issue that was stressed throughout the debate was the importance of innovation and research to the continuation of the American scientific community. As research depends so heavily on outside funding, this question is of particular relevance, due to the candidates’ seemingly antithetical views on government spending. Governor Romney — and the modern GOP as a whole — functions on a platform of limiting government spending. One of the primary complaints regarding President Obama’s policies is the increase in the federal deficit due to the current administration’s financial investments.

As he is already known as an investor, President Obama’s stance as pro-research and development funding does not come as a surprise. He specifically states his interest in investing more than three percent of the GDP in public and private research and development, alluding to the importance of technological innovation and research to our health and security as a nation. In contrast to a general platform dedicated to fewer areas of government spending, Governor Romney expresses his commitment to the further funding of research and development in a detailed plan for a Romney Administration’s support for innovation. A businessman at heart, Mr. Romney never fails to drive home his steadfast belief in innovation and the necessity to take any steps that will make the US the most ideal market for innovation and development in the world. Where scientific innovation specifically falls in is not elucidated explicitly, but it seems that Mr. Romney includes technological development under the blanket category of innovation. Mr. Romney also mentions his goal for developing incentives for the private sector to participate more heavily in research. Both candidates expressed their support for making the current tax credit afforded the research and development sector permanent.

Of course, the ability to succeed in research is fundamentally based in the production of future generations of scientists. Both President Obama and Governor Romney address the importance of an improvement in STEM education as crucial to the United States’ ability to remain at the forefront of scientific innovation. Last year, President Obama announced a goal of preparing 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade, a lofty goal that would seek to ensure the strengthening and stabilization of science education throughout a student’s educational career. Mr. Romney laid out his educational plan, which did not address STEM education specifically, but rather gave a broad introduction to his plan for the American educational system. Mr. Romney criticized both the high level of spending per student in America and the unwillingness of teacher’s unions to cooperate with outside efforts to reform. Mr. Romney expressed his support for Charter schools and a more rigorous recruitment process for teachers (Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education under President Obama, expressed many of these same goals in a speech he gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Education last spring, though the extent to which his plans and those of Governor Romney’s align is unclear).

ScienceDebate.org asked the candidates a variety of questions in addition to those mentioned above, discussing fresh water quality, food safety, ocean health, space exploration, conservation, the Internet, and vaccination. Not surprisingly, both politicians stuck to their platforms. President Obama focused on scientific innovation and its crucial relationship to public health, the creation of a stronger middle class via stronger educational systems, and the importance of conserving and working with our natural habitat to guarantee its continued existence for use and research on a long-term scale. Creating a free sphere for innovation and development was the key to Governor Romney’s argument, including the limitation of taxation and regulation on profitable industries, freeing up federal resources for development, and ensuring Americans remained ahead of China and other developing nations. When asked what role science would play in policy formation in the candidates’ respective administrations, Governor Romney indicates that “sound science will inform sound policy decisions” while constantly weighing the costs and benefits of particular policies. President Obama emphasizes the importance of transparency when using science to inform policy decisions and the importance of avoiding politicized research as much as possible. President Obama states, “Only by ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, making scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology, and including the public in our decision making process will we harness the power of science to achieve our goals – to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives.” Science has only begun its impact the American public sphere, and it seems nearly impossible that any politician will be able to neglect the issues of scientific policy any longer.

Christine Wolfe ’14 (crwolfe@college.harvard.edu) would like to point out that Romney mentioned Harvard not once, not twice, but thrice in his answers – congratulate yourself, Harvardians, on making people sound smart.