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Science and the US election

Science and the US election

Anyone who has picked up a newspaper or watched the news on television in the past few weeks can hardly fail to notice the huge amount of coverage dedicated to the American Presidential election.

The candidates have told us about their policies on everything from tax to gay marriage – but amongst the aggressive campaigning, it can be hard to pick out the candidates true views on many important scientific issues, as they become entangled in arguments about economics, foreign policy and the provision of healthcare. So what have they been saying about science, and why?

Renewable energy and climate change

The Obama administration has been subjected to intense criticism from the Republicans over President Obama’s continued support for green energy. On the face of it, Obama seems to continue his commitment to this, detailing on his campaign website his "All of the above" strategy to “develop every available source of American made energy—including oil, gas, clean coal, wind, solar, biofuels, nuclear - and taking steps to protect our climate.”

Romney, meanwhile, draws attention to the cost of Obama’s energy policy “President Obama has described his own energy policy as a “hodgepodge,” sent billions of taxpayer dollars to green energy projects run by political cronies, rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline as not in “the national interest,” and sought repeatedly to stall development of America’s domestic resources. Rather than embrace the nation’s abundant energy resources, the President has used endless delays, reviews, litigation, and overregulation to both slow their development and elevate his chosen “green” alternatives. He has gone so far as to impose regulations designed to “bankrupt” the coal industry, and his Administration was held in contempt of federal court for illegally imposing a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.”

From Romney’s argument, it could be said that the debate becomes less about securing a cleaner future, and more about fuel security, and foreign relations. Indeed, Romney goes on to criticise the current energy policy as continuing the country’s “expensive and dangerous dependence on OPEC.”

At the same time, Obama criticises Romney for letting “advisers and donors write a drilling-centered energy policy for America, that will never reach energy independence, exclusing any plan for energy efficiency and stripping funding for clean energy.”

Obama goes on to explain that he has set a goal of reducing our oil imports by half by 2020, and that the current administration  are already making progress towards that goal. He claims  “Mitt Romney would take us backwards by returning to a policy based on drilling and reversing progress on clean energy and fuel economy standards that will save consumers money at the pump. In fact, Mitt Romney’s rejection of President Obama’s fuel efficiency standards means that we’ll continue our dependence on foreign oil for years to come.”

Romney’s six point plan for energy makes little reference to green technology – although he assures voters he will “facilitate private-sector-led development of new energy technologies” this extends to “strengthening and streamlining regulations and permitting processes will benefit the development of both traditional and alternative energy sources, and encourage the use of a diverse range of fuels including natural gas in transportation”

All this talk of energy policy may raise the question – how do the candidates relate all of this to climate change? When Obama first took up his position at the White House, he pledged that "my presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change". It quickly became clear however, that this was to be a contentious subject, and the administration's focus quickly changed to green energy, and green jobs.

Romney too, has been comparatively quiet on the topic. Indeed this has led to him being lambasted for not taking climate change seriously, although when faced with this criticism, he is quick to draw attention to his acceptance of occurrence of climate change, quoting from his 2010 book, ‘No Apology’ in which he writes;

“It's impossible not to take a look at our current energy policies without considering the question of climate change. I believe that climate change is occurring -- the reduction in the size of global ice caps is hard to ignore. I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor.

“I am uncertain how much of the warming, however, is attributable to man and how much is attributable to factors out of our control. I do not support radical feel-good policies like a unilateral U.S. cap-and-trade mandate. Such policies would have little effect on the climate but could cripple economic growth with devastating results for people across the planet...”

Even in the wake of hurricane Sandy, relatively little has been discussed. During a Romney rally in Virginia, the candidate blithely ignored heckles from protestors, and banners bearing the motto “End climate silence”. Obama touched on the subject in response to his endorsement from the mayor of New York, describing climate change as “A threat to our children’s future”

In spite of this, a survey released by Pew Research Centre in October 2012 revealed that more Americans than ever, are saying that there is solid evidence of global warming. Some explanation of the candidates’ policies may be explained however, by the fact that only 48% of Republicans surveyed agreed with this statement, compared to 85% of Democrats.

 Abortion and stem cell research

Romney has been outspoken on the issue of abortion, and his strong religious conviction that all life should be protected. His official campaign website makes clear from the start “Mitt Romney is pro-life. He believes it speaks well of the country that almost all Americans recognize that abortion is a problem.

“Mitt believes that life begins at conception and wishes that the laws of our nation reflected that view.”

Healthcare and women’s rights arguments aside, these convictions carry through to Romney’s view on one of the most controversial, but potentially most exciting, areas of scientific research. Romney has previously taken a hard-line approach to stem cell research, although his campaign literature takes a slightly softer view, which nevertheless doesn’t disguise his obvious concern about the use of stem cells, in medical research.

“Great advancements in science are welcome antidotes to human frailty. The desire to save and strengthen the lives of those we love is noble and good, yet the promise of science does not justify discarding our moral duty to protect human life in its most vulnerable form. Scientific research and the preservation of human dignity are complementary, and America’s laws must reflect this conviction.

“Stem cell research is a great scientific frontier, and it must be pursued with respect and care. When confronted with the issue of stem cell research as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney chose to support life by vetoing a bill that would have allowed the cloning of human embryos. Quite simply, America cannot condone or participate in the creation of human life when the sole purpose of its creation is its sure destruction.”

So his views on embryonic stem cell research are clear. His argument does not seem to extend to adult stem cell research however,

“Adult stem cell research and alternative methods to derive pluripotent stem cells, such as altered nuclear transfer and direct reprogramming, are scientific paths that carry much promise and avoid raising ethical concerns. As president, Mitt will focus his energy on laws and policies that promote this kind of research to unlock the medical breakthroughs that our loved ones so desperately need.”

Obama seems to have fewer qualms, and has proactively sought to support stem cell research. On March 9, 2009, he signed Executive Order 13505 - Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells. The order reversed former President Bush’s 2001 order, which limits research to 21 stem cell lines (NIH Stem Cell Registry currently has 135 eligible lines) and a blanket ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The order did not lift the ban on funding for research on developing new lines of stem cells, but charges the National Institute of Health to formulate revised guidelines on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which it subsequently issued on July 7, 2009.

The new order found some unlikely support from Nancy Reagan,  

“I'm very grateful that President Obama has lifted the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. These new rules will now make it possible for scientists to move forward. I urge researchers to make use of the opportunities that are available to them, and to do all they can to fulfil the promise that stem cell research offers. Countless people, suffering from many different diseases, stand to benefit from the answers stem cell research can provide. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases - and soon. As I've said before, time is short, and life is precious.”

Funding research and science education

Both Obama and Romney make very clear in their campaign material that they are committed to funding research, science and technology. Both recognise the importance of the industries in maintaining America’s position as a world leader in innovation, and have positively identified steps to further this.

In a challenge set by Scientific American, both candidates were asked to answer 14 “top science questions”. To the surprise of many readers, and journalists, the candidates agreed. The statements from both candidates stress more-or-less the same values, although Obama lays out his funding commitments more explicitly, and sets a clear goal for the training of science and math teachers, where Romney strays into tax and economic arguments. 

Romney: “As president, I will focus government resources on research programs that advance the development of knowledge, and on technologies with widespread application and potential to serve as the foundation for private sector innovation and commercialization.

“America’s K-12 education system lags behind other developed nations, and while our higher education system remains the envy of the world its costs are spiralling out of control. We must pursue genuine education reform that puts the interests of parents and students ahead of special interests and provides a chance for every child. I will take the unprecedented step of tying federal funds directly to dramatic reforms that expand parental choice, invest in innovation, and reward teachers for their results instead of their tenure. I will also ensure that students have diverse and affordable options for higher education to give them the skills they need to succeed after graduation.”

Obama: “I am committed to doubling funding for key research agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs, so that we can preserve America’s place as the world leader in innovation, and strengthen U.S. leadership in the 21st century’s high-tech knowledge-based economy.

“I have set the goal of preparing 100,000 science and math teachers over the next decade. These teachers will meet the urgent need to train one million additional science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates over the next decade.”

With the polls still close, either candidate could snatch the lead… Whoever wins will undoubtedly be recognised as one of the most powerful people in the world, and will have incredible amounts of influence around the world. The future of science in America could be very different under the Republicans and the Democrats.

Interesting links:

The rest of the Scientific American candidate questions can be viewed at; http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=obama-romney-science-debate where Romney and Obama also discuss their views on pandemics, biosecurity, food and water security, the internet, the oceans and space.

Mitt Romney’s campaign website can be viewed at http://www.mittromney.com/

Barack Obama’s campaign website can be viewed at http://www.barackobama.com/

The Guardian discusses the candidate’s views (or lack thereof) on climate change http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/05/obama-romney-remain-silent-climate-change

The Pew Research Center describe their research on public perception of evidence of global warming http://www.people-press.org/2012/10/15/more-say-there-is-solid-evidence-of-global-warming/

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Wendy's picture

Political affiliation predicts scientific opinion is the name of a piece in the December 2012 issue of "People & Science". Commenting on the scene in the US, John Durant bemoans the fact that this is true and describes how it works. (Secret tip: the March 2013 issue will contain a piece delving more deeply into why we cling to non-scientific beliefs.)

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