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Science on the Campaign Trail (Or, the Lack Thereof)
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Science on the Campaign Trail (Or, the Lack Thereof)

One Topic We Need to Hear More About

Americans need to know the science and technology policy positions of the presidential candidates, argues Science Progress.

In the past month or more, a profusion of information has begun to flow out about the science and technology policy positions of the current presidential contenders from both parties. To name one prominent example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently unveiled a very thorough website describing candidates’ stances on technology and innovation, science education, energy and the environment, healthcare, and national security. To source the information it provides, AAAS largely cites the candidates’ own public statements and publicly unveiled policy plans.

The effort of AAAS parallels those of other science community and science media sources. NPR’s Ira Flatow, the host of “Science Friday,” has devoted several programs of late to the importance of science in the election. Another interesting example came from Popular Mechanics magazine, which created a website entitled “Geek the Vote,” once again providing a rundown of candidate science and technology policy stances. However, as the editors explain, the methodology had its limits:

We thoroughly reviewed the campaign Web sites of leading candidates from each party for position papers and press releases that spelled out policy proposals. (This involved judgment calls; campaigns don’t all group their proposals using the same language. In particular, automotive, environmental and energy policies tend to cross category boundaries.) We did not examine speeches, debate transcripts or interviews with journalists. We called or emailed each campaign at least twice to invite staff members to provide documentation on subjects that weren’t addressed on a candidate’s site.

Yet another related approach appeared on a website created by Physics Today, which compiles candidate stances on evolution, climate change, energy policy, science education, and other matters—based largely upon campaign websites and some secondary sources. In terms of trolling the public record for science policy information, though, the mother lode probably comes from the nonprofit group Scientists and Engineers for America, which has created the SHARP Network, a wiki-like database of information about the science and technology records of the presidential contenders as well as all other national elected representatives.

What about hearing from the candidates themselves, in their own words?

All of this is deeply valuable, in an informational overload kind of way. But it has its limits. After all, for the most part these resources simply compile campaign stances from websites and press releases. What about hearing from the candidates themselves, in their own words?

Hillary Clinton gave a major science policy speech back in October, on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik—and John Edwards, no longer in the race, outlined his own views in an interview with the excellent science blog, Blog Around the Clock. And voters in Michigan and Florida recently got to hear John McCain and Mitt Romney really go at it over global warming—at least one major science issue on which every candidate ought to have his or her stance comprehensively interrogated.

But none of it is enough. As Science’s Don Kennedy wrote in a recent editorial on science and the election: “We need to know the candidates’ qualifications for understanding and judging science, and for speaking intelligently about science and technology to the leaders of other nations in planning our collective global future.” And I would add that we need to hear this from the candidates themselves, in their own words. We need to get a sense of how they process information—how they inform themselves about science policy matters, and how their acquired knowledge comes out, in real time, once they have.

Now, some of you may suspect where this is all heading—towards a plug for the ScienceDebate2008 initiative, which I have helped to organize and spearhead. And you aren’t necessarily wrong. But, there’s considerably more to be said before we even get there.

We need candidates themselves discussing science policy, and we need them doing it on the national television airwaves.

You see, there’s another problem with the previously mentioned compilations of candidates’ science policy stances—namely, who’s compiling them. All of them come from either science-centric organizations or popular science publications. In short, these informational catalogues are geared towards those who are scientists or and those who care about science—not the general population, who largely aren’t and often don’t. Insofar as they process information about science at all, most American’s aren’t going to process it in this format, or from these sources. So if we believe that science matters to all of their futures, and that they deserve to know and appreciate that—and I certainly do—then they have to be reached in a different way entirely.

In short, while much valuable labor has definitely gone towards sciencey voter’s guides of various sorts (and I’m sure this column has missed some of them), that’s not sufficient. We need to change both the medium and the messenger. We need candidates themselves discussing science policy, and we need them doing it on the national television airwaves. In that way, not only can we get past carefully sculpted answers and science policy information written by campaign staffers, rather than the contenders themselves. At the same time, we can bring that information before audiences who, in a massively over-saturated media environment, wouldn’t even dream of going to look for it.

Now co-sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, the AAAS, and the Council on Competitiveness, ScienceDebate2008 will, in the very near future, be inviting the remaining presidential candidates to precisely such an event (details yet to be announced). And even if it doesn’t come off this year, the organization—which undeniably got a late start in this election cycle—plans to stay around and make certain that such debates happen in future election years. After all, a publicly televised debate, covered by the entire mass media and featuring the candidates themselves, is really the only way to put science on the electoral agenda. So it has been heartening to watch virtually the entire world of U.S. science mobilize this election year in recognition of that reality.

Nevertheless, it’s still an uphill battle—against, among other obstacles, risk-averse campaigns and profit-driven media conglomerates—to make it happen. So in the meantime, if you want the best available source of science policy information on the candidates that I have yet found, I would recommend a series of candidate-specific journalistic reports that appeared in AAAS’s flagship magazine Science (for links see here, scroll down). Here we find the candidates’ positions and dispositions alike described through attempts to interview either their science advisers or other scientists who had come into contact with them. So for example, for the Mike Huckabee profile, reporter Jennifer Couzin canvassed, among others, scientists in Arkansas. And for the Hillary Clinton profile, reporter Eli Kintisch talked to Clinton’s actual campaign science consultants.

These reports really do give you a sense not only of the candidates’ stances on science, but also how they individually approach scientific issues, based on their past political histories and the perceptions of those who have been close to them. And unless we succeed with ScienceDebate2008—or 2012, or 2016—that may be the best we’re going to get.

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