Grading the presidential candidates in science

sd2008.jpgIn the last few months we have learned a lot about John McCain’s heroic service and travails as a prisoner of war, about Barack Obama’s history on the streets of Chicago, and we are beginning to learn — with some apprehension — about what’s under Sarah Palin’s carpet. We’ve been titillated with various political skullduggery and shootouts. We’ve seen endless loops of the the American flag flying majestically in slo-mo in the background.

But there remains the question: what will these people actually do if elected President? And, of special interest, both because it is critically important in the emerging age of technology and global transformation, as well as because we have not yet heard jack about it in the swirling 24/7 media blitz: where do the two Presidential candidates stand on the role of science in America? As organizers of an event at the Franklin Institute earlier this year emphasized:

“Every Nobel laureate we’ve spoken to has said the same thing: the next four to eight years are critical and the next president has the potential to determine the future health of all life on earth.

On March 11, Bill Gates testified before Congress saying that on the economic front, America “is at a crossroads” and will almost certainly become a second-rate economy without massive attention to science & engineering in schools and changes in government policies toward innovation.”

You might be forgiven, considering the tenor that political debates tend to take in this country, for being pessimistic about the prospects of this issue getting a hearing above the background noise. Yet, against the odds, a dedicated team has been persistent enough to get through to the candidates and score some answers, which were posted three days ago at ScienceDebate2008.

Recognizing both the growing scientific complexity of the challenges that we face, and no doubt also the abysmal record of the current administration in dealing with that reality, the architects of this effort started from the following premise:

“Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues.”

Then they posed 14 questions to the candidates and let them speak for themselves. You can read the answers in entirety here. On reading these I was struck forcefully by the sense that the issues being discussed here are not “just” scientific issues, they are the fundamental issues of our time and of this election. This is a wake-up call about the centrality of science and technology to modern global civilization, what is at stake, and how far the USA has fallen behind as a result of the Bush administration’s war on science. The good news is that — if these answers are an indication — both candidates seem to “get it”, and both will be miles ahead of the current administration (which, admittedly, is not saying much). They will surely have different approaches to addressing the challenges but, for example, both recognize the urgency of man-made climate change and support substantive measures to curb warming.

Will this make a difference? Do American voters actually care about science? At least in a generic sense, it appears that they do. According to a poll by Lake Research Partners conducted for Scientists and Engineers for America:


  • Voters are more likely to vote for a candidate that supports scientific research.
  • Voters are more likely to vote for a candidate that will tackle climate change.
  • Voters are more likely to vote for a candidate that will invest in energy research.
  • Voters are much more likely to vote for a candidate that will invest in science education.
  • Voters want public policy decisions to be based on science.
  • About Emmett Duffy

    I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
    This entry was posted in Education, Politics, Science, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

    2 Responses to Grading the presidential candidates in science

    1. Roy Dixon says:

      Although, in a perfect world, science should play a vital role in policy decisions that impact the lives of the average person, there is a problem. We are talking about politicians. Funding decisions for “scientific research” will still be determined by political means. Since most politicians are not scientists, the pet scientific projects of the individual congressman or executive will either be determined by polls or lobbyists. In the case of polls, since the average person is also not a scientist, the most popular projects will be those that the average man or woman understands. This often leads to organized efforts by biased groups or institutions to make their point of view on a specific subject understood and even accepted. The easiest way for many of these projects to be explained is through statistics which, as we all know, can be easily manipulated to prove either side of an argument. People have a tendency to believe either overwhelming statistical information, opinion by someone the feel to important, or something which can instill fear. When you take all of these things and put them together you get bad science. Take, for example, global warming. It instills fear, there is overwhelming evidence supporting the theory and it is being supported celebrities whom people believe to be important. This creates activists. Activists generally do not look at science with an open mind. They tend to search out data that supports the theory they are committed to and will quickly judge anyone with a differing opinion to be either uninformed of simply stupid. This issue is now no longer scientific but political. Does global warming actually exist? Probably so, but should politics play the most important role in determining which aspect of the research gets funded? Should science have an agenda? Even if a governing board were set up do determine where the dollars went, who picks this board? How are decisions made? I believe scientific research should be left to industry, universities and private laboratories. Let the brilliant minds determine the course of their research. The course of science should not be left to politics, but to scientists.

    2. Rick says:

      At least, regardless of agenda or stance, the candidate that has one is young enough to potentially have the vigour and energy to face and defeat the very serious problems that await him in office. While science and therefore education is a major factor in the well being of America the immediate problems consist mainly of economic and health issues. It will take a lot of skill to keep these balls in the air.