In the midst of the full-frontal politics that now passes for the nominating conventions of the two major political parties in the United States came a modest opportunity for sober reflection by the candidates on some crucial but oft-neglected issues—policies dealing with science and technology. A group called ScienceDebate succeeded in eliciting from the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates their responses to a set of questions broadly constructed around science and technology policy. They posted the Q&A on their site this week.
The campaigns received 14 questions on S&T policy topics covering innovation, climate change, and pandemics, as well as education, energy, and ocean health. ScienceDebate formulated the questions both a bottom-up and top-down fashion. From the grassroots level, discussion and voting on the website provided insight into at least a portion of the vox populi on these issues, while a collaboration with a wide range of scientific and professional societies and media refined the questions and settled on the final list. As a member of the steering committee at ScienceDebate, I should probably refrain from commenting on or critiquing the answers in any detailed, substantive fashion. But, frankly, they do make worthwhile reading for those in the field as well as for journalists and any remaining undecided voters for whom science, technology and the environment are salient issues. So here are some basic assessments that I hope do not cross the line.
Both candidates treat the subjects seriously—President Obama often with a list of achievements of his administration (even highlighting health reform and ARRA) and Governor Romney, as befits a challenger, with summaries of positions from campaign white papers (on energy and education reform) and references to websites.
Obama is too reliant on the retrospective and less forthcoming about the prospective. Romney is the reverse: He makes no mention of concrete actions he took as a chief executive in the private sector or as governor of a state with a high-tech reputation to provide background. Obama clearly marshals the resources of an incumbent in answering the questions; he has substantive approaches to the more obscure topics in the list like food, water and oceans, while Romney has vague responses meant to reassure conservatives that he will not put bureaucrats in charge of anything.
But Romney's approach to innovation policy systematically includes related policy areas like immigration, regulation and trade, infusing many of his answers with a breadth and internal coherence not matched by Obama’s well-worn lists about doubling R&D spending and training scientists and engineers. Obama’s answers are cool and above the fray, not mentioning his opponent at all. Romney’s answers interweave politics and policy, even aiming direct criticism at Obama. And while both candidates nod to challenging fiscal times, they make little effort to demonstrate how priorities in science and technology will flourish in what will most likely be a searing fiscal and political environment.
One would think that such documents would be well-vetted and proofed. I did not unearth any particular howlers in the text, but I did have some chuckles following, for example, Obama’s space policy claim that “[w]hen our Orion deep space crew vehicle takes its first test flight in 2014, it will travel farther into space than any spacecraft designed for humans has flown in the 40 years since our astronauts returned from the moon. That is progress.” If by progress you mean doing better than any time other than 40 years ago.
Romney provided a moment of amusement as well when he admitted, “I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences.” More than being more IPCC than GOP, he really assessed the data himself?
And candidates for my least favorite policies: Obama is “committed to doubling funding for key research agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs.” If doubling were a policy, bacteria would have think tanks and not colonies. Romney would “take the unprecedented step of tying federal funds [for higher education] directly to dramatic reforms that expand parental choice, invest in innovation, and reward teachers for their results instead of their tenure.” Now that Romney has told kids to hit their parents up for tuition money, he needs to give parents something in the deal.
So instead of turning to the recap of the conventions on The Colbert Report, why not try a little science policy wonkery?
It’s better than talking to a chair!
David H. Guston is Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is Principal Investigator and Director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University.