Saturday, 18 January 2014

Which Candidate Is Best for Science?

In the wake of a traditional presidential debate it seems like an interesting time to recognize a call from the scientific community for a Presidential Science Debate. I suppose many people in the country might be swayed upon hearing how their president or a candidate might vote on various science issues.

In the eyes of many, this is a central issue to the future of the country. How will federal dollars be used to advance technology and mitigate potential "scientific" phenomena (or catastrophe)? I took it upon myself to do a little research to see what has been happening in the Presidential race, and what it might mean for science.

Both Romney and Obama have recently answered science questions posed by a large group of U.S. researchers. However, the answers proved too political. Shawn Otto, a researcher who led much of the effort to compile questions for the candidates, said, "Some of the questions aren't fully answered when they become politically difficult, others could really benefit from followup discussion.." But who does that surprise? They are, after all, just politicians.

A transcript of the candidates' responses to these questions can be found on the New York Times homepage. I will highlight just a few important topics to which each candidate responded:

1. Education

Obama was first to bring out the need for better training of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers. He alluded to a program he began four years ago to fund better training of STEM teachers. Romney's concern over expenditure was loud and clear and should perhaps also be a concern to scientists. Despite leaning towards allowing cuts in education funding, Romney obviously seems in favor of experimentation with various MOOC style education and open access instruction. Romney is a stronger proponent of using evaluation to hold instructors responsible for their efforts in the classroom (something that might frighten the unions but anyone halfway honest must admit it is needed).

2. Investment and Research

Obama chose to highlight his spending on green initiatives, clean energy, and information technology. He cited unprecedented spending on such programs totaling $190 billion during his administration. Despite declines in the access to grant funding through the NSF and NIH it seems likely that an Obama administration will keep the grants flowing. Romney came down hard on Obama's clean-energy spending, citing a Harvard study that the funding was provided to an industry not yet ready for large capital infusions. Romney outlined what smart science spending would be like. He was quite adamant that he would not decrease NIH funding, though one must suspect what that might mean for the NSF. From his response, it seems that tech transfer will be a more simple process under Romney given his concern with hamstrung start-ups in the medical science industries.

3. Science in Public Policy

Both candidates spoke of the importance of informed public policy. While that is no surprise, the real question is: to what extent will policy yield to politics and ignore science? It is hard to ignore the concentration of TARP funds that went to small groups of large companies claiming to be doing revolutionary science. While this track record does the President no favors, plenty of G.O.P. administrations have been guilty of the same behavior (there have been so many it isn't worth giving an example). The question for science is: do we believe Romney when he says, "I will pursue legislative reforms to ensure that regulators are always taking cost into account when they promulgate new rules."

4. The Internet

How a scientist feels about the candidates' responses really depends on how she sits on the issue of intellectual property. I doubt anyone would disparage the need for proper attribution, but many feel like pay-walls on publicly funded research should be eliminated. Obama's comments seemed to come down on the side of a controlled internet. While open to those who wished to contribute to a wholesome net, it would have nine-foot walls to all others. Romney described the internet as an exciting place of innovation and change, without government deciding what can and can't be done. Without clear answers on the issue of open access, we are left to speculate on which administration would provide a clear but quick pathway to increased dissemination of research.

While I won't offer my opinion on the election. It should be clear that science is not the only issue, but it should be taken into consideration when deciding who would be best for the future.

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