Obama and Romney debate science, or do they?

Posted: September 5, 2012 in Ethics, Policy, Science, Science Communication, Science Outreach

After surveying thousands of people, scientists, engineers, and concerned citizens alike, ScienceDebate has compiled a list of the top 14 “most important science questions facing the nation that the candidates for president should be debating on the campaign trail”. Obama’s and Romney’s answers are now available.

ScienceDebate is an independent citizens initiative calling for presidential and congressional debates on science and innovation. The group consists of thousands of scientists, Nobel laureates, scientific organizations such as AAAS, Scientific American, and the National Academies, elected officials, and business leaders, was started in 2007 and aim to get one or more of the 14 questions discussed live on the national stage when the presidential debates are held next month.

Each of the 14 questions focus on: Innovation | Climate Change | Research and the Future | Pandemics and Biosecurity
Education | Energy | Food | Fresh Water | The Internet | Ocean Health
Science in Public Policy | Space | Critical Natural Resources | Vaccination and Public Health.

My take on each of the 14 questions:

1. Innovation and the Economy: “What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?”

Obama: committed to doubling funding for “key” research agencies; goal of preparing 100,000 science and math teachers so that they can train future STEM students.

Romney: reform visa system so that those with advanced degrees can stay in the US following graduation; lower corporate tax rate and make the R&D tax credit permanent; reduce regulations; create a “Reagan Economic Zone” of free enterprise supporting nations.

2. Climate Change: “What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change…”

Obama: “Climate change is the one of the biggest issues of this generation….” The White House, in collaboration with automakers, just passed historic new federal automobile standards. Dependance on foreign oil is at a 20 year low.

Romney: “…there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.” Implies that its a world problem and not an American problem. Would like to peruse a “No Regrets” policy; opposes carbon tax and cap-and-trade.

3. Research and the Future: “Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?”

Obama: Proposed that as a country we invest 3% of our GDP in research and development; make the R&D tax credit permanent.

Romney: Instead of cuts, we should spend money more wisely; need to facilitate innovation – Obamacare drives investments overseas, FDA is too slow.

4. Pandemics and Biosecurity: “…what steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?”

Obama: Strengthen systems of public health; improve response times; work with the private sector and international partners.

Romney: Invest in public health monitoring systems; increase scientific understanding and improve response time; develop new countermeasures; empower private sector.

5. Education: “In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?”

Obama: Strengthen STEM education; “Educate to Innovate” campaign to improve STEM teaching and learning; establish STEM Master Teacher Corps.

Romney: Teachers unions are bad, they oppose innovation in order to maintain the status quo; charter schools and increased use of technology; empower parents; annual testing and standards; reward excellent teachers.

6. Energy: “What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?”

Obama: Supports and “all of the above” approach; invest in clean and efficient energy; development of US natural gas.

Romney: “Dramatically increase domestic energy production”; North American energy independence by 2020; six-part plan – empower states to control onshore development (including federal land), open offshore development; pursue a North American Energy Partnership, update energy resource surveys, help private sector development.

7. Food: “What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America’s food supply?”

Obama: signed comprehensive reform of food safety laws which gave the FDA additional resources and tools; goal of 20% increase in organic operations; decrease pesticide and antibiotic use.

Romney: Preventative practices have greatest potential; develop specific guidance for foods most often associated with illness outbreaks.

8. Water:  “What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Americans?”

Obama: Released a “national clean water framework”; partner with communities; supports water conservation programs; improve access to clean water, especially in rural and boarder areas.

Romney: Update federal laws and regulations; “combination of incentives, market-based programs, and cooperative conservation measures”.”

9. The Internet: “What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?”

Obama: Supports a free and open internet and protection of online intellectual property but not at the cost of individual freedom of expression; strengthen cybersecurity.

Romney: “I will oppose any effort to subject the Internet to an unaccountable, innovation-stifling international regulatory regime.”

10. Ocean Health: “What role should the federal government play domestically and through foreign policy to protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?”

Obama: Established a National Ocean Policy; invest in restoration of the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Everglades; invest in fish stock monitoring; “We have created or enhanced more than 540 public coastal recreation areas, protected more than 54,000 acres of coastlines and restored over 5,200 acres of coastal habitat.”

Romney: “The question, though, is what form of governance should be employed: where are international agreements required, where is government regulation most appropriate, and where can the fishing industry itself serve as the best steward?”

11. Science in Public Policy: “How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?”

Obama: “Our policies should be based on the best science available and developed with transparency and public participation.” Increase transparency and public participation; ensure data is never distorted for political reasons.

Romney: “In a Romney Administration, sound science will inform sound policy decisions, and the costs and benefits of regulations will be properly weighed in that process. I will pursue legislative reforms to ensure that regulators are always taking cost into account when they promulgate new rules.”

12. Space: “What should America’s space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?”

Obama: “I am committed to protecting these critical investments in science and technology and pursuing an ambitious new direction for NASA…” Space Station will operate until at least 2020; commitment to education as a driver of spaceflight and scientific achievements.

Romney: Clearer priorities, not increased funding for NASA; international cooperation; committed to national security space program; revitalize aerospace industry.

13. Critical Natural Resources: “What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?”

Obama: “We’ve got to take control of our energy future, and we can’t let the energy industry take root in other countries because they are allowed to break the rules.” Increase use of US natural resources; increase electronics recycling; increase research for alternative methods.

Romney: “The federal government must open greater access to federal lands, and adopt streamlined regulatory processes that encourage rather than stifle resource development.”

14. Vaccinations and Public Health: “What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and in what circumstances should exemptions be allowed?”

Obama: Preventative services under the Affordable Care Act; “Ultimately, I believe the health care law is a significant step forward in ensuring that every American has access to the preventive care and immunizations that they need to stay healthy.”

Romney: Ensure adequate supply of vaccines; ensure that adequate number of Americans receive vaccines; increase medical innovation.

Overall, I found most of these answers to be lacking in concrete policy plans. Most answers seemed to be only a hollow echo of each candidate’s stance on government and a reiteration of their regular talking points. Additionally, as Obama focuses on his administration’s past accomplishments and vague future plans, Romney spends a large amount of time, sometimes falsely, attacking President Obama and stating even more vague future plans. As Robert Gonzales states, ” When we brought ScienceDebate’s list of questions to your attention last month, many of you commented that any politician worth his or her salt would be able to skirt around these prompts with relative ease. That may be true, but it’s a hell of of a lot more difficult for politicians to pull this off in a debate format, where each participant is forced to confront and contend with an opponent’s positions in real-time. America, and the rest of the world, 100% needs and deserves that kind of discourse.” While I applaud ScienceDebate for even attempting a presidential debate on science policy, and while I realize said debate needs to start from somewhere, the answers do little to convince me of either candidate’s stance of these very important science policy issues.

Scientific American, a partner of ScienceDebate, plans to grade each candidate responses for their November issue. They also ask for your help and encourage you to get involved in the debate by submitting your comments and critiques. “We will highlight the most thoughtful and constructive comments and consider the best, verifiable information that you give us in our own deliberations and analysis.”

In just the past 24 hours these ScienceDebate questions have already seen a fair amount of press coverage, but on the whole people seem understandably disappointed with the quality and substance for the candidate’s answers. Shawn Otto, CEO of ScienceDebate, states in response to a comment on the Scientific American website, “Which is why an actual debate or forum that allows for followup questions is so important.”

  1. Michael says:

    Great job! This kind of “ghost written” policy answers is a sad reality of modern politics. A live debate would be an outstanding thing to see. Unfortunately, I’m guessing both campaigns would likely try their best to avoid that sort of pressure. [I also loved the Romney, “I’m not a scientist”. Thanks WE KNOW!

  2. Glenn says:

    Surprised by Romney’s alleged stance on internet freedoms. I wonder if it would actually turn out that way. From what I have seen the Republican stance(most Dems too, dont get me wrong) has been to shut down as much of the internet as possible to keep inappropriate material to a minimum (which really means they want to control copywrite infringement in favor of big business). I dont see any party (Ron Paul excluded) with a will keep the internet free and developing as much as it could be.

    • Thanks for commenting Glen!

      A few interesting articles:


      “…the Republican position that the Internet must be free and open for all things but smut represents a circle than just can’t be squared. The only way to police porn on the Internet is to filter the entire Internet. All packets will have to be inspected in order to find the ones with boobies in them. It’ll amount to a total loss of the privacy Republicans promise, and it won’t work anyhow. The Internet, after all, is for porn.”


      “It’s evident that Romney is viewing ‘internet freedom’ through an exclusively economic lens—when he talks about “picking winners and losers” and rails against net neutrality, he’s in essence lamenting the move to regulate services provided by ginormous telecom firms. He doesn’t mention whether or not he agrees with his party’s desire to regulate the internet for content, like gambling and pornography sites. The GOP states that it will work to clamp down on both.”

  3. Kelsey L. Reed says:

    Reblogged this on Kelsey L. Reed.

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