A prime source for comedic relief this year will no doubt be the continuation of the 2016 Presidential campaigns. In the latter half of 2015, we were bestowed with debates and political flubs galore. Comedic gold aside, there has been little talk surrounding a topic of great import: science policy. This shouldn’t be surprising. Science is not a quotidian campaign topic for Presidential candidates, nor is it for anyone outside of science due to weak public interest and understanding. If we lived in a better world—a world not pending showdowns with Alzheimer’s disease, climate change, and STEM education—our candidates could eschew science. But these are very real problems that our world, and thus future President, must tackle. Here, I review what the Presidential candidates have to say about science policy and highlight the disparity between political and scientific interests.
The most discussed discrepancy between Republican and Democratic parties on the scientific front is in the debate over the American government’s role in the creation and regulation of clean energy sources and stance on the climate crisis. Centralized issues include the Keystone Pipeline, fracking, and EPA regulations.
Most of the GOP candidates do not (a) believe that climate change is occurring, (b) acknowledge deleterious human effects on climate, or (c) view the climate crisis as an immediate concern. A slight dissenter of the party is former CEO Carly Fiorina (R), who acknowledged the existence of man-made climate change but stated that the solution to “a three-decade global effort, coordinated and costing trillions of dollars” is unfeasible, suggesting that solutions must rely upon innovation rather than governmental regulation. Similarly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R - Florida) states that he does not deny science but refuses to support policies that would destroy our economy. All GOP candidates support extension of the Keystone Pipeline and fracking to promote the economy.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D – Vermont) has, in contrast, called climate change thegreatest threat to national security. Similarly, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) has insisted that politicians listen to scientists and has promoted her infrastructure plans to combat climate change. Both Sanders and Clinton support the plans set forth by the Paris Climate Agreements, though Sanders does not think the agreement is a full solution. Neither candidate supports fracking, and while Sanders has publically opposed the Keystone project, Clinton has remained a dubious stance.
Education and STEM
In contrast to the candor on environmental and energy concerns, most candidates have been quiet about science in the context of education and STEM initiatives. All GOP candidates have expressed opposition to Common Core, which sets no regulations on science and technical subjects until grades 6-12 of public education. A few GOP candidates—Trump, Fiorina, and Cruz—are in favor of cutting the Dept. of Education budget and promoting local control of education via vouchers. Sen. Marco Rubio (R – Florida) has, unlike his Republican opponents, voiced specific support of STEM education. Historically, Rubio has acted in favor of STEM education through education plans for all children and for immigrant workers and has also introduced a bipartisan act to provide access to computer science education in public schools.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D – Vermont) has proposed to issue a bill to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, which is backed by the notion that a college degree is synonymous to a high school diploma 50 years ago, but he has yet to comment on STEM initiatives. During her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton (D) launched NeXXt Scholars, an initiative to provide scholarship and mentorship opportunities for women pursuing STEM fields and, like Sanders, supports big government funding to make higher education feasible for low-income students.
Unfortunately, like STEM initiatives, scientific research is not on the radar for most candidates. Sen. Ted Cruz (R – Texas) has mentioned plans increase funding towards NASA with regards to expanding space exploration, as has Jeb Bush (R). Sen. Marco Rubio (R – Florida) publicly supported the Pluto New Horizons Mission, but conflictingly, has supported cutting the NASA budget. Additionally, he does not believe in government funding of stem cell research. In a slight detour from her party, Carly Fiorina made allowances for stem cell research in 2010 but has since refrained from commenting further on scientific research of other sorts.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D – Vermont) has publicly taken a pro-science stance by supporting increased funding for space exploration, stem cell research, vaccinations, and GMOs. Hillary Clinton, though mum on science this election round, prioritized science funding in her 2008 run and spoke in favor of stem cell research and NASA projects. Additionally, she criticized the budget sequester in 2013 for hindering scientific research.
How can we empower our politicians to understand the climate of science funding (and the climate in general, apparently) and its effect on societal welfare? It is our job, as a scientific community, to promote scientific discourse in the political arena. The bipartisan nature of the US does not make scientific advances easy. However, the facts above demonstrate that politicians are capable of advocating on the behalf of science, and in time, we might hope that politicians will understand the necessity of transforming the American atmosphere into one that discusses science, funds science, and turns lab notes into reality.