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Science Issues in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Campaign


Science and Politics:

There are a wide range of issues at stake in any political election. Whether you're talking about healthcare, environmental concerns, educational policy, technological infrastructure, business innovation, or any of a host of other topics, many of the solutions required involve understanding the scientific issues at stake.

For this reason, in 2008, a group came together to lobby for a Science Debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. The full debate never came about, but the movement gained steam and resumed their work to try for a similar Science Debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. (For more on this, see Science Debate co-founder Shawn Lawrence Otto's book Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. Another good book on the subject is Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.)

I would personally be surprised if there will be an actual debate focused on scientific issues, but the candidates have both answered the call by responding to a series of questions from Science Debate. The full responses of the candidates can be found on the Scientific American website, and editors will evaluate the scientific validity of their responses in the November issue of the magazine (which is slated to come out in mid-October). For an initial review of the results, there's a good YouTube video of Shaun Lawrence Otto with Dr. Kiki Sanford covering the responses.

The Questions:

Scientific American, in conjunction with the folks from Science Debate, asked both candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney a series of 14 questions about urgent science-related policies. The questions focused on the following areas:
  1. Innovation and the Economy
  2. Climate Change
  3. Research and the Future
  4. Pandemics and Biosecurity
  5. Education
  6. Energy
  7. Food
  8. Fresh Water
  9. The Internet
  10. Ocean Health
  11. Science in Public Policy
  12. Space
  13. Critical Natural Resources
  14. Vaccination and Public Health

In the meantime, however, I thought it would be prudent to highlight some of the major issues of the campaign and give my own thoughts on some of their responses. I'll focus mostly on their non-biology comments, since I really don't have much expertise to be chiming in on biosecurity.


In response to a question on innovation, Mitt Romney certainly receives the credit for details. In a multi-part response, he ties innovation quite firmly into his economic agenda. He is, after all, campaigning on the strength of his background supporting the growth of businesses, so this seems to be an element that he would have a strong background in. My one concern is whether he would really see a role for the federal government in funding basic research, as Obama clearly does. Though he chides Obama's policies as a failure, Romney does say that "we must never forget that the United States has moved forward in astonishing ways thanks to national investment in basic research and advanced technology. As president, I will focus government resources on research programs that advance the development of knowledge, and on technologies with widespread application and potential to serve as the foundation for private sector innovation and commercialization."

Both candidates also agree that innovation requires a strong educational system.

  • President Obama: "To prepare American children for a future in which they can be the highly skilled American workers and innovators of tomorrow, I have set the goal of preparing 100,000 science and math teachers over the next decade. These teachers will meet the urgent need to train one million additional science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates over the next decade."
  • Mitt Romney: " I will take the unprecedented step of tying federal funds directly to dramatic reforms that expand parental choice, invest in innovation, and reward teachers for their results instead of their tenure."

While both of these plans sound good on the surface, neither is flawless. Where will the 100,000 teachers come from? New teachers take time to become good at teaching, and even then the lag time before they'll enter the workforce will be several years, so how can the success of such a plan really be evaluated? On the Romney front, the question is whether a mandate to "expand parental choice" really has a strong impact on student performance. This is a claim that contains a lot of very mixed evidence in the research.

Climate Change:

Both candidates did well, I think, on the climate change question. Obama's strong positions on this are fairly well known, but there were a few tidbits of note in the candidates responses. Some of the highlights:
  • President Obama: "Since I took office, the U.S. is importing an average of 3 million fewer barrels of oil every day, and our dependence on foreign oil is at a 20-year low."
  • Mitt Romney: "... 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."

Research Funding:

  • President Obama: "... under the Recovery Act, my administration enacted the largest research and development increase in our nation’s history. Through the Recovery Act, my Administration committed over $100 billion to support groundbreaking innovation with investments in energy, basic research, education and training, advanced vehicle technology, health IT and health research, high speed rail, smart grid, and information technology."
  • Mitt Romney: "I am a strong supporter of federally funded research, and continued funding would be a top priority in my budget. The answer to spending constraints is not to cut back on crucial investments in America’s future, but rather to spend money more wisely."
One point of note is that in this response, President Obama makes reference to making permanent the R&D tax credit, which Romney said he wanted to make permanent in the "Innovation" response (and is noted among Romney's tax proposals elsewhere). So, it would seem as if both candidates want to make this R&D tax credit permanent, although one assumes that they want to offset that with different economic adjustments.
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