Presidential Candidates on Science

I suppose I was bound to write a post about science in the 2012 presidential election eventually.  I stumbled upon a great site a few weeks ago (www.sciencedebate.org) that was attempting to get Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to answer 14 of the most important science-related questions facing our planet today.  It goes without saying that not only the citizens of America, but the citizens of the world need to know where both of these individuals stand on scientific issues, because the implications of electing a scientifically illiterate president would have far-reaching consequences for everyone.  Throughout this post I will post what I believe to be key questions and segments of the candidates responses and try to analyze what their responses mean for policy both nationally and internationally.  (If you want to read all the questions and their entire responses go here).

1. Innovation and the Economy. Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII, when the federal government first prioritized peacetime science mobilization. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?

Obama: I am committed to doubling funding for key research agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs, so that we can preserve America’s place as the world leader in innovation, and strengthen U.S. leadership in the 21st century’s high-tech knowledge-based economy. 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.

Romney: We must reform America’s legal immigration system to attract and retain the best and the brightest, and equip more Americans with the skills to succeed. I will raise visa caps for highly skilled foreign workers, offer permanent residence to foreign students graduating with advanced degrees in relevant fields, and restructure government retraining programs to empower individual workers and welcome private sector participation.

America’s K-12 education system lags behind other developed nations, and while our higher education system remains the envy of the world its costs are spiraling out of control. We must pursue genuine education reform that puts the interests of parents and students ahead of special interests and provides a chance for every child. 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. I will also ensure that students have diverse and affordable options for higher education to give them the skills they need to succeed after graduation.

Obama’s response here clearly indicates (rightly or wrongly) that the STEM sciences are the key for growth and industry and should be prized over other sciences and types of knowledge.  Since this questions is specifically asking the president about future innovation and economic growth, I don’t necessarily have an issue with this stance since most of the STEM sciences do lead to more practical jobs than other areas within science and academia.

Mitt Romney gave a much more detailed and lengthy response to this question, although I felt much of it had little direct relevance to the question overall.  The first relevant point to bring up is that Romney seems committed to attracting and keeping foreign individuals with advanced degrees.  What is unclear is what classifies as a ‘relevant field’.  Does this mean that he will get to pick and choose if you can stay in the country depending on what subject you are doing your PhD in?  Also, his comments on education are a little hard for me to take seriously.  In the past he has publicly stated that if you can’t afford higher education you should “borrow money from your parents” but here he seems to be supporting education reform to stop tuition fees from spiralling out of control.  Finally, Romney makes a similar, but a little less specific, comment regarding sciences that have commercial benefits.  It seems that whoever becomes the next president, the STEM sciences will be getting the most government assistance for future growth.

2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

Obama: Climate change is the one of the biggest issues of this generation, and we have to meet this challenge by driving smart policies that lead to greater growth in clean energy generation and result in a range of economic and social benefits. Since taking office I have established historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles for the first time in history. My administration has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions within the Federal Government. 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. We are also showing international leadership on climate change, reaching historic agreements to set emission limits in unison with all major developed and developing nations. There is still more to be done to address this global problem. I will continue efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and lower our greenhouse gas emissions while creating an economy built to last.

Romney: 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. However, 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.

Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response.

The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

I was genuinely excited to read the responses to these questions to see where the two candidates stood on one of the most important scientific issues of the 21st century, and potentially one of the most important scientific issues in the history of our species.  Obama seems to whole-heartedely accept that government must play a fundamental role in preventing our planet from getting any warmer and creating an infrastructure that is “built to last”.  There was really nothing to dissect here, he was direct, to the point, and didn’t give me any reason to pause or question his future intentions regarding the environment.

Romney on the other hand gave the slimiest response ever.  In his first point he acknowledges that global warming is happening and I thought he was off to a good start.  Then he quickly back tracks and says “there is lack of scientific consensus on the issue.”  This response infuriates me because there is complete scientific consensus on the issue.  The 2% of climate scientists that deny global warming happen to be paid by oil companies to say that.  And even when oil companies pay top climate scientists to do research disproving global warming, many still acknowledge that our planet is warming at an unprecedented level, we are the cause and we have to support policies to lower our greenhouse gas emissions.  His responses also get worse unfortunately.  When he makes his point saying that “science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate particular policy decision” he is pretty much saying, ‘we aren’t going to listen to the 98% of climate scientists who agree global warming is happening right now and we need to support policies to stop it right now.’  Finally, if his stance on what he was going to do about climate change wasn’t clear already, he shirks all responsibility by trying to compare the responsibilities of developing and developed countries.  This goes without saying but countries that are developed in the year 2012 are developed because of all the fossil fuel emissions they have burned since the industrial revolution back in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Developed countries are the primary reason the earth is warming, and while developing countries should also attempt to build an economy that is sustainable, developed countries must lead the way, both because they are morally obligated to and because they are economically capable to do so.

5. Education. Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. 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: An excellent education remains the clearest, surest route to the middle class. To compete with other countries we must strengthen STEM education. Early in my administration, I called for a national effort to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement. Last year, I announced an ambitious goal of preparing 100,000 additional STEM teachers over the next decade, with growing philanthropic and private sector support. My “Educate to Innovate” campaign is bringing together leading businesses, foundations, non-profits, and professional societies to improve STEM teaching and learning. Recently, I outlined a plan to launch a new national STEM Master Teacher Corps that will be established in 100 sites across the country and be expanded over the next four years to support 10,000 of the best STEM teachers in the nation. These investments would improve the quality of STEM education at all levels, ensuring the next generation of Americans has the tools to out-innovate and out-compete the rest of the world.

Romney: Unfortunately, rather than embracing reform and innovation, America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions representing teachers. The teachers unions spend millions of dollars to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve. The efforts of teachers will be central to any successful reform, but their unions have a very different agenda: opposing innovation that might disrupt the status quo while insulating even the least effective teachers from accountability. Sadly, these priorities do not correlate with better outcomes for our children. To the contrary, teachers unions are consistently on the front lines fighting against initiatives to attract and retain the best teachers, measure performance, provide accountability, or offer choices to parents.

Empowering parents with far greater choice over the school their child attends is a vital component of any national agenda for education reform. To start, low-income and special-needs children must be given the freedom to choose the right school and bring funding with them. These students must have access to attractive options, which will require support for the expansion of successful charter schools and for greater technology use by schools.

Poor K-12 education is one of America’s biggest weaknesses.  Barack Obama does give a specific plan to improve science and math education, but gives little further detail as to how to reform the system itself, which is broken.  And once again, it looks as though all federal funds whether for K-12, for the university or the private sector, will be directed towards the STEM sciences.

American teachers, even though they are unionized, typically have lower wages and less job security than teachers in other developed countries.  So Romney decided to attack and blame them for the education system.  Maybe his rationale is that if American teachers were not unionized their wages could be lowered even more substantially.  He also says that there should be “far greater choice” in school selection and that low-income and special needs children “must be given the freedom to choose the right school and bring funding with them.”  I’m not sure exactly why he suggests low-income students should ‘bring funding with them’.  I may be misinterpreting this but does this mean he wants low-income students to pick private schools to give them better education and pay for their schooling?  I just can’t help but see this as Romney being detached with the struggles a low-income family faces.

9. The Internet. The Internet plays a central role in both our economy and our society. What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?

Obama: A free and open Internet is essential component of American society and of the modern economy. I support legislation to protect intellectual property online, but any effort to combat online piracy must not reduce freedom of expression, increase cybersecurity risk, or undermine the dynamic, innovative global Internet. I also believe it is essential that we take steps to strengthen our cybersecurity and ensure that we are guarding against threats to our vital information systems and critical infrastructure, all while preserving Americans’ privacy, data confidentiality, and civil liberties and recognizing the civilian nature of cyberspace.

Romney: It is not the role of any government to “manage” the Internet. The Internet has flourished precisely because government has so far refrained from regulating this dynamic and essential cornerstone of our economy. I would rely primarily on innovation and market forces, not bureaucrats, to shape the Internet and maximize its economic, social and scientific value.

Thanks to the non-governmental multi-stakeholder model, the Internet is — and always has been — open to all ideas and lawful commerce as well as bountiful private investment. Unfortunately, President Obama has chosen to impose government as a central gatekeeper in the broadband economy. His policies interfere with the basic operation of the Internet, create uncertainty, and undermine investors and job creators.

Specifically, the FCC’s “Net Neutrality” regulation represents an Obama campaign promise fulfilled on behalf of certain special interests, but ultimately a “solution” in search of a problem. The government has now interjected itself in how networks will be constructed and managed, picked winners and losers in the marketplace, and determined how consumers will receive access to tomorrow’s new applications and services. The Obama Administration’s overreaching has replaced innovators and investors with Washington bureaucrats.

In addition to these domestic intrusions, there are also calls for increased international regulation of the Internet through the United Nations. I will oppose any effort to subject the Internet to an unaccountable, innovation-stifling international regulatory regime. Instead, I will clear away barriers to private investment and innovation and curtail needless regulation of the digital economy.

I have to remember that Obama, not just Romney, is a trained lawyer, and sometimes Obama can also use some wordplay designed to avoid directly answering a question.  I think he did it with his response to internet freedom when he said “but any effort to combat online piracy”.  It may be a reach here on my part but this to me indicates that Obama would still potentially wish to pass a bill like SOPA or PIPA.

Romney’s response to this question in my opinion was actually quite good.  While government has an important role in many other areas of life, the internet is best left alone.  I will say though that this does not match what Romney stated back on the campaign trail about wanting to completely block porn from the internet.  That kind of sounds like government attempting to “manage” the internet.

12. Space. The United States is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in 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: Two years ago I set a goal of sending humans farther into space than we have ever been — to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s. We will continue to operate the Space Station until at least 2020 and perhaps beyond. When 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.

The recent landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars was a great leadership moment for our nation and a sign of the continued strength of NASA’s many programs in science, aeronautics and human spaceflight. It’s also important to remember that the $2.5 billion investment made in this project was not spent on Mars, but right here on Earth, supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states.

My administration has put a big focus on improving science and technology, engineering and math education. And this is the kind of thing that inspires kids across the country. They’re telling their moms and dads they want to be part of a Mars mission — maybe even the first person to walk on Mars. That’s inspiring.

Romney: America has enjoyed a half-century of leadership in space, but now that leadership is eroding despite the hard work of American industry and government personnel. The current purpose and goals of the American space program are difficult to determine. With clear, decisive, and steadfast leadership, space can once again be an engine of technology and commerce. It can help to strengthen America’s entrepreneurial spirit and commercial competitiveness, launch new industries and new technologies, protect our security interests, and increase our knowledge.

Rebuilding NASA, restoring U.S. leadership, and creating new opportunities for space commerce will be hard work, but I will strive to rebuild an institution worthy of our aspirations and capable once again leading the world toward new frontiers. I will bring together all the stakeholders – from NASA and other civil agencies, from the full range of national security institutions, from our leading universities, and from commercial enterprises – to set goals, identify missions, and define the pathway forward.

Focusing NASA.

A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities. I will ensure that NASA has practical and sustainable missions. There will be a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs.

The space industry really is in a transitionary phase.  However, Obama does seem to be committed to continuing U.S involvement and achievement in space exploration.  His comment regarding the fact that money spent on space programs are invested here on Earth, not in space, is really a key point to make and one that is often overlooked.  However, he does not make a commitment to increase Americas space budget, so NASA can expect to continue to struggle with limited funding despite substantial achievements in 2012.

The key to Romney’s response comes in the “Focusing NASA” section where he says “a strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities.”  This is basically saying explicitly ‘NASA, not only are we not going to increase your funding despite your achievements and contributions to humanity, we are probably going to cut your funding even more.”  Either way, whether the next president is Obama or Romney, NASA is going to have to try and do more with less.

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About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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