EDITORIAL - US Presidential Candidates Must Address Political Scientific Crisis

The United States presidential nomination campaigns have raised controversial policy issues and have forced candidates to address complex questions. But between the arguments over race and gender, Iraq and the economy, a critical subject for anyone reading this publication has been largely overlooked: how the candidates propose to solve the country's growing science crisis.

We've all heard the statistics. In one study, 15-year-olds in the US came in 19th in scientific literacy and 24th in mathematics out of 49 industrialized nations1. The standard solutions include better science teachers, more funding for basic research, stronger incentives for innovation. To implement any of these, the next president must provide strong support for increased scientific funding in the face of an economic downturn. As a cautionary tale, Congress and President George W. Bush awarded $30 billion to the federal science agencies over the next three years in the America COMPETES Act - funding that has yet to materialize2.

Do the candidates show the conviction necessary to sustain the country's history of scientific innovation? Their science policies are noticeably less detailed than, say, their healthcare plans. New York Senator Hillary Clinton provides an in-depth plan that surpasses the general goals of her competitor for the Democratic nomination, Illinois Senator Barack Obama. His plan, in turn, is more detailed than the broad sentiments offered by the Republican nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain.

The inequality of details complicates comparing any the candidates. However, based on the limited information that is available, the candidates all recognize the crucial need to promote the scientific community's interests.

Each candidate takes a different approach to solving the science education crisis. Clinton will triple the number of NSF fellowships and institute programs to attract women and minorities to university science programs2. Obama supports scholarships for science teachers3, while McCain focuses on student mentoring programs and teacher training2.

Clinton and Obama have both promised substantial increases in federal agencies' funding for basic research2. Notably, Clinton has also said that federal agencies should designate funds specifically for high-risk studies2 that may offer long-term payoffs even if lacking in immediate applications.

On the technology front, Obama and Clinton would use tax incentives to expand broadband Internet access, while McCain favors reducing Federal Communications Commission regulations to allow competitive markets for Internet suppliers2. Obama and McCain support patent reform, which will encourage innovation by protecting returns on research and development2.

All three candidates advocate a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases along with a reduction in national energy consumption3,4. McCain is more vocal in support of nuclear power and less enthusiastic about biofuels4. Clinton advocates a $50 billion alternative-energy investment fund2, while Obama promises to restore power to fundamental legislation including the Clean Air Act and the Superfund program4. Both Democrats stress that the United States must resume a leading role in international climate negotiations3,4.

Clinton has vowed to lift the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research that meets ethical standards5. All candidates support space exploration and research4,6.

But only one candidate has spoken at length on the most important scientific issue in this election: a pledge to value the input of practicing scientists on policy and funding decisions.

Clinton says she will protect scientific integrity from political influences and reinstate the position of Assistant to the President for Science and Technology3. She also promises to protect government scientists' conclusions in reports and publications from political censorship4.

While Obama states that government decisions must be based upon science rather than politics, he has not outlined steps he will take to carry out this statement7. McCain does not have a well-publicized stance on the issue.

To draw attention to the subject, more than 12,000 scientists, politicians, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, universities, and businesses are calling for a debate where the candidates would discuss the state of science in the US8,9.

"We have all become painfully aware in recent years that it is not only irresponsible but dangerous and expensive to distort and repackage scientific conclusions for political purposes," debate co-organizer Shawn Lawrence Otto wrote for Salon8.

Throughout its tenure, the current Administration has discredited and suppressed the work of federal scientists, ordering public censorship on controversial issues and directly overruling the best available research.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was in the news recently over allegations that bureaucrats without biology backgrounds ignored or edited scientists' reports on the listing of endangered species10,11. Last April, the Department of Commerce told scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ask for permission before speaking on topics "of official interest," whether in their governmental roles or as private citizens12,13.

NASA officials allegedly ordered James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, to stop publicly discussing the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to counteract climate change14, hardly controversial science. But Hansen is not alone – in a survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 150 federal climate scientists reported political interference with their work between 2002 and 200715.

A responsible Administration views the work of its nation's scientists as an invaluable asset and a source of guidance in setting policy, not as an inconvenience to be edited and censored out of the way.

Improved science education, increased funding, and support for the frontiers of research will drive the ground-breaking discoveries of the 21st century. For that reason alone, the candidates' stances on these issues deserve greater attention. But for McCain and Obama to gain the trust of the scientific community, they must first adopt Clinton's pledge to respect scientific integrity, then outline their plans to see it through. And all three candidates must honor these promises if elected.

If the next Administration disregards hard-won scientific knowledge for political gain or personal expediency, we will suffer a true crisis, both in science and in society as a whole.

Written by Emma Wear

Reviewed by JYI staff

Published by Pooja Ghatalia

The Executive Board at JYI is advised by a Board of Directors, which is comprised of JYI alumni who now work in such diverse sectors as business, academia, publishing, and non-profit.
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