Thursday, September 6, 2012

Science matters

If you haven't seen it already, I demand you check out ScienceDebate 2012's list of pressing scientific policy questions and the answers they have been given by the two contenders for President. That's right. I demand it.
Regardless of where you stand on the issues, the point is that we (as a "well-informed people") have the right (and the responsibility) to know where the candidates stand on the issues that affect us. As science is a tremendously important aspect of everyday life, we should know what the candidates believe regarding the use of science in policy, and the use of policy in science. You as a voter can't make an informed decision if the candidates are not - as the name implies they should be - candid about their views.
Hence ScienceDebate was born.




There are fourteen questions which were submitted to both President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and a couple days ago, the two candidates responded. The questions ranged from Innovation and Economy to Energy and Climate Change to Space and STEM Education.
Both candidates were a bit more vague than I had hoped, but I suppose that is to be expected in politics. Certain party-line distinctions are clear, whereas other differences seem minor. In the interest of cutting through the political rhetoric and copious other unrelated nonsense ("Unfortunately, President Obama..."), I will summarize here. (I still demand you read the full questions and responses for yourself, at some point before the election. Also, keep in mind that just because someone talks longer doesn't necessarily mean they have more to say.) I have left what I consider to be important or telling quotations. [On occasion, I won't be able to contain myself, so I have put my interjections in grey.]

1. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?
Obama: Double funding for "key research agencies" to support scientists and entrepreneurs; prepare 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade to teach the next generation.
Romney: Reform immigration system to attract and keep "highly skilled foreign workers;" permanently simplify the tax code and lower taxes (including corporate taxes and investments); reduce agency regulation and leave the private sector to "pursuing and applying innovation"; create a "Reagan Economic Zone" for free enterprise while "confronting" countries ("like China") which steal intellectual property [what exactly does he mean by "confronting"?]; reform education system; "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."

2. What is your position on 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 one of the biggest issues of this generation;" established limits on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and on carbon pollution from new fossil fuel plants; invest in clean energy; continue to reduce oil dependence and use.
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. Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response;" oppose cap-and-trade or carbon tax; pursue "a 'No Regrets' policy - steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action;" robust government funding for low-emissions, efficient technologies; streamline regulatory framework for deployment of new technologies.
[While I can appreciate the desire to look into better alternatives, climate change is not something we can sit around and wait for. We don't have time to see what the "extent" will be.]

3. What priority would you give to research funding in your budget?
Obama: Proposed a goal of 3% of GDP research spending; $100 billion committed during Recovery Act; make permanent the R&D tax credit; prioritize investments in research.
[Of course, this "prioritizing" left me without a facility...]
Romney: "Continued funding would be a top priority in my budget" but it must be spent "more wisely;" "amplify" federal research in the private sector; reform FDA approval process [shrug].

4. What steps should America take to protect ourselves from global pandemics and other biohazards?
Obama: Strengthen public health systems to stop disease spreading and allow for fast and effective response; work with private sector to assess "potential vulnerabilities."
Romney: Invest in public health monitoring systems; "encourage advancements in research and manufacturing" to develop better countermeasures; "empower the private sector to pursue... breakthroughs."

5. Why are American students behind in STEM, and what can be done to fix it?
Obama: Strengthen STEM education via existing "Educate to Innovate" campaign; train 100,000 STEM teachers in next decade; national STEM Master Teacher Corps to support 10,000 teachers.
[Not a really satisfactory answer, since it assumes the problem is not with the method, but with the resources. That said, I don't know how best to approach changing the method, because it seems like every time we introduce vouchers we end up with creationists.]
Romney: "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 [pray tell me where teachers are getting millions of dollars from and why that money isn't going toward getting teachers better pay and benefits for what they do] to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve;" support charter schools and digital education providers; support voucher system; support state-level standards and "annual testing" to "hold both students and educators accountable" to those standards; support "policies for recruitment, evaluation and compensation" of teachers.

6. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?
Obama: Support "all of the above" energy approach (natural gas, wind, biofuels, solar, oil, clean coal, etc); invest in clean energy and energy efficiency; proposed Clean Energy Standard to produce 80% of electricity from "clean" sources by 2035; proposed Renewable Fuel Standard to save 14 billion gallons of gasoline; development of natural gas resources.
Romney: "Dramatically increase" domestic energy production and partner with Canada and Mexico; open access to domestic energy sources; allow states to control onshore resource production, even on federal land; open offshore areas to development; streamlining of permitting/regulation (including nuclear); facilitate private-sector-led development of new energy technologies.
[Personal opinion: I am stridently opposed to opening BLM land to energy production. We set aside those lands to enjoy for generations to come, not pillage.]

7. What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America's food supply?
Obama: Signed "most comprehensive reform of our nation's food safety laws in more than 70 years;" strengthen standards and improve monitoring; support organic farming and reduce use of pesticides and antibiotics.
Romney: Support "preventative practices" developed by "growers, handlers, processors, and others in the supply chain;" "advanced research and continued scientific breakthroughs, state-of-the-art monitoring, and a collaborative instead of combative relationship between regulators and businesses."

8. What steps would you take to ensure America has clean, abundant fresh water?
Obama: Released a "national clean water framework" in partnership with communities to improve water quality and restore rivers/watersheds; support water conservation programs; invested in 5100 water and waste community infrastructure projects; streamlined process to improve water along borders.
Romney: "Modernize" federal regulation governing water use; support "combination of incentives, market-based programs, and cooperative conservation measures;" support public and private technologies.

9. What role should governmental play in management of the internet?
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... Internet;" recognize "civilian" nature of cyberspace.
Romney: "It is not the role of any government to 'manage' the Internet;" support relying "primarily on innovation and market forces;" "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."
[I'd like to point out that in the full-length version, Romney prattles on about how 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." It's obvious that the two candidates didn't get to see each other's responses. Obama says outright that it is a "free and open Internet" - precisely the opposite of what Romney alleges. I'm not sure exactly what this "innovation-stifling international regulatory regime" is... perhaps he's referring to the BBC website's propensity for using one-sentence-long paragraphs?]

10. How do you protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?
Obama: Established National Ocean Policy to "ensure proactive approach;" direct additional funding to Gulf Coast restoration; started Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and cleanup of Chesapeake Bay; invested $1.4 billion in Everglades restoration; "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;" invest in monitoring of fishing stocks.
Romney: Safeguard fisheries through federal science and input of fishermen, "seeking to accommodate the needs of these small businessmen wherever possible."
[Do I sense a Tragedy of the Commons coming on?]

11. How will you ensure that policy is informed by and adopts the best available scientific information?
Obama: Appoint scientific advisors based on credentials, not policy; directed OSTP to "ensure that our policies reflect what science tells us without distortion or manipulation;" expand public disclosure of environmental regulatory compliance; "ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, making scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology, and including the public in our decision making process."
Romney: "ensure that the best available scientific and technical information guides decision-making in my Administration, and avoid the manipulation of science for political gain;" pursue legislative reforms "to ensure that regulators are always taking cost into account;" establish regulatory cap.
[It's the "cost" thing that really bothers me with this one. Is the future of humanity not worth a few extra bucks?]

12. What are our goals for space in the 21st century?
Obama: Extended life of ISS; invested $2.5 billion in Mars rover Curiosity; set goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s; support Orion deep space crew vehicle (test launch 2014).
Romney: Support "rebuilding NASA, restoring US leadership, and creating new opportunities for space commerce;" ensure NASA has "practical and sustainable missions;" invite international participation; strengthen space-based national security programs (ie spy satellites); revitalize aerospace industry.

13. What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?
Obama: Support development of rare-earth alternatives; joined with Japan and Europe to bring trade case against Chinese restrictions on rare-earth exports; promote US-based electronics recycling; launching research "hub" to develop efficiencies and alternatives for rare-earth materials use.
Romney: "The United States was once self-sufficient in its production of critical natural resources like rare-earth minerals. But a decline in production, driven more by regulation than by economics or scarcity, has left the nation reliant on imports;" allow access to federal lands for energy resource production; allow states to regulate such production.
[This is, in fact, a strange question, in that Obama chose to focus on rare-earth materials and Romney chose instead to focus on oil and gas drilling. I would also like to point out that Romney's charge is not entirely true; it is economics that have caused the downward trend in rare-earth extraction in the US.]

14. What steps would you take to support vaccinations in the interest of public health?
Obama: Introduced Affordable Care Act to make routine preventative care such as vaccinations free of copay or deductible; created Prevention and Public Health Fund to transform health care system from focus on illness to focus on wellness; allow states to purchase vaccines at federally-negotiated prices.
Romney: Strengthen manufacturing capabilities to stockpile vaccines; "the vast majority of Americans need to take steps to receive vaccinations;" take "steps to ensure that America remains the most attractive place to develop and commercialize innovative, life-saving products like vaccines."

Now go read the whole thing. Do it. It's important.