Science and technology are increasingly central to societal and economic development. Despite the importance of science in national policy, it is a topic that is rarely addressed by political candidates. In an effort to raise the visibility of science in the presidential campaigns, ScienceDebate.org posed 14 questions about science policy to President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Both candidates recognized the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for U.S. economic growth, but put forth different proposals to ensure America’s continued leadership in these areas. Obama proposed doubling funding to key research agencies, and set the goal of preparing 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade. Romney stated innovation in the private section was critical, and would flourish with more access to human capital, simpler tax codes, less regulation, and more protection of intellectual property. He indicated a role for government in supporting the private sector by making higher education more affordable, and K-12 more accountable to parental choice and government standards.

The candidates stated they would support federal science funding, although Romney emphasized the importance of research commercialization and the private sector. Obama pointed to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e. the stimulus) as an example of his administration’s commitment to science: “$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. Of these funds, we made a $90 billion investment in clean energy that will produce as much as $150 billion in clean energy projects.” Romney dismissed the effectiveness of the Obama administration investments in clean energy. Both candidates argued that they would make the research and development tax credit permanent.

Both candidates acknowledged human-caused climate change and its global nature. Despite previously declaring his doubts about society’s role in rising global temperatures, Romney stated “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.” He went on to declare a “lack of scientific consensus” regarding the extent and consequences of climate change, and criticized action by the United States on climate change on the grounds that it limited the development of U.S. industry or pushed industry to move outside of U.S. borders, without producing tangible benefits. Romney advocated a “No Regrets” policy: taking steps that lead to lower emissions, but that benefit the U.S. “regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action.”

Obama made no mention of cap-and-trade or other binding international agreements. Rather he focused on what his administration has done to address climate change, including “historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles,” “unprecedented investments in clean energy,” and the proposed “first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions.” He supported a continuing role for the U.S. in international agreements on emission limits, and emphasized development of clean energy, which includes coal and natural gas, as well as renewable resources such as solar and wind.

With respect to the use of science in public policy, both candidates expressed a desire to incorporate scientific information into policymaking with transparency and without ideological manipulation. Romney additionally stated he would pursue “reforms to ensure that regulators are always taking cost into account when they promulgate new rules.”

Obama and Romney had divergent takes on the role of federal government in preparing students in STEM fields. Obama emphasized government initiatives, in line with his “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which aims to bring together businesses, foundations, non-profits, and professional societies to improve STEM teaching and learning. He mentioned his plan for a national STEM Master Teacher Corps that would eventually support 10,000 of the best STEM teachers in the nation. In contrast, Romney said more spending would not solve the problem of K-12 education, and instead emphasized the need to reduce the power of teacher unions, increase school and teacher accountability, implement rewards and recruitment for effective teachers, and broaden parental choice.

The candidates also differed in their views on how to address society’s need for accessible fresh water, which is increasingly at risk due to consumption, evaporation, and pollution. Obama expressed a commitment to addressing the water crisis. His administration has awarded grants for water conservation projects and funded 5,100 water and wastewater community infrastructure projects. Romney contended that costly and inflexible regulation impose “unnecessary economic constraints and trigger inevitable litigation. The result is to delay progress that could be achieved, and to leave communities and natural resources worse instead of better off.” He proposed to modernize regulations, and renew focus on research into U.S. drinking and sanitation infrastructure through a combination of “incentives, market-based programs, and cooperative conservation measures.”

The candidates additionally responded to questions on pandemics and bio-security, energy, food, the Internet, ocean health, space, natural resources, and vaccination and public health. The questions were identified by the public and refined to 14 by a group of scientific organizations, which included the American Institute of Biological Sciences. The complete list of questions and candidate responses can be found at http://www.sciencedebate.org/debate12.

 


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