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This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science
See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 5

Science in an Election Year

Scientific American rates the candidates' answers to 14 science questions
america science problem, election 2012 science issues



Ricardo Martinez

More than a dozen science and engineering organizations worked with ScienceDebate.org to draft 14 top science questions to ask the two main presidential candidates this election year. Although President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney declined to debate these issues in person (at least as of press time), their campaigns provided written responses to the queries.

Because these are substantive issues that will play a critical role in determining the nation's—not to mention our planet's—future, the Scientific American editors summarized and rated the candidates' answers. Our following analysis is not a comprehensive guide to the election—you will have to look elsewhere for an evaluation of the candidates' positions on foreign affairs, social values or tax policy. Instead we focused on highlighting how the candidates differ from each other on science.

To make our determination, we invited readers to send us leads and solicited input from our board of advisers and other subject-matter experts. We scored the candidates' answers on a five-point scale (with five being best), using the following criteria: how directly and completely they answered the question; scientific accuracy; feasibility (including economic viability and clear accounting for both revenues and costs); potential benefits to health, education and the environment; and sustainability (meaning how well the proposed solutions balance the needs of current and future generations).

Overall, we found that Romney was more specific about what he would like to do in the next four years than Obama. His responses also fared better on feasibility. Obama had the upper hand on scientific accuracy. Romney's answers on climate change, ocean health and freshwater, in particular, revealed an unfamiliarity with the evidence that shows how urgent these issues have become. In a few cases, the candidates received identical scores for different reasons.

What follows is a summary. The candidates' full responses can be found at www.ScientificAmerican.com/nov2012/candidates or at www.sciencedebate.org/debate12. —The Editors

INNOVATION AND THE ECONOMY

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

ROMNEY offers a number of specific proposals. He would raise visa caps for highly skilled foreign workers, promote free-trade agreements with “nations committed to the principles of free enterprise,” require that all “major” regulations receive congressional approval and set a “cap” on regulations. He also promotes lower corporate taxes and a stronger tax credit for R&D spending. Regarding federal research funding, he criticizes the Obama administration for “attempts to play the role of venture capitalist” on “politically prioritized investments” but then says he will prioritize technologies that “serve as the foundation for private-sector innovation and commercialization.” He loses credit for ignoring the role of appropriate regulation in innovation.

OBAMA offers two policy proposals. First, he says he is “committed to doubling funding for key research agencies” (without specifying the agencies). Second, he says he has “set the goal of preparing 100,000 science and math teachers over the next decade.” He loses credit for an incomplete answer.

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