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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

PANDEMICS AND BIOSECURITY

Recent experiments show how avian flu may become transmissible among mammals. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the U.S. take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks?

ROMNEY commends the progress that researchers have made in “learning so much more about infectious diseases, how they work and how they spread.” He asserts that “we must continue to invest in the best public health monitoring systems that can be built” and that he “will also encourage advancements in research and manufacturing to increase scientific understanding of new pathogens and improve response time when they emerge.” He criticizes the Food and Drug Administration for “stifling medical innovation” but does not explain how he will ensure safety and efficacy if he lessens the FDA's influence.

OBAMA correctly acknowledges the possibility of dangerous diseases entering the country and promises to “continue to work to strengthen our systems of public health.” He notes that his administration is “working with the private sector to assess potential vulnerabilities.” He does not, however, provide details about how to meet a pandemic or biological attack.

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, whereas average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the past 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 has made improving math and science education a priority of his administration, and his answer highlights some of his goals, such as training 100,000 new science and math teachers over the next decade using mainly philanthropic and private funding. He does not mention his controversial Race to the Top program, which has used grants to encourage states to adopt tougher math standards and rigorous methods for evaluating teachers.

ROMNEY fails to offer specific proposals for science and math education, choosing instead to talk about school reform in general. From his answer, it is unclear if he supports common state standards in math and science, which many think will improve student achievement. Although “recruiting and rewarding great teachers” is important, he does not explain how he will do it.

ENERGY

Many policy makers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the U.S. this century. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

OBAMA highlights the achievements of his first term in supporting an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy, from stimulus funding for wind farms and solar panels to the “safe, responsible development” of fracking for natural gas. He fails, however, to outline what future policies he might put in place to ensure responsible oil and gas development and reiterates his support for an alternative fuel—ethanol from corn—that has had serious impacts on food prices and the environment. He even invokes the shibboleth of “clean coal,” development of which, in any event, has been stalled by the influx of cheap natural gas.

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