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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

OBAMA, without mentioning former president George W. Bush by name, implies that the current administration uses scientific information differently than the previous one, which tried to suppress data that contradicted conservative policies on climate change and workplace safety. In general, the Obama administration has not tried to distort scientific data and analyses to serve its own policy ends. Neither has it escaped unscathed, however. One high-level Obama appointee, who resigned in the summer, was criticized for being overzealous in weakening new rules—often after appeals from corporate interests.

ROMNEY accuses Obama of trying to manipulate technical data, the same charge leveled by Democrats against Bush but one harder to justify with Obama. The challenger suggests that a proposed rule to reduce mercury pollution was a ploy to kill the coal industry by boosting costs. In reality, coal companies are under duress because of low-cost natural gas, not the prospect of new regulation.

SPACE

The U.S. is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in space. What should America's space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century, and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?

ROMNEY correctly charges that the “current purpose and goals of the American space program are difficult to determine,” but he does not propose an alternative vision. Instead he promises to set priorities after consulting with stakeholders. He vows to engage international allies in space missions and hails the recent successes of private spaceflight companies. Romney says directly that NASA does not need more money to be successful, which gives him an edge in feasibility. Yet he received a middling score on completeness for outlining only guiding principles rather than specific plans.

OBAMA reiterates his stated goal of sending astronauts “to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s,” and he promises to uphold U.S. leadership in robotic space exploration. He makes no mention of preserving or increasing NASA's funding to accomplish those feats, however. Indeed, his administration's most recent budget request proposed deep cuts to robotic exploration. Obama scores high on directness but loses on feasibility for failing to deal with critical funding issues.

CRITICAL NATURAL RESOURCES

Supply shortages of natural resources affect economic growth, quality of life and national security. For example, China currently produces 97 percent of rare-earth elements needed for advanced electronics. What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?

OBAMA indicates that the best way to reduce dependence on China's rare-earth elements is to recycle products (to recapture the minerals) and to design future products that do not rely so heavily on them. Those strategies can help, but Obama is silent on domestic supply, which centers on the Mountain Pass mine in California. Unocal, now part of Chevron, ran the mine for decades but closed it in 2002 when faced with lowball prices from expanding Chinese suppliers and with stiffer state regulations on its radioactive wastewater. A new owner, Molycorp, reopened the mine in 2012.

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