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.
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.
The earth's climate is changing, and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes and other 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 rightly notes that “climate change is one of the biggest issues of this generation” and goes on to detail the modest ways his administration has attempted to address it: from improving vehicle fuel efficiency to reducing the federal government's greenhouse gas emissions. Yet Obama is vague about what role the U.S. should play in international efforts to curb global warming and omits any larger plan for reducing emissions domestically through new legislation or regulation. He gets credit for acknowledging the problem and for efforts that are already in place, but he loses credit for not specifying a path forward or stating his position on the policies outlined in the question.
ROMNEY reverses his previous statements and accepts the notion that human activity has caused changes in climate. Yet he inaccurately cites a “lack of scientific consensus” on the extent of human contributions and severity of the impacts and asserts his support for “continued debate.” He correctly states that the problem is “global warming, not America warming.” He calls for government investment in energy innovation research. But he does not address how his administration would work with other nations to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. He gets credit for clearly stating his position on the potential solutions in the question (he opposes them).
RESEARCH AND THE FUTURE
Federally funded research has helped to produce America's major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the U.K., Singapore, China and Korea are making competitive investments in research. Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?
OBAMA highlights the research funding contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the stimulus package. He touts the bill's $90 billion marked for clean energy projects as “the largest single investment in clean energy in American history.” The Recovery Act was a one-time shot of money, however. He also includes vague statements supporting medical and defense research. Like Romney, Obama supports making the R&D tax credit permanent.
ROMNEY writes that he is a “strong supporter of federally funded research,” but he criticizes the $90 billion in clean energy funds in the stimulus package, saying that the same amount “could have funded the nation's energy research programs at the level recommended in a recent Harvard University study for nearly 20 years.” Yet the report in question, “Transforming U.S. Energy Innovation,” recommends spending billions in clean energy research (among other areas), and $90 billion would last nine years, not 20. Romney does not indicate what his research priorities would be.
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.
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.
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.
ROMNEY confirms a commitment to what may well be a bipartisan pipe dream: “energy independence.” After all, oil is sold in a global marketplace, and unless the U.S. were to withdraw from global oil markets, it is nearly impossible to imagine a scenario in which the country did not import oil. His recommendation would open up new areas to oil development, such as off the East Coast and in Florida. Romney gets credit for directness and completeness.
Thanks to science and technology, the U.S. has the world's most productive and diverse agricultural sector. Yet many Americans are increasingly concerned about the health and safety of our food. The use of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, as well as animal diseases and even terrorism, poses risks. What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America's food supply?
OBAMA outlines the steps his administration has already taken to ensure the integrity of the food supply, from much needed reform of the nation's food safety laws to cutting down on the use of pesticides and antibiotics by expanding organic operations. Unfortunately, antibiotic use is still widespread in meat production in the U.S. And he does not lay out an alternative vision for critical legislation governing food—such as the periodically renewed “farm bill.”
ROMNEY lauds the American agricultural system, from “farmers and ranchers” to “grocers and restaurants.” He promises that a “collaborative instead of combative relationship between regulators and businesses” will work to keep food safe. Yet he offers no evidence to support this assertion. Nor does he address the issues of hormones, antibiotics or pesticides.
Less than 1 percent of the world's water is liquid freshwater, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of U.S. and global freshwater is now at risk because of increasing consumption, evaporation and pollution. What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant freshwater for all Americans?
OBAMA refers to his clean water policies and rural infrastructure investments, which are indeed positive actions. He does not refer to specific initiatives to improve the water efficiency of farming—by far the largest user of underground aquifers. The mountaintop-removal method of coal mining is also ruining streams at alarming rates, but he does not mention this fact. He also loses points for not acknowledging the magnitude of the problem.
ROMNEY does not offer a single, specific step to improve water quality or supply. His reply is evasive and implies that regulations are the only problem, stating that “communities and businesses must contend with excessively costly and inflexible approaches that impose unnecessary economic constraints and trigger inevitable litigation.”
The Internet is central to both our economy and our society. What part, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific and economic role?
OBAMA'S anodyne answer hits all the right notes but falls short on specifics. He correctly worries about possible unintended effects of efforts to combat Internet piracy but gives no hints as to how he might satisfy both the concerns of Hollywood copyright holders and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Similarly, he gives a nod to the tension between cybersecurity and civil liberties but offers no specific policies to remedy the situation.
ROMNEY celebrates the Internet as a platform “open to all ideas and lawful commerce,” then proceeds to harshly criticize the very principle that has kept the Internet so dynamic and open: network neutrality, the idea that all data should be treated equally. He falsely asserts that network neutrality would pick “winners and losers in the marketplace and [determine] how consumers will receive access to tomorrow's new applications and services.” In fact, the opposite is true: network neutrality is essential for ensuring that fledgling Internet companies live and die on their merits and that cable companies and other large network service providers will not be able to block Internet-based services of which they disapprove.
Scientists estimate that 75 percent of the world's fisheries are in serious decline, habitats such as coral reefs are threatened, and large areas of oceans and coastlines are polluted. What role should the federal government play, domestically and through foreign policy, to protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?
OBAMA addresses habitats and coastlines well but takes a pass on fisheries, other than to say his administration will monitor fishing stocks. He shows some scientific savvy by including the Great Lakes in “ocean health” because they are a similarly huge resource and may be in great trouble. U.S. ocean regulations are a mess, with dozens of agencies having varying jurisdictions, so streamlining is necessary. The National Ocean Policy is Obama's attempt to do that, and it has critics, but it is a start. Neither Obama nor Romney delves into the international aspect of ocean issues.
ROMNEY begins his answer by seeming to acknowledge that government has a role to play in protecting fisheries, despite his general stance against regulation. Yet he ended up saying the government should perform research and make it available—which it already does—and that his administration would listen to fishers' take on the issue. For Romney, protecting fisheries is a way to bolster the fishing industry, which is legitimate and much needed. His answer, however, gives no hint that he is aware of the large amount of data on ocean health that already exists or of its conclusions. He loses credit for that and for not addressing habitats and coastlines.
SCIENCE IN PUBLIC POLICY
We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions. How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?
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.
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.
ROMNEY hits this question head-on, stating that the U.S. could supply its own rare-earth elements if it “modernized” environmental regulations, which he blames for shutting down the Mountain Pass mine (although he does not name it). He also advocates letting states “manage the development of energy resources within their borders, including on federal lands.” Romney says that plan would benefit all forms of energy, but its effects would fall mainly on oil, natural gas and coal.
VACCINATION AND PUBLIC HEALTH
Vaccination campaigns against preventable diseases such as measles, polio and whooping cough depend on widespread participation to be effective. In some communities, however, vaccination rates have fallen off sharply. What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and in what circumstances should exemptions be allowed?
ROMNEY correctly notes that the “vaccines only work to prevent outbreaks when a sufficient number of people are protected from the diseases” but offers no solutions to increase vaccination rates. He focuses on business aspects of making and researching vaccines and scores higher on feasibility but loses credit for not answering the question completely.
OBAMA uses the question as a springboard to talk about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which was enacted into law in 2010. He accurately notes that the ACA is expanding access to preventive health care services, including vaccines. Yet he ignores a major reason why vaccine rates are falling in some communities—the erroneous belief that vaccines might cause autism.