Presidential Politics Neglecting Science: Seeing a Silver Lining

14 10 2012

As the presidential candidates and their surrogates pound away at each other in the final weeks of the campaign, science is almost never mentioned. The candidates only rarely cover such critical issues as global warming and biomedical research funding, aside from the highly commendable effort by Science Debate 2012 to elicit answers from the candidates to key science-related questions (must reading for any voter).  This Science article contains a good analysis of the candidates’ positions (subscription required).

While many see this neglect as something of a dark cloud looming over science—a view with which I certainly agree—I also see a silver lining that should be taken into account, and in fact taken advantage of.

Obviously, the candidates don’t spend much time talking about science and technology because there’s more vote-getting mileage in haranguing each other about the economy, health care and slips-of-their-silver-tongues.

But another major reason for their relative silence on science is that science and technology constitute Mom-and-apple-pie issues. The public likes and respects science and scientists. As NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators has consistently shown, the public strongly supports scientific research and has confidence in the scientific leadership. And public polls, such as this Harris Poll and this one consistently rank scientists as among the most prestigious and trusted professionals. So, scientists and science supporters shouldn’t worry so much about the paucity of science discussion by the candidates during the election.

But we should worry very very deeply about what happens to science budgets and science-related issues after the election. For example, this report from the AAAS highlights the damage that sequestration could do to R&D budgets.

After the election is the time to take advantage of the silver lining—the public’s support and respect  for science and scientists—to launch a concerted campaign not only to support science and technology budgets, but to advocate for rational science policy on such critical issues as global warming.

Fortunately, there is a legion of science advocacy groups that can help any scientist willing to invest in such a communication effort. (See this list from the Explaining Research references and resources.)

Scientists can also educate themselves about the history and nature of the political neglect of science by reading Shawn Lawrence Otto’s articulate and compelling book Fool me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America (Rodale, 2011). Otto is co-founder and CEO of Science Debate.

Otto argues persuasively that scientists must see themselves as a force for political good:

Wishing to sidestep the painful moral and ethical parsing that their discoveries sometimes compel, many scientists today see their role to be the creation of knowledge and believe they should leave the moral, ethical, and political implications to others to sort out. But the practice of science itself cannot possibly be apolitical because it takes nothing on faith.

Otto declares that because of science’s relentless reliance on experiment and data, “science is inherently antiauthoritarian and a great equalizer of political power.”

Certainly, scientists would prefer to spend their time doing research, which is more fun than testifying before congressional committees or buttonholing legislators. But choosing not to invest time in advocacy means yielding the political arena to what New York Times reporter Timothy Egan has dubbed The Crackpot Caucus. As Egan so pithily puts it

On matters of basic science and peer-reviewed knowledge, from evolution to climate change to elementary fiscal math, many Republicans in power cling to a level of ignorance that would get their ears boxed even in a medieval classroom. Congress incubates and insulates these knuckle-draggers.

And this ignorance is not just evident in a general sampling of  legislators, but in the members of the House Science Committee itself, as detailed in this Wired Science article by Brandon Keim, “Todd Akin and the Anti-Science House Science Committee.” Writes Keim of Akin,

. . . a man who, to put it gently, ignores what science tells us about how babies are made, helps shape the future of science in America. It would be shocking, but for the fact that many of the committee’s GOP members have spent the last several years displaying comparable contempt for climate science.

Ironically, scientists have a far greater level of public support and respect than does  the Congress that decides the fate of their research budget. Not to use that “silver lining” to its fullest extent risks damaging not only scientific careers and scientific research, but the very economic health and intellectual vitality of the nation.

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