Where's the Science?

This election season, the word on everybody’s lips is “change.” After any two-term presidency, people are eager for a new face, new ideas, and new policies. Now, with primary campaign season well underway, the field has narrowed for both parties. Debates and national interest have swung from national security, to immigration issues, to economics, and more. But “science” issues, like government funding for research, have been conspicuously absent from the candidates’ debates. Even global warming has been a little-touched topic, couched in concerns of national energy security, when it is addressed.

    We are reaching the end of a political era that has been hard on science. The current presidency has opposed action on climate change, cut funding for many types of scientific research, and was criticized for censoring a government scientist whose research findings it opposed.  The current president’s hard-line stance on moral and ethical issues is informed by deep religiosity, and this has conflicted with several key areas of research and education, particularly stem cell research and the arena of evolutionary biology. Funding for the former has had to come primarily from private sources, because of restrictions on federal funding meant to preserve the sanctity of life. In classrooms all around the country, theories of “Intelligent Design” have held court with evolutionary science.

    These issues have received a great deal of attention during the second Bush presidency, so why are the current candidates shying away from scientific debate? In public, candidates have made vague references to supporting scientific education, but to date there has been no serious and public discussion of what the scientific future might be with a different candidate.

    I can think of a few reasons why this is the case. It may be that scientific issues are a low enough priority for voters, and that candidates don’t want to spend valuable “face” time on them. In this election season, the top issues are the economy, the war in Iraq, and healthcare. At this stage, the contenders are focusing on the issues that get them the most bang for their buck, that resound with the voters the most. As primary season winds down and two candidates emerge, we may see discussion become more nuanced and open to broader categories of debate.
    Another reason for shunning science is that candidates may perceive some downside to displaying their views on those subjects. Climate change, for example, has been a complex and seemingly partisan issue, and public perception of its seriousness changes as new information becomes available. In the presidential primaries, it behooves the candidates to stick to issues upon which they have a safe position. Coming out on the side of embryonic stem cell research, for example, may cost a Republican candidate too many conservative Christian votes to be feasible.

    Lastly, the scientific community understands that scientific literacy in this country is low. A majority of voters may not value research, and the candidates may risk losing the attention of the public if they focus on scientific issues at this point in the race.

    I am confident that science will come up in public debate once the field has narrowed to two candidates (assuming a two-party race). Climate change, energy security, research monies, stem cells, and more, will probably make an appearance.
The handful of runners now has to contend with hot-button issues that influence a majority of voters. As long as science remains a low priority for most Americans, our leaders will not champion those issues until it is safe for them to do so.

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