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Media coverage thin for presidential candidates’ science awareness and views

18 August 2016
Though ScienceDebate.org perseveres in pressing technopolitical issues, 2016 looks sparse so far, like 2008 and 2012.

On 10 August in Manhattan, a publicity-seeker using suction cups began—until police nabbed him—scaling the glass façade of Trump Tower, the skyscraper containing the business headquarters of US presidential candidate Donald Trump. The Washington Post, noting the climber’s “healthy faith in the power of physics,” joined Wired and Business Insider in offering sidebar notes explaining that power. In this election year, with the media once again mostly inattentive to any presidential science outside the climate wars, those physics mini-lessons might have to count as tiny victories for people who recognize science’s importance.

Science-related media coverage of the campaign does pop up here and there, often as smatterings. A November 2015 Washington Post article reported both positive and negative statements about NASA by candidate Trump. In February, Science magazine reported that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton favors boosting funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). An August article at the political publication The Hill reported that Trump promises an “energy revolution,” intends to roll back Obama administration environment-related actions, and resolves to repeal energy-related federal regulations. Environment & Energy Publishing reported that Clinton called for a “modern grid.” An opinion piece at Slate dismissed Green Party candidate Jill Stein as “a Harvard-trained physician who panders to pseudoscience” concerning genetically modified organisms, pesticides, “quack medicine,” and vaccine efficacy.

It’s harder to find the presidential politics of science engaged more deeply. But that’s what former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich—an adviser to the trade group Biotechnology Innovation Organization—did on 12 August in a technopolitical Wall Street Journal op-ed. Whatever the merits of his complaint or its lack of them, in some detail he asserted that while both major candidates’ platforms support biomedical research funding for NIH, only the Republicans recognize the “vital importance” of privately funded research. Such funding exceeds that of NIH, Gingrich says, by a factor of four. The op-ed, framed partly in opposition to distrust of Big Pharma, criticized what Gingrich sees as Democrats’ blindness to the full picture of biomedical innovation.

Often when science does get a bit more than a smattering of campaign coverage, the headline telegraphs it:

* “Hillary Clinton hits GOP with pro-vaccine tweet,” CNN, February 2015.

* “The origins of Donald Trump’s autism/vaccine theory and how it was completely debunked eons ago,” Washington Post, September 2015.

* “Donald Trump: ‘I don’t believe in climate change,’” Wall Street Journal, September 2015.

* “Fear is contagious: Trump blaming immigrants for spreading disease isn’t just offensive, it’s scientifically wrong,” Quartz, July 2016.

* “Republican EPA chiefs endorse Clinton, bash Trump,” Grist, July 2016.

As headlines often show, some coverage displays criticism or sometimes outright mockery of the Republican ticket. At the Huffington Post, a July opinion piece emphasized what it called scientists’ worries about Trump concerning climate, vaccine, public-health decisions, and the effects of immigration policy. “HuffPost Comedy” released the hashtag #PenceScience for making fun of the science views of Indiana governor Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential candidate. At Slate, the blogging astronomer Phil Plait published a piece under the headline “The GOP’s denial of science primed them for the illogic of Trump.”

Science-related disdain for Trump has made it overseas. In Australia on 14 August, it came up in a Sydney Morning Herald piece about the upcoming Australian speaking tour of Harvard theoretical particle physicist, cosmologist, and science popularizer Lisa Randall (who has recently become additionally famous as one of seven models for LEGO Corp’s female scientist mini-figures set). The article contained 15 paragraphs about Randall’s classification of Trump as “He Who Must Not Be Named POTUS”—president of the US—and about her energetic rejection of the reporter’s suggestion that the Trump candidacy possibly shows “that her nation has taken to embracing the Middle Ages.”

Positive-sounding science-related coverage has appeared for Clinton. In July, Vox called her campaign’s energy and climate position papers “quintessentially Clintonesque, rich with wonky detail, conversant with the policy levers available, and careful, always, to stay within the bounds of the politically possible (as she sees it).” The article emphasized Clinton’s desire to sustain present nuclear power plants and develop advanced ones. A 10 August Washington Post article praised “sections on her campaign website ... on climate change, protection of wildlife, biomedical research, the opioid addiction crisis and investing in science and technology research, among other issues.”

Publications within the technorealm itself have regularly blasted Trump and praised Clinton. In July, Popular Science condemned Trump as “a psychotic babyman.” At Nature in March, science pundit Colin Macilwain wondered if “the West is really in its decline-and-fall stage, its Caligula stage, its Donald Trump stage.” At Nature in April, a news report appeared under the headline “Trump’s immigration stance stokes fears for science: Rhetoric in US presidential campaign concerns researchers—particularly Muslims.” It contained this passage:

[Trump] has linked autism to childhood vaccines, and dismissed climate change. (“It’s called weather,” he said.) In October, conservative radio host Michael Savage suggested on air that if elected, Trump should appoint him as head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Well, you know you’d get common sense if that were the case, that I can tell you,” Trump replied, during the light-hearted conversation. “Because I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”

Under the headline “What Donald Trump has said about science—and why he’s wrong,” New Scientist on 4 August posted an article and short video adducing and rebutting Trump tweets concerning supposed health effects from wind farms, allegedly cancer-causing new-tech lightbulbs, public-health policies for Ebola, World Trade Center fireproofing, the vaccines-cause-autism myth, and Trump’s allegation that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” The article declared that candidate Clinton’s “stance on science is just what you’d expect from a person of her education and experience: she is a strong supporter.”

The ResearchGate website on 3 August posted an “at a glance” tabulation of Clinton’s and Trump’s science-policy positions. In a callout near the top, it quoted physicist and science popularizer Lawrence Krauss: “For science, research, and their impact on the economy, the election of Trump would simply be a disaster.” The tabulation paired praise for Clinton’s research-funding positions with a warning that Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence strongly opposes embryonic stem-cell research.

Lurking in the background all along, as in the 2008 and 2012 election campaigns, has been ScienceDebate.org, which says of itself that it represents “tens of millions of Americans, and the majority of the US science and engineering enterprise.” In a “challenge to the presidential candidates and to the press,” the organization declares that because “science, engineering, technology, health and environmental issues now affect voters’ lives at least as much as the foreign policy, economic policy, and faith and values views that candidates traditionally share with journalists on the campaign trail,” it is “urging the candidates and the press to give equal priority to discussion of these important issues in the national dialogue.”

Time and other news organizations have recently reported on ScienceDebate.org. The organization hopes not only to get answers to 20 questions from each candidate, but also to see each candidate discuss the answers in a forum to be aired “by a mutually agreed upon broadcast partner.” In the past, presidential candidates have supplied written answers to ScienceDebate.org questions. Judging by the media coverage, there’s no evidence that a presidential science forum will take place. This year’s questions appear below the dashed line.

In accepting the Democratic nomination, Clinton briefly, and somewhat famously, affirmed her trust in science. For such a declaration to seem necessary from a presidential candidate “in this, the year 2016,” Gizmodo’s Carli Velocci observed, is “just amazing.”

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Here are ScienceDebate.org’s 20 questions for presidential candidates:

1. Innovation: Science and engineering have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII. But some reports question America’s continued leadership in these areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains at the forefront of innovation?

2. Research: Many scientific advances require long-term investment to fund research over a period of longer than the two, four, or six year terms that govern political cycles. In the current climate of budgetary constraints, what are your science and engineering research priorities and how will you balance short-term versus long-term funding?

3. Climate change: The Earth’s climate is changing and political discussion has become divided over both the science and the best response. What are your views on climate change, and how would your administration act on those views?

4. Biodiversity: Biological diversity provides food, fiber, medicines, clean water and many other products and services on which we depend every day. Scientists are finding that the variety and variability of life is diminishing at an alarming rate as a result of human activity. What steps will you take to protect biological diversity?

5. The internet: The Internet has become a foundation of economic, social, law enforcement, and military activity. What steps will you take to protect vulnerable infrastructure and institutions from cyber attack, and to provide for national security while protecting personal privacy on electronic devices and the internet?

6. Mental health: Mental illness is among the most painful and stigmatized diseases, and the National Institute of Mental Health estimates it costs America more than $300 billion per year. What will you do to reduce the human and economic costs of mental illness?

7. Energy: Strategic management of the US energy portfolio can have powerful economic, environmental, and foreign policy impacts. How do you see the energy landscape evolving over the next 4 to 8 years, and, as President, what will your energy strategy be?

8. Education: American students have fallen in many international rankings of science and math performance, and the public in general is being faced with an expanding array of major policy challenges that are heavily influenced by complex science. How would your administration work to ensure all students including women and minorities are prepared to address 21st century challenges and, further, that the public has an adequate level of STEM literacy in an age dominated by complex science and technology?

9. Public health: Public health efforts like smoking cessation, drunk driving laws, vaccination, and water fluoridation have improved health and productivity and save millions of lives. How would you improve federal research and our public health system to better protect Americans from emerging diseases and other public health threats, such as antibiotic resistant superbugs?

10. Water: The long-term security of fresh water supplies is threatened by a dizzying array of aging infrastructure, aquifer depletion, pollution, and climate variability. Some American communities have lost access to water, affecting their viability and destroying home values. If you are elected, what steps will you take to ensure access to clean water for all Americans?

11. Nuclear power: Nuclear power can meet electricity demand without producing greenhouse gases, but it raises national security and environmental concerns. What is your plan for the use, expansion, or phasing out of nuclear power, and what steps will you take to monitor, manage and secure nuclear materials over their life cycle?

12. Food: Agriculture involves a complex balance of land and energy use, worker health and safety, water use and quality, and access to healthy and affordable food, all of which have inputs of objective knowledge from science. How would you manage the US agricultural enterprise to our highest benefit in the most sustainable way?

13. Global challenges: We now live in a global economy with a large and growing human population. These factors create economic, public health, and environmental challenges that do not respect national borders. How would your administration balance national interests with global cooperation when tackling threats made clear by science, such as pandemic diseases and climate change, that cross national borders?

14. Regulations: Science is essential to many of the laws and policies that keep Americans safe and secure. How would science inform your administration's decisions to add, modify, or remove federal regulations, and how would you encourage a thriving business sector while protecting Americans vulnerable to public health and environmental threats?

15. Vaccination: Public health officials warn that we need to take more steps to prevent international epidemics from viruses such as Ebola and Zika. Meanwhile, measles is resurgent due to decreasing vaccination rates. How will your administration support vaccine science?

16. Space: There is a political debate over America’s national approach to space exploration and use. What should America's national goals be for space exploration and earth observation from space, and what steps would your administration take to achieve them?

17. Opioids: There is a growing opioid problem in the United States, with tragic costs to lives, families and society. How would your administration enlist researchers, medical doctors and pharmaceutical companies in addressing this issue?

18. Ocean health: There is growing concern over the decline of fisheries and the overall health of the ocean: scientists estimate that 90% of stocks are fished at or beyond sustainable limits, habitats like coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. What efforts would your administration make to improve the health of our ocean and coastlines and increase the long-term sustainability of ocean fisheries?

19. Immigration: There is much current political discussion about immigration policy and border controls. Would you support any changes in immigration policy regarding scientists and engineers who receive their graduate degree at an American university? Conversely, what is your opinion of recent controversy over employment and the H1-B Visa program?

20. Scientific integrity: Evidence from science is the surest basis for fair and just public policy, but that is predicated on the integrity of that evidence and of the scientific process used to produce it, which must be both transparent and free from political bias and pressure. How will you foster a culture of scientific transparency and accountability in government, while protecting scientists and federal agencies from political interference in their work?

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Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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