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September 8, 2016

The Campaign and Science

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Inside Higher Ed – In developing a platform on science, Hillary Clinton has promised increased support for federal agencies that support research, improvements in science education, a major push to expand computer science education in high schools and an additional $2 billion for Alzheimer's research.

Her rival in the presidential race, Donald Trump, has meanwhile offered plans off-the-cuff when he has been pressed on policy stances. And his position on many issues remains a mystery. More troubling to many observers is how he has disregarded scientific facts and evidence in many of his public pronouncements.

Highlighting the contrast between them, Clinton declared in her convention speech accepting the Democratic nomination, "I believe in science."

It's a dynamic that sets 2016 apart from previous election cycles and has made it a challenge for advocates, government relations types and journalists to project how the outcome of the campaign will impact not only basic research funding but issues like regulation as well.

The two campaigns are distinguished by the level of detail the candidates are offering as much as the actual positions they are taking. Clinton’s website includes a detailed set of priorities on science and technology. Trump’s position page makes no mention of science or research issues. And it’s unclear to even those plugged into the Washington policy world who is shaping the positions of the Trump campaign.

“It certainly is different than what we have seen the last few election cycles,” said Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities.

Normally, Smith said, individual policy experts emerge in campaigns whom interest groups can communicate with about the candidates’ positions. Advocacy organizations say finding anyone with that role in the Trump campaign has been difficult and the candidate’s frequent off-the-cuff statements haven’t helped establish where he stands on many issues.

The AAU has released a set of four basic policy areas it hopes to see addressed by both campaigns this fall, including innovation, efficiency, college affordability and access to talent.

A growing area of concern for the organization is protecting innovations in research by addressing intellectual property and law, Smith said. The group also wants to see regulations across government agencies “harmonized” or streamlined -- universities, where most basic research takes place, must comply with rules from multiple agencies.

Presidents can have their largest impact on science policy with whom they appoint to key cabinet and advisory positions. President Obama in 2009 nominated Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins has received praise for working with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Obama has also appointed figures with strong science backgrounds to other key positions, including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist who previously served on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the president’s role in science has as much to do with the values that guide the federal government as specific policies.

“A president’s attitude toward science is much more than funding for research or universities, more than the budgets for NASA and NIH,” he said. “Yes, those are important, but it really has to do with questions of whether evidence is brought to bear in making policy decisions.”

Many observers have found the Trump campaign lacking in that regard. Scientific American magazine went so far as to issue a statement criticizing the Republican candidate’s lack of respect for science -- a first for the magazine, which drew headlines and put a spotlight at one more way this election has gone off the rails. And Wired magazine made an endorsement of Clinton, saying, "She is the only candidate who can assess the data, consult with the people who need to be heard and make decisions that she can logically defend."

As for Trump, there was his allegation that global warming is a Chinese plot, or his threat to back out of the Paris climate agreement. And Trump has given oxygen to discredited theories linking vaccines to autism.

Scientific American editors acknowledged that science has not played a prominent role in many recent policy debates.

"The current presidential race, however, is something special," they wrote. "It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain."

Executive editor Fred Guterl said there is no recent example in the magazine’s history when its editors took such a stand on a candidate.

“We felt that Trump’s statements were outrageous enough that we needed to go on record as saying that he just is not very respectful of science. And that’s a disturbing thing when you look at how many of the world’s problems would be better dealt with with an appreciation of what science can tell you,” he said.

The magazine has joined a number of organizations, including AAU and AAAS, in calling for the campaigns to address 20 scientific questions generated through a crowdsourced effort by ScienceDebate. Among those questions, the candidates are being asked to describe their views on climate change, their plans to protect biodiversity and their strategy for the country's energy future. Begun in 2008, the campaign aims to gather the responses of the candidates to those questions and post them online.

The Scientific American editorial highlights the concern of many that statements from the Trump campaign have been divorced from facts and evidence in an unprecedented manner and could have a long-lasting impact on national politics. Smith, from AAU, said that this campaign is reflective of long-term trends in Congress.

“I would say that the campaign is symptomatic of the issues that we face in a Congress that is deeply polarized,” he said. “You’re seeing this polarization carried into a presidential election in ways that we haven’t seen, where the divide between the candidates is so significant.”

But Hudson Freeze, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said there have been encouraging signs of bipartisan support for science in Congress. He cited a $2 billion increase in funding for the NIH approved by the Senate and a $1.3 billion increase approved by the House. Those funding increases were backed by Republicans -- Missouri Senator Roy Blunt and Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole.

“So there is a separation there,” he said. “Republicans [in Congress] are on the side of scientific research. That is very gratifying.”

Freeze said it is important that the next Congress and president keep momentum going on funding basic research. But while Clinton has talked about Alzheimer’s research and endorsed the Obama administration’s “cancer moon shot,” Freeze said, similar priorities haven’t been forthcoming from Trump.

Jennifer Poulakidis, vice president for congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said it’s rare that presidential campaigns place a heavy emphasis on directly addressing issues of science.

“In that regard this campaign isn’t that different,” she said. “But we’d love for science to have more of a role in the forefront of the overall national discourse.”