The Importance of Science and Technology
There's a call from scientists and non-scientists to stage presidential debates specifically to address science and technology. This popular rally for a debate draws attention to science issues in politics in a unique way. Signers give excellent reasons for the debate, such as increasing US education and competitiveness in science. We'd gladly watch any debate on science and technology. But in signing on, we're tempted to vote "present". Any idea sweeping from sea to shining sea with such unreserved gusto deserves critiques.
Through the lens of science, the current administration certainly affronts. But the policy stance of the Bush administration thwarts knowledge of many subject areas, not just science. Bush policy looks like a siege on economics, for instance, when you consider the tax cuts, the foreign debt, the money pouring into Iraq, the rising "risk" of recession, the housing debacle, and the foreign tourists swarming Manhattan as if it were the mall of American on a Caribbean island outpost staging a final sale.
The Bush years have also been an assault on ethics, on reason, on common sense, on history, on the Constitution, the environment, egalitarianism, religious freedom, diversity; on human rights, education, foreign policy, healthcare, the English language, on AIDS, other beings, privacy, international diplomacy, and above all, on democracy. I've missed something, I'm sure. Pick your favorite subject -- Bush's foray in Iraq probably seems like a war on war, to military scholars.
But is this really all about the current administration? Can we snap our fingers and make it all change? Or have we over time created a bit of a monster, a system that when followed to its logical apex and aided by a business focused government, is capable of taking everything else hostage, including whatever we happen to remember that we hold dear, be that science or democracy?
Debate -- Dare We Question?
Nature questioned the initiative last week in an editorial (
"Best tests for candidates", p. 603), and an article by David Goldston ("A debatable proposition", p 621). Both pieces brought up good points. Goldston warned against conflating science with policy. He questioned whether a debate would benefit the cause of science and its public understanding, and whether the debate proponents had considered how it might unfold. He pointed out that greater visibility does not necessarily coincide with greater funding, and that more funding in turn doesn't necessarily benefit the science or the public. Goldston expressed concerns about presenting issues to a national audience, and suggested that the whole effort may backfire.
The author of the Nature editorial wrote: "In reality, science and technology are a factor in many issues, sometimes a defining one, but most often not. They can and must inform political debate, but will rarely be at its centre." Nature has many journals and some editors signed the initiative. This author supports science debate but questions the forum. On the issue of climate change for example, this Nature editor wrote:
"Scientific issues - how to deal with the uncertainties of climate sensitivity when deciding goals for emissions, or how far to shift federal research priorities towards near-to-medium-term innovation in alternative-energy systems - would play a key role in such a debate. But they would not be the whole story: tax policy, international trade, treaty law and foreign policy are just as crucial."
Climate science could inform energy policy, but policy also needs to consider many stakeholders and economic and business interests. As much as science plays a role in policy, you could easily justify a completely different focus, say labor. For years the auto industry has blamed layoffs on EPA regulations. Automakers fight tooth and nail to protect the regulatory status quo, and have used jobs as leverage when negotiating desired business results -- short-term profits. In the end, the policies did not in help the industry, labor, or the environment, but framing policy in terms of labor is still legitimate. Any focus, however worthy, can be distorted to an end that doesn't serve the long term interests of society.
The auto industry has also torqued perceptions of technology for business ends. When automakers claim, year after year, that they don't have the technology to improve mileage standards, many legislators latch on to the promise of more efficient technologies just around the corner. In this vein, while calling for attention to science and technology, we should note that the terms "science" and "technology" already have enthusiastic bipartisan support. But "science" and "technology" can be used with patriotic abandon in chest-thumping rhetoric -- while "sound" policy does not always follow.
United We Stand
The debate rally presents a nice show of unity to quash nasty rumors from media that scientists are forever bickering. But what interests does "science" really represent? Many signers cited the importance of specific funding objectives, lending support to Nature's editorial point that "for all that it claims to be a 'grass-roots' phenomenon, the proposed debate can be seen as an attempt by various elite institutions to grab the microphone and set the agenda from the top down."
There's certainly a consistent call for more funding, but the signers express very different ideologies, and it's hard to imagine a debate that could soothe the variety of concerns. For instance a scientist wrote about the Bush tenure: "We have seen what seven years of negligence and disdain for science has done to American pre-eminence". Many scientists noted the importance of a president who understands science and technology. But others saw citizen disinterest or Congress as the problem. One scientist charged Congress in the budget vote last fall: "cynically, ceding science was a brilliant political choice by Congress: With one stroke they diminished the Bush legacy while not affecting election campaigns..." Policy issues cannot be simplified to a "pragmatic challenge" regardless of "political stripe", as the debate proponents propose, especially when money is at stake.
One person's "good" science or technology is different from the next. Nuclear fission was a righteous American science challenge until it was used for bombs on Japan, then many scientists regretted their research roles. Nuclear energy technology was popular until its dangers became apparent. But now some declare nuclear energy the next best answer to the energy crisis. Along the way many scientists have had strong personal convictions about the uses of nuclear fission. But throughout history, society has valued the technology differently from time to time. I believe we elect a president who, with their smart advisers, will guide us to technology related policies that fit the times and their shifting challenges, but who need not be required to delineate the steps of nuclear fission. Although the debate proponents declare that it won't be a "test" some scientists are clamoring for just such a drill. Importantly, the "right" answer for one scientist, I'm sure, would offend others or not necessarily be the best policy for the country.
Since presidential candidates talk freely about "faith", some think they should be equally eager to talk about controversial policy issues. But faith is prudent politics. Speaking about faith is imperative to winning an election, as George W. Bush proved. If you follow polls, 50% of people polled wouldn't vote for an atheist president. Conservatives can whip up very strong emotional reactions to some issues, like stem cell research. With the current presidential pool of McCain, Clinton, and Obama, and with many Christian conservatives at sea without a viable candidate, it's not clear that pushing these issues to the fore would elicit the assurances many scientists want to hear.
Stem Cell Research or Faith?
Public conversation on stem cell research, one of the proposed topics, has been suppressed, politicized, emotionalized, and distorted by all sides. You would have to wear blinders to think that what's called "stem cell research" is only about science. But scientists often imply that this is the case, ignoring other really important questions that the use of the resulting technology brings up -- about ethics, human life, realistic expectations in research, scientific opportunity, disease. Some even want to make it a rhetorical debate to try and circumvent the messier issues.
During the Bush administration, conversations about issues of stem cell research were shunted out of the federal arena. Research still went forward, but it progressed differently so as not to offend those who think any medicine defies nature. This stifled important debate about an science issue. Or did it? Do we want a government that makes embryonic stem cell research a federal issue, as with abortion? If the government wasn't involved would it give researchers more freedom than if a compromise was reached between all parties? -- this is how the fertility industry works. (Before deciding read conservative bioethics literature and understand the range of positions.) Or would a hands off government turn stem cell research into an unregulated free for all, detrimental to patients and consumers? Also not a great prospect. These are tough questions.
Nevertheless all the current contenders have addressed stem cell research to the extent that they can, in their legislative records and in previous presidential debates; Hilary Clinton here, Barack Obama here. John McCain for the moment says he supports federal funding.
"Science integrity", is another hot button topic offered up for the debate. What is it? Is it the science behind mosquito nets for malaria, versus the science behind DTT? Proponents of both approaches, each with a significant voice, backed by science research and at odds with each other, are prominently represented among the signers. My guess is that despite the strong disagreements, candidates would want to satisfy both parties without alienating the DTT/chemical lobbies.
Speaking of lobbying, Exxon Mobil profits extravagantly while advertising its research affiliation with Stanford in full page newspaper ads and funding think-tanks to deny global warming. Does this fit in the category of scientific integrity? What would a candidate say? Many of these issues don't have clear cut answers, but no candidate is going to want to alienate the oil companies (or anyone else). Barack Obama has already said, with an uneasy smile, that corporations shouldn't occupy every chair at the debate. Hilary Clinton has at times indicated her disdain of anti-science positions. McCain has expressed positions on this too.
But do the organizers think that candidates answers will be more detailed and frank during a short Science Debate 2008 Inc., forum than what they've already offered? Consider the breadth of topics: "American economic competitiveness and support for scientific research; policy approaches to climate change; clean energy; the healthcare crisis; science education and technology in schools; scientific integrity; GM agriculture; transportation infrastructure; immigration; the genome; data privacy; intellectual property; pandemic diseases; the health of the oceans; water resources; stem cells; conservation and species loss; population; the space program, and others".
These topics fascinate me -- though admittedly some I find puzzling -- "population?" As in condoms? Malthus? Another century? And not to be pessimistic, but when people are losing jobs and houses, do we think the science and technology aspects of "transportation infrastructure" will hold the attention of voters?
Democratic Republic,or Kingdom?
I'm not one of those people who thinks the president is an insignificant figurehead. The president is a critical leader in the US and in the world and how and where the president leads is vital to the country's progress. But is all this enthusiasm for a presidential science debate in fact an knee-jerk reaction that ironically lends credence to Bush's megalomaniacal attempt to make his an imperial presidency? Science and technology are necessary for economic preeminence, as many signers noted. But if this is so than why are science and technology relegated to a neglected special interest that needs to get down on bended knee before the future king to beg for special favors?
Sticking with the global warming example, the legislation we don't have today on global warming is as much attributable to the representatives and to citizens, as it is any president. For years, Congressman Dingell, Democrat from Michigan, has been highly influential on fighting any regulatory legislation coming out of Congress on automobiles. Look at the voting records of your representatives, many who have been in office longer than Bush, to help you understand how we're moving forward of global warming. Look at your neighbors attitudes towards energy consumption, and your own.
Similarly, it's short-sided to see look back only to the past decade for the root of problems. Bush isn't the first president who wasn't effective on climate change. We could just as easily and incorrectly blame this all on Reagan. Had he decided, for instance, not to put quotas on Japanese auto imports back in 1980, we could wildly speculate that the automobile industry would have been jump-started into competitiveness, sparing the industry, jobs, and the environment.
The Bush administration supported positions that defied and stymied science. But it wasn't because the Bush administration didn't "understand" science. I'm sure Bush could ably debate any science subject if pressed. Remember what many people were thinking about when Bush ran for office? In debates, Bush and Gore actually shared some positions and quite a few people didn't even think they could discern a difference: "Republican, Democrat, they're all the same", some said in 2000. The economy was great, we were fairly peaceful, and we had some significant challenges, like global warming, that we hadn't really come to grips with yet.
A Man With A Plan
When Bush was running for office, lest we forget, people were swayed with illusions of "compassionate conservatism". The US was possessed by nightmares about manufactured scandals like "Whitewater", and spooked by visions of powerful presidents plying young naifs with lascivious antics in White House drawing rooms. People saw Gore as a plodding intellectual and Bush offered that folksy honesty, plus, wow, could he cut brush. Bush wooed folks by promising to keep his pants on. He slyly, faux shyly, revealed that "Jesus" was his favorite philosopher. We sighed in relief (the rhetorical we); no hanky-panky on his watch, and swept to the polls on the winds of morality, our best foot forward.
The fact that Bush administration sided with corporations in the global warming debate, and said the science was unclear means he saw an advantage to taking the business side. Had people paid attention to Bush's history, they would not have been so shocked at what he doled out once elected. Religion was a tool. In February 2000, Joe Conason wrote an excellent disturbing biography for Harper's on George W. Bush and his tenure in Texas politics called Notes on a Native Son: Part I. "The George W. Bush success story: A heartwarming tale about baseball, $1.7 billion, and a lot of swell friends." At the end of the long, detailed (page turning) story of Bush's rise to governorship, Conason concluded:
"This vast agglomeration of monied influence is what has made George W. Bush both a rich man and a potential president. Knowing how he became what he is, it's difficult to imagine Bush cleansing the soiled hem of democracy, as his advertising promises he will do. He professes a compassionate conservatism, but his true ideology, the record suggests, is crony capitalism."
Eight years later, this seems eerily accurate. But as Bob Herbert said, quoting John Keane on Tom Paine; our modern democracy is superior because it "enables citizens to reconsider their judgments about the quality and unintended consequences of those decisions."
Science & Technology: What You Can Do
Everyone and every interest wants to gain the attention of the candidates. An editorial in the Financial Times a couple of days ago tapped one of the presidential candidates for foreign affairs: "Obama Could Help Put Out the Fire in Kenya" cried the title. Science and technology interests are certainly important to the country. However many of the issues that are suggested as topics are spelled out by the candidates elsewhere. As worthwhile as it is to elevate science to the level of the presidency, we should also work to piece together each candidate's history, rhetoric and voting records in context, look at their advisers positions, and elevate our level of thoughtful participation in day to day decisions informed by science and technology.
Goldston pointed out that concerned science advocates should not engage the candidates but should lobby in Congress. I don't think that scientists shouldn't lobby the presidential hopefuls, but they should be equally focused on asking what they can do themselves to make these issues more salient within their communities. It takes work to tediously pick through the positions and histories of the candidates. It can seem thankless without the spotlight of a debate stage highlighting the effort. But it's as critical an exercise.
A collaborative, iterative, and public initiative to accomplish this would clarify what scientists collectively believe is important, besides funding. The effort would also show the candidates the seriousness and unity of the agitators. Finally, the fruits of this labor could serve to sober unreflective enthusiasm born of the same wild disenchantment that boomeranged us into voting for the current administration.