Deciding on science

I hope you’ll forgive my momentary diversion into politics for this post. I’m not normally one to ‘proseletize’, and I promise to return to my normal subject matter in the next post. But at this moment we find ourselves on the eve of arguably the most important election in our history. Of the many objections that can be raised about the Bush administration’s policies during the past eight years, it is his seeming all-out attack on science and the environment that has most alarmed me. From supporting the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in science classes and vetoing federal funding for stem cell research, to suppressing and censoring reports on subjects such as global warming and mercury pollution and stacking scientific advisory panels with political appointments, Bush has led what might be described as ‘the most anti-science’ administration in history. Under his administration, federal funding for physical and life science research has stagnated or declined, threatening our once dominant position in the scientific world and risking the future prosperity that depends upon science-based innovation. I suspect both Barack Obama and John McCain will implement science policies that would be a considerable improvement over those of Bush; however, let us consider the details.

Obama has promised to double the federal investment in basic research, restore integrity to the process of obtaining scientific advice, and invest in clean energy technology. McCain has also voiced support for increased science funding and restoring integrity; however, he has also proposed an across the board freeze on all non-defense discretionary spending. Throughout his campaign, Obama has emphasized the power of science and technology to increase U.S. competitivness, while McCain’s relative lack of statements on traditional areas of science policy suggests, if not antagonism, at least apathey. Both candidates recognize nuclear energy as an important non-carbon energy source, but where Obama has urged caution until the significant challenges of waste storage and potential for proliferation are addressed, McCain has called this “no problem.” McCain also sees aggressive oil drilling as an important step in achieving energy independence, despite the fact that the U.S. owns only 3% of the world’s oil reserves while being responsible for a full 25% of its consumption. He considers our need for oil to be a national security issue, justifying the opening of currently protected areas for drilling. Whenever I hear the shrill call to open up ANWAR, I am reminded of this oft-used passage from Life Without Principle by Henry David Thoreau:

“If a man should walk in the woods for the love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer, but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

John McCain also declined a recent Nature invitation to answer 18 science-related questions in writing (an invitation that Obama accepted), thereby missing another important opportunity to be more forthcoming about his science policy. In contrast, Obama’s science agenda clearly emphasizes a commitment to clean energy, environmental stewardship, and aggressive promotion of science-based education. This has prompted 62 Nobel Prize Laureates to write a letter on Sept. 25 endorsing Obama for president.

Perhaps most illuminating are the candidates responses to questions about the teaching of creationism (sometimes repackaged as ‘intelligent design’) in science classrooms and funding for research using human embryonic stem-cell lines. Obama acknowledges the strong consensus of the scientific community in the validity of evolutionary theory, opposes mandated teaching of ‘alternative’ theories that are not subject to experimental scrutiny, and strongly supports expanding research on stem cells. McCain’s statements have displayed more ambivalence – he believes in evolution and has voted to lift Bush’s ban on stem cell research but has also made statements supporting teaching “all points of view” about human origins and defining stem cell policies that “reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress.” Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin – a staunch critic of evolution and stem cell research and supporter of teaching intelligent design – has been anything but ambivalent on these issues, and her selection as his running mate is perhaps the most disturbing indicator of what McCain really believes.

I share with you some pictures that I took this past weekend at the Obama Rally in St. Louis. Our entire family was excited to have the opportunity to view Obama – rightly described by Colin Powell as a ‘transformational figure’ – in person. We expected the crowd would be large so arrived early in the morning, by which time the line already extended almost to the northern boundary of the Gateway Arch grounds. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a spot quite a close to the stage, and once inside savored and shared the excitement and anticipation with a diverse crowd who were all there for a common cause – the 2-hour wait was anything but boring! Local and state dignitaries primed the crowd, and by the time Obama arrived the crowd had swelled to over 100,000. Looking back upon the crowd from our spot near the stage and seeing the excitement, I felt like I was a part of history. While this flyer that was circulating (titled, “Scary Thought”) may be a bit of an exaggeration, I don’t think the choice could be clearer.

8 thoughts on “Deciding on science

  1. Makes sense to me. Thanks for the well thought out and well written presentation.

    While the evolution/religion related issues are important to me personally, the federal government doesn’t usually deal with those directly. The current situation where politics and religion trumps science on supposedly scientific panels and research is truly frightening, however. McCain says he isn’t Bush, but as his choice of Sarah Palin clearly demonstrates, the right wing of his party has considerable influence over his decisions. I see no reason to believe that influence would suddenly evaporate if McCain were elected. His administration could very well be four more years of right wing, politics-trumps-all policies. That is unacceptable for several reasons — the refutation of science among them.

  2. Earlier this year, I read The Republican War on Science. Interesting and scary stuff. Thanks for this well-written and thoughtful post.

  3. You hit so many valid and robust points in this post. Thanks for that. I agree with everything you wrote here. It will take years to make up for the bush administration’s disdain for all the damage that has been done to science programs.

  4. You can be sure that the Chinese are not teaching their children anything like “intelligent design.” That alone is reason to vote for a pro-science candidate.


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