The Corner

Romney and Obama Debate Science Policy

This week, the Obama and Romney campaigns each submitted written responses to a set of 14 questions about science-related issues. The questions were posed by Science Debate, an organization originally formed in 2008 to push for two televised presidential debates focusing exclusively on science-related subjects. Although the group’s founders (all liberals) like to describe their 2008 efforts as enormously successful — after all, they supposedly had 125 million “members” and had 800 million “media impressions” — in fact, the initiative ranks among the most silly and ultimately feckless campaigns in the history of American politics. No one with any connection to reality could imagine that Barack Obama and John McCain would have agreed to participate in even one televised debate focusing on science.

However, in 2008 both the McCain and Obama campaigns submitted responses to a questionnaire from the Science Debate folks. And even though the answers were boilerplate, they did help to publicize the candidates’ positions on a number of important issues relating to modern science and technology.

Looking at this year’s answers from the Obama and Romney campaigns, it’s clear that the Romney team put a lot more thought into its responses than the Obama team did. Even the science editor at Slate, a magazine that is no bastion of conservatism, describes the Obama campaign’s responses as “vague, repetitive . . . and poorly written,” praising Romney’s answers as “substantive, specific, and detailed.” The questionnaire avoided stem-cell research, evolution, and other culturally or ethically controversial areas of science, focusing instead on more pragmatic policy issues like environmental regulation and government support for science and innovation.

The two campaigns’ answers to a question on biosecurity and pandemics were illustrative of the greaterseriousness with which the Romney campaign responded to the Science Debate questionnaire. President Obama promises to “continue to work to strengthen our systems of public health so we can stop disease from spreading across our borders,” but does not give any details as to how he would accomplish this. By contrast, Governor Romney’s answer includes specific details, promising to “encourage advancements in research and manufacturing to increase scientific understanding of new pathogens and improve response time when they emerge.” And he goes on to criticize the president’s policies for “stifling medical innovation,” arguing that the administration has “slowed the drug development process and inserted requirements that drive up the cost of developing new antibiotics.”

#more#The two campaigns’ responses to the question about climate policy hold no surprises, but Governor Romney’s includes this insightful remark: “Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response.” That’s exactly right. In any policy debate, science must stand alongside economics, culture, ethics, and other relevant concerns. This commonsense approach contrasts with the more technocratic approach that would elevate science above other important concerns, giving it a place of preeminence in policymaking — an approach implicit in President Obama’s inaugural promise to “restore science to its rightful place.”

One striking feature of the candidates’ answers to the Science Debate questions is how much their responses reflect differences in their broader political ideologies. This was particularly apparent in the questions dealing with innovation. The candidates were asked what policies they would enact to “ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation.” The Obama campaign promises to “doubl[e] funding for key research agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs.” The administration’s spending decisions, we are told, already “not only focus on research, but on the deployment of these new technologies.”

The Romney campaign’s responses illustrate a strikingly different approach to innovation — criticizing the Obama administration for precisely the policies that the president now touts as accomplishments. While the Obama campaign proudly mentions “unprecedented investments” in green energy, including $90 billion in stimulus funds, the Romney campaign says the administration’s “misguided attempts to play the role of venture capitalist, pick winners and losers, and spend tens of billions of dollars on politically-prioritized investments have been a disaster for the American taxpayer.”

While there has been growth in alternative-energy use in recent years, power sources like solar and wind still only represent a small fraction of the nation’s electricity production. More importantly, the administration’s green-energy agenda has failed to deliver on job growth, and has been plagued with cronyism and scandals like the infamous case of Solyndra. As the Romney team notes, the $90 billion that went into the “failed attempt to promote [the president’s] green energy agenda” could instead “have funded the nation’s energy research programs at the level recommended in a recent Harvard University study for nearly twenty years.”

This disagreement reflects two distinct approaches to what is sometimes called “innovation policy.” Romney emphasizes investing public money in basic research, while the Obama administration prefers financing not just research but also “the deployment of new technologies” by sponsoring companies with taxpayer dollars.

As Joseph V. Kennedy writes in the Summer issue of The New Atlantis, since the Second World War, there has been a bipartisan consensus in American politics that the government has an important role to play in supporting science, particularly in supporting the basic research that aims at advancing scientific knowledge without any immediate applications in mind. The knowledge that scientists gain through this kind of work has laid the foundation for many of the later innovations that have contributed to America’s economic growth.

Back in President Obama’s July 13 campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia — better known as the “you didn’t build that” speech — he claimed that under a Republican president “we might have to stop investing in basic science and research that keeps us as a leading-edge economy.” But Governor Romney has repeatedly stated that he supports basic research, and he reiterates that point in the Science Debate questionnaire:

I am a strong supporter of federally funded research, and continued funding would be a top priority in my budget. The answer to spending constraints is not to cut back on crucial investments in America’s future, but rather to spend money more wisely.

This is a key difference between the Romney and Obama answers. Whereas President Obama seeks to direct innovation and economic growth through “ambitious” regulations and “unprecedented investments” (read: corporate welfare) in the private sector, Governor Romney would empower the private sector by streamlining federal regulations that restrict innovation and economic growth, promising to “pursue legislative reforms to ensure that regulators are always taking cost into account when they promulgate new rules. And I will establish a regulatory cap, so that agencies spend as much time repealing and streamlining outdated regulations as they spend imposing new ones.”

The most important issue for voters in this election is the economy, and science and innovation policy will be important parts of each candidate’s economic platform. With these responses to the Science Debate questions, the Obama and Romney campaigns have shown that science policy is not simply a politically and ideologically neutral exercise; both candidates have articulated policies for science that reflect their broader visions for America. One vision sees government as able to — and obligated to — direct innovation in the economy. The other vision, sensitive to the limits of what government can and should do, seeks to promote growth and innovation by unleashing the private sector.

— Adam Keiper is editor and Brendan Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.


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