Obama Has a Great Science Record, but You Wouldn’t Know It From His Debate Performance

The state of the universe.
Sept. 5 2012 2:52 PM

Romney Out-Debates Obama

How the GOP candidate schooled the president on science policy.

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Both candidates submitted answers to the 14 “most important science policy questions facing the United States"

Photograph by Jezperklauzen/Thinkstock.

President Obama has assembled the most scientifically accomplished administration since the time of the founding fathers. His head science adviser, John Holdren, is a physicist, a MacArthur genius, and a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is lousy with university deans, officers of the National Academies of Science, and Nobel Prize winners. The head of NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, is a marine scientist and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has a Nobel Prize in physics.

Laura Helmuth Laura Helmuth

Laura Helmuth is Slate's science and health editor. 

And these folks aren’t just in D.C. for decoration. A few years ago, Obama issued a memorandum to all heads of executive departments and agencies on the subject of scientific integrity. It began:

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

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With that dream team in his corner, and with his powerful belief in the scientific method, you’d think Obama would have an overwhelming advantage over Mitt Romney in a debate of the top American science questions. You’d be wrong.

On Tuesday, the candidates submitted answers to the 14 “most important science policy questions facing the United States.” The Q-and-A session was organized by Science Debate, a grassroots, nonpartisan, do-gooder group that has been trying since 2008 to get the presidential candidates to engage in a live debate about science and science policy. Subjecting politicians to a science debate might sound like a cruel pop quiz, but it isn’t meant to be. As Science Debate explains:

Candidates readily debate jobs and the economy even though they are not economists; they debate foreign policy and military intervention even though they are not diplomats or generals; they debate faith and values even though they are not priests or pastors. We call on the candidates for President to also debate these Top American Science Questions that affect all voters' lives.

According to Science Debate, both the Obama and Romney campaigns say they are considering participating in a live science forum. In the meantime, these written answers will have to do. If you scroll through them quickly, one thing is immediately apparent: Mitt Romney’s team took this very seriously. His answers are longer, they have subtitles, they have bullet points. It’s not just great presentation: The Romney text is substantive, specific, and detailed. Obama’s answers to some of the same questions are single paragraphs that are vague, repetitive (two in a row start with “Since taking office”), and poorly written.

Question No. 4 is about pandemics: Recent experiments show how avian flu may become transmissible among mammals. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?

This question is an invitation to show strong leadership, expertise, creativity, and a sense of urgency. Obama’s answer starts like this: “We all are aware that the world is becoming smaller every day.”

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