Overall, It Was a Good Election for Science and Reason

The state of the universe.
Nov. 7 2012 10:13 AM

How Did Science, Medicine, and the Environment Do in the Elections?

Your House of Representatives now has twice as many physicists.

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Barack Obama talks tours student science fair projects on exhibit at the White House in Februrary

Photo by Molly Riley/Getty Images.

Overall, it was a pretty good night for science. Voters may have had other issues in mind, but when they re-elected President Obama, they endorsed one of the most scientifically accomplished administrations in U.S. history. Obama has been a great supporter of science education and research; he has appointed science-friendly people to science posts (which shouldn’t be a big accomplishment but is); and although it wasn’t the first act of his presidency (there’s no shame in losing out to Lily Ledbetter), he did give a great shout-out to science just a few weeks after taking office:

Laura Helmuth Laura Helmuth

Laura Helmuth is Slate's science and health editor. 

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.

A win for Obama was a win for science, the environment, and health care.

The election was also an affirmation of the magical powers of math, statistics, and social science research. Well-conducted polls gave Bayesian statistics god Nate Silver the raw data to predict electoral outcomes with satisfying accuracy. Numbers work!

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At the state level, California’s genetically-modified food labeling initiative failed. Providing information on food labels may sound innocuous, but fear of GMOs is misguided and irrational; on this particular issue, some liberals compete with right-wingers in their rejection of research. Another win for science.

Massachusetts voters weren’t quite as wise. The Death With Dignity Act appears to be heading toward a loss. Washington and Oregon passed similar physician-assisted laws and have had no abuse of the system. The main opposition to the law was inspired by religious beliefs.

Voters in Michigan had a chance to put renewable energy in their constitution; Proposal 3 would have required 25 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025. It failed.

Locally, San Francisco voters—who are normally famously pro-environment—rejected a proposal to study alternative sources of water for the city. The eventual goal of the effort was to restore the once spectacular but now submerged Hetch Hetchy Valley.* California’s water wars tend to bring out the worst in everybody.

The number of physicists in Congress doubled last night. Bill Foster, a particle physicist from Illinois, will join Rush Holt, a plasma physicist from New Jersey. They’re both Democrats.

Congress lost a physiologist, though: Roscoe Bartlett, a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, was a member of the Tea Party Caucus but a booster of scientific research.

Rep. Henry Waxman, a force for science and the environment as the ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, was re-elected to a redrawn district in a squeaker.

There’s a lot of competition in the Senate and House (especially the House) for the most scientifically-illiterate member. But this year Todd Akin really distinguished himself, and his loss was a victory not just for women and rationality and good judgment, but also for basic biology.

The impact of the election on science and the environment will play out over many years, of course, but to take the big-picture view: It looks like we’re going to an asteroid.

Correction, Nov. 7, 2012: This article originally misspelled the name of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. (Return.)