This article arises from Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies and their implications for policy and society. On Oct. 9, Future Tense will host an event on the presidential election and science and technology policy. For more information and to RSVP, visit New America’s website.
It is the home stretch of election season, and with the conventions completed, the Democratic and Republican campaigns are each gearing up for the finish line. By now the platforms of each campaign and each candidate are fairly well staked out. But what are the candidates and their parties saying about science and technology issues? Frustratingly little—and what they are saying is sometimes frustratingly out of touch.
Take ScienceDebate2012, a project that posed 14 specific questions to the Obama and Romney campaigns. (I have been involved with ScienceDebate for many years.) Mitt Romney’s responses to the 14 questions were much more comprehensive than his colleague John McCain’s were four years ago, and indeed were on the whole more detailed than Barack Obama’s. For me the biggest surprises were:
- Romney admitted there that the world is getting warmer and that human activity contributes to that warming. Nevertheless, he repeats the some of the misinformation that has been promulgated about climate change: that there is a lack of scientific consensus both on the extent of the human contribution and on the severity of the possible risks associated with climate change. The former is definitively out of touch with reality. The latter is less so. The severity of the effects of climate change are indeed model dependent, but no one doubts that the possible risks are huge. The question is whether one is willing to take the risks, aware of what they might be. In any case, while he doesn’t get perfect grades for this, it is markedly better than the 31,000-word Republican Party platform, which mentions climate change in only one sentence, criticizing Democrats for considering it an issue of national security.
- Barack Obama talks about space policy. But his plans to sponsor human space flight seem unrealistic, given both current budget constraints and disorder at NASA. Nevertheless, this is better than the 70-page Democratic Party platform, which does not mention space policy a single time.
While the candidates’ responses to our 14 questions were clearly designed to demonstrate serious consideration to science issues, the party platforms were not, and the omissions and obfuscations are glaring. The two most remarkable statements I found were in the Republican platform, which argues that our oil and natural gas reserves can provide a bounty “for many generations to come.” Even more surprising was this claim: “Experience has shown that, in caring for the land and water, private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship, while the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control.”
But perhaps the most significant area not covered by the 14 Questions, and one of the most urgent long-term technological challenges facing our nation and the world, is the problem of nuclear weapons. Here there is a clear divergence between the goals of the two parties. The Democratic platform explicitly recognizes that reliance on nuclear arms is a strategic chimera and that a reduction in nuclear weapons should be a central goal achieved by international treaties where possible, including signing on to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The Republican platform, by contrast, focuses on modernizing our strategic nuclear arsenal and promotes missile defense as a key strategic tool, criticizing the Democratic administration for laxness in both areas.
But recent news suggests that neither party’s positions regarding nuclear weapons strategies are fully tenable.