Magazine Calibrates Presidential Candidates’ Stands on Science

“It’s pretty hard to find a candidate from either party who’s gung ho for science,” U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) told the journal Science this week. That didn’t stop Science from trying, though. The magazine looked at the leading candidates’ views on the scientific issues facing the nation.Ehlers didn’t say so, but it’s pretty hard to find a voter who’s gung ho for science either. This lack of interest is particularly curious since some of the issues that voters have identified as important to them – global warming, embryonic stem cell research, alternative fuels, energy conservation – will need dynamic science policies to address them.

For instance, the federal Environmental Protection Agency this week denied California’s petition to impose carbon emissions standards on automobiles that are tougher than federal standards in an effort to take the lead on slowing global climate warming. EPA denied the petition. It was the first time the EPA had fully denied California a waiver under the Clean Air Act since 1967, when Congress gave the state the right to request them.

EPA said that California’s waiver wasn’t necessary because the recent energy bill would accomplish the goal more effectively than the various state regulations. This is a scientific decision made regarding on a scientific issue. Is it true? The only way to find out is to ask a scientist. Vigorous, open, research-based debate is the only way to know –a situation that has not governed in the current administration.

Science tried to evaluate the positions of the candidates vis-a-vis these contentious scientific issues. It was apparently harder in some cases than in others. Democrat Hillary Clinton, for instance, has the most extensive “science policy” outline of any candidate. She wants to budget $50 billion for “green energy” for instance, and to create “5 million new jobs in clean energy over the next decade.” She also says her science advisor would report directly to her, without political filters.

New York Republican Rudolph Giuliani, on the other hand, who claims to be “very good at doing the impossible,” apparently is less good at doing the possible. “Giuliani’s record on as mayor and author add few clues about his outlook on science,” the report says.

Mike Huckabee, who lost 110 pounds to improve his own health when he was the Republican governor of Arkansas, is a strong advocate for medical research to improve other people’s health, too. His campaign talks about funding disease-prevention efforts, and he said in a May debate, “Our responsibility to God means that we have to be good stewards of the earth.” But he also has dodged questions of whether human activities are responsible for climate change, and he doesn’t believe in evolution, which is pretty basic science.

John Edwards, a personal injury lawyer in his previous life, has promised a larger role for his science advisor and an end to the “antiscience” policies of the Bush administration such as “censoring research and slanting policy on climate change, on air pollution, on stem cell research.” Democrat Edwards is popular with environmentalists because he opposes nuclear power and liquefied coal. He wants a cap-and-trade system for auctioning off carbon emissions, $13 billion annually of which he’d put toward new fuels research. Scientists, however, are skeptical of Edwards, the magazine says, because as a personal injury lawyer he won some big settlements based on “bad science.”

Republican John McCain has made the fight against climate change one of the cornerstones of his campaign. He’s sponsored legislation in the Senate to institute a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions. Although an opponent of abortion, he has voted to expand stem cell research. But “most nonclimate science issues are far down on McCain’s list of priorities,” Science says.

Democrat Barack Obama has also made climate an important part of his campaign, but not without stubbing his toe on the issue. He introduced a coal liquefaction bill in Congress – his home state of Illinois is a large coal producer – which annoyed environmentalists. But he wants to invest $150 billion in biofuels and supports the cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Obama’s record in the state senate, however, earned him high marks form observers on making evidence-based decisions.

Republican Mitt Romney has become famous for his flip-flops on scientific issues. When he ran for governor of Massachusetts, he favored aggressive biomedical research. As a presidential candidate, he opposes embryonic stem cell research. And he backed out of a regional carbon emissions plan with the other New England states.

Actor/lawyer/presidential candidate Fred Thompson, a Republican, has not much addressed scientific questions, Science says. His statements about climate change indicate a skepticism about human influence that are at odds with the scientific research, more attuned with the thinking in the 1990s on the topic than with the current state of knowledge.

Bill Richardson, Democratic governor of New Mexico, has a sound environmental record in his state. He’s taken a strong stand on climate change, calling for a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, via a cap-and-trade system. He’s also proposed a $10 billion to $15 billion trust fund to support alternative energy technologies. Richardson is criticized, Science says, for his lack of specifics. He has “more ideas than time to implement them,” a former aide is quoted as saying.

Science didn’t explore the scientific proposals of long-shot candidates: Democrats Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich; and Republicans Duncan Hunter, Alan Keyes and Ron Paul.