Monday, November 14, 2016

What Does Our President-Elect Think About Science?

As a member of the faculty, I wrote this piece for our comparative religion and humanities department at Cal State Chico, and it seemed worth posting here too.

This fall, ScientificAmerican posed Twenty Questions to the four presidential candidates on their scientific knowledge. And now that the election is decided, these answers either represent opportunities missed or promises to be fulfilled.

Naturally, the answers fell into some predictable patterns: Jill Stein leaned toward enthusiasm about science, but concerns about environmental issues. Gary Johnson celebrated science and believed the free market has the best means for directing the future of science. This was mirrored in many ways by Donald Trump, although he sometimes offered much shorter answers that stuck to key emphases of his campaign. Hillary Clinton presented the most lengthy responses and sought to counterpoise government regulation and investment alongside private entrepreneurship. (Since I’m also interested in religion and science, it’s worth noting that, of the four, Clinton is the most articulate about, and committed to, her faith—in this case, Methodist.)
With twenty issues and fifty pages of text, it’s only possible to highlight a couple of issues and focus on Trump as President-elect with the other three, and particularly Clinton, as foils. (Incidentally, there were some unusual topics included in “questions about science” such as opioids and immigration. This was a wide-ranging set of issues!) Concerned that government investment into scientific research is only about 1% of the national budget, Trump talked about the need for scientific innovation without mentioning investment of public funds, while Clinton asserted that funding science would be a high priority for her administration. Johnson leaned toward removing restrictions for private enterprise, while Stein believed that global climate change is our country’s biggest scientific concern. Notably—though climate change has support by the vast majority of scientists—only U. S. Republicans, out of every major party in the developed world, believe it is contested scientifically. Trump could only speak of “climate change” in quotation marks and moved quickly, when asked about it, to discuss clean water. Finally, I found all candidates’ comments on “Scientific Integrity” supportive of science and scientists. Trump made a clear declaration, 
“Science is science and facts are facts.  My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.” 
(I heard scientists nodding in agreement in the background with a hope those words come true in his administration.) Clinton comments were surprisingly similar here: “I am deeply concerned by the recent increase in partisan political efforts to interfere in science.”
It seems to me that, in order to move forward, we need a robust commitment to scientific advancement while respecting our deeply religious country. Naturally, I can only offer this provisional report, but I will close with the hope that a commitment to the best of religion and science will be in our country’s future.