US presidential election and science

The issues discussed in the written debate amongst the four candidates are hugely important to people and the world. Science and technology affect the economy, jobs, security, well-being and the pride of a nation

Gulf News

The current US presidential election campaign is highly interesting on several grounds. First, it has four candidates with decidedly contrasted programmes and projects for the United States and the world: Hillary Clinton is a classic democrat with a programme made more left-leaning than usual by the Bernie Sanders base pressure; Donald Trump offers a populist, xenophobic, and highly conservative worldview; Gary Johnson is the libertarian candidate (let the markets rule and keep the government out of essentially everything); and Jill Stein is the Green candidate (environmental issues to the forefront, military concerns to the background).

Secondly, several of the issues that are central to the election concern the rest of the world, both governments and people; this includes: immigration, military interventions (on Daesh and others), security at the global level (electronic surveillance, in particular), international treaties on climate change (the recent Paris agreement), etc.

But third, and most interestingly, science and technology policy issues have started to be addressed with some seriousness, issues such as energy (oil and gas, nuclear, renewable forms), water, public health, climate change, biodiversity, space programmes, and others. Indeed, all four candidates recently agreed to engage in a written “debate” on these issues, a debate that was led by (an American nonpartisan, nonprofit organisation backed by dozens of high-level associations, many Nobel-prize winners, and countless supporters).

This is not the first time that a debate between presidential candidates on science policy has taken place: in the last two elections (in 2008 and 2012), the main candidates had also agreed to take part in the exercise. This time, there are four candidates instead of two, and 20 questions have been selected (from an open call) instead of 14. New topics included such interesting issues as scientific integrity, ocean health, opioids, and immigration policy (regarding scientists and engineers who receive their graduate degree at an American university).

This important debate has been echoed by all American news organisations, but most interestingly, the rest of the world has also taken notice of it: after the publication of the answers last week, several non-American news outlets and channels discussed the debate: The Guardian, TV5 Monde, Sciences et Avenir, Circuitomatogrosso, Ciel et Espace, der Standard, eNews Channel Africa, and others.

The candidates’ answers are highly interesting in that they reflect the political and ideological DNAs of the candidates and their camps but simultaneously shed light on the issues themselves. Indeed, reading the answers, one comes to better understand the problems as well as the political, economic, and social programmes that each candidate is proposing generally. The contrasts could not be starker.

Climate change talking point

For example, on climate change, Clinton right away states that “the science is crystal clear” and considers the problem as “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time, [with impacts] already being felt at home and around the world.” She sets three goals for her presidency on the matter:

* generate half of the electricity from clean sources within four years;

* cut energy waste in American homes, schools, hospitals, and offices by a third; and

* educe oil consumption by a third.

Trump, on the other hand, starts by putting ‘Climate Change’ between quotes and declares that “[t]here is still much that needs to be investigated in the field...” He suggests that we [instead] focus our attention on other problems in the world, for example, clean water, malaria, the growing global population, etc.

On research and innovation, I was very pleasantly surprised to see Clinton insist that basic research (which she nicely defines as one that is “often done without a particular application in mind and [is] intrinsically long-term”) and education (debt-free and quality learning and training) are key to innovation, as they produce important advances and open whole new vistas down the road.

She reminds readers that this is what made the US a leader in science and technology during the second half of the 20th century — a clear blueprint for preeminence. Trump, while agreeing that scientific advances do require long-term investment, wants to “bring together stakeholders and examine what the priorities ought to be for the nation.” He does not identify the “stakeholders,” but seeing that in much of what he wrote, the free market acts as a defining and determining factor, one can imagine a largely market-oriented outlook.

Johnson (the libertarian) presents a radical view of research funding: the money should go where the demand is, not what the needs may be! He gives an example: “If alcohol addiction studies are fashionable in a given year, and the flu isn’t, tough luck for epidemiologists — no matter the relative risk of each malady, and no matter how well designed the studies.” I can see the jaws dropping around the scientific community and beyond...

Stein (the Green candidate) ties many of her proposed solutions to cutting the Pentagon budget. Of course, she has no chance of winning the election, and while she ignores the fact that budgets have to be approved by Congress, it is still worthwhile to voice these ideas for public discussion.

The rest of the answers follow a similar pattern: Clinton is strongly pro-science on most topics, she proposes specific, fairly detailed, and mostly doable solutions; Trump only supports issues that align with his “less government, more free market” politics; Johnson applies his radical libertarianism to science policy; Stein puts the environment first and the military last.

The issues discussed in this debate are hugely important to people and the world, though they rarely tend to take centre-stage in election campaigns. Science and technology affect the economy, jobs, security, well-being, and the pride of a nation. Let us hope that these issues are raised in other campaigns around the world and addressed correctly, based on evidence and not ideology.

— Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: 

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