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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Presidential Candidates Debate Science

Air Date: Week of

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (Photo: Mark Nassal)

The televised presidential debate focused on the economy and domestic policy but ignored important questions about science and the environment. Shawn Otto, founder of Sciencedebate.org, helps fill in the gap. He tells host Steve Curwood about the 14 important science questions answered by each candidate for Scientific American.


CURWOOD: Now, noticeably missing from the first Presidential debate was an in depth conversation about science and the environment. That's where the journal Scientific American steps in. The magazine asked each of the candidates 14 questions about their policies on some important scientific topics. Shawn Otto organized the questions; he's co-founder and CEO of Science Debate dot org.

OTTO: The candidates for President really weren't talking about any of the big science issues. They were comfortable talking about the economy, even though none of them were economists. They were happy to talk about foreign policy and military intervention, even though none of them were diplomats or generals, and they even were debating faith and values even though they weren’t priests or pastors. But they weren’t talking about the big science issues that affect all voters’ lives.

And we’re moving into a century now when science really lies at the center of all of our challenges - as a country and across the world - and we thought that politicians really ought to be talking about that.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit about the methodology here - how did you pick these questions and how did you rate them… their responses?

OTTO: Well, we crowd-sourced. We reached out to thousands of scientists, engineers and concerned citizens that have signed on to support the ScienceDebate.org website. About 43,000 of them right now. And also through our Facebook group and through other science bloggers who publicized this, and asked for questions.

We put up a facility where people could submit questions, rate the questions that others had submitted, and we built a nice online discussion there to get a good sense of what the US science community felt were the most important science questions.

CURWOOD: Well, certainly one of the most important science questions that affects policy and a lot of people are wondering about has to do with climate change. Tell me, what do each of the candidates have to say about climate disruption and how they would address it?

President Barack Obama (Photo: Whitehouse.gov)

OTTO: Well, President Obama talks about different steps that he has taken through the course of the last four years. Particularly regulatory steps - regulating greenhouse gasses - as well as doubling fuel efficiency standards… the café standards.

CURWOOD: For cars.

OTTO: Yes, for cars. On the Romney side, he makes a backtrack from his late 2011 position where he was saying: We don’t know what causes climate change. And now he admits that we do know that the climate is changing and that humans are a significant part of the cause of that. But he veers into anti-science when he says that there is no consensus. That’s simply not true - there is a consensus.

His focus, however, is on reducing regulations and bringing up private enterprise to innovate. So they both take various approaches that are kind of consistent with what you would expect of their overall philosophy from Democrats and Republicans.

CURWOOD: Now, you also asked President Obama and Senator Romney about food safety. In your question you say that the public is concerned about the use of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides in our food system. How did each of these candidates respond?

OTTO: Well, this is one area where they both talk about different approaches, actually, in safeguarding the quality of food. I think that the Romney approach there, again, is a little bit more about deregulation, and allowing industry to self-police. He basically has the philosophy of if you get government out of the way, the industry will self-regulate to ensure consumer health, whereas the Obama Administration takes more of a consumer protection point of view.

CURWOOD: Now, the issue of fresh water was also put to each of these candidates. You framed it saying that overconsumption and pollution are endangering our freshwater supply, both domestically and internationally. How would each of these candidates secure clean, fresh water?

OTTO: When we get into Obama’s answers, he talks about a Clean Water Act which he really pushed through, in the early years of his Administration, his first term, and he has some significant progress to show there. Romney doesn’t really offer a single specific step to improve water quality. He implies that the real problem with water quality is regulation, again. One of the quotes from his answers are that “communities and businesses must contend with excessively costly and inflexible approaches that impose unnecessary economic constraints in trade and trigger inevitable litigation.”

CURWOOD: I’m wondering - is he suggesting that he would relax clean water standards?

OTTO: That’s certainly what it sounds like. That he views current water quality regulations as costly and inflexible. And that we need to loosen them up.

CURWOOD: And what about the issue of energy? How did each of these candidates stack up on this?

OTTO: Well, on energy… neither one of them had great answers. Obama, as he did in many of his answers, highlighted the achievements of his first term instead of painting a vision for the future. Romney is more visionary, but a lot of times his vision doesn’t connect with what policy experts in energy view as the reality of the situation.

CURWOOD: For example?

OTTO: Well, he talks about energy independence. Even if the United States, Mexico and Canada, which is North American energy independence, which is really what he is talking about, could produce all of the energy that they consume within the North American continent, that really would have no measurable impact on the way that we buy energy because energy is bought and sold in a global marketplace.

So, it’s a meaningless concept to say that we’re going to have energy independence, because if OPEC is selling its energy to the market at a cheaper price, then our refineries are going to purchase from them just to get us the lowest unit cost of energy per BTU.

CURWOOD: So, on balance, which of these candidates do you think is friendlier to science and the needs of science exploration and discovery?

OTTO: Well, I think that they both have plusses and minuses. On the whole, however, Obama’s answers do tend to intersect with the reality of what science is telling us a little bit more directly. They tend to be a little bit more sophisticated in their understanding of what scientists are saying the real issues are.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you, Shawn Otto, for taking this time with me today.

OTTO: You’re very welcome. I’m happy to be here.

CURWOOD: Shawn Otto is the CEO of ScienceDebate.org, and organized the science debate questions for Scientific American.

[MUSIC: Marco Benevento “Risd” from Between The Needles And Nightfall (Royal Potato Family 2010).]

CURWOOD: So we'd like to know what you think - about the lack of campaign debate on science - and whether the environment deserves a higher profile in these challenging economic times. You can reach us at comments @ l-o-e dot org. Once again, that’s comments @ l-o-e dot O-R-G. Or post your thoughts at our Facebook page: PRI's Living on Earth. And you can call our listener line, at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88.



Scientific American’s Top 14 Questions for the Candidates


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