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Inside the Beltway

Why Politicians Shun Science on the Campaign Trail

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to bring up science on the stump. If either of them does, as Hillary did in her convention speech, watch out for the smackdown. I’ll get to that event in a moment, but first let me make my case.

About 1 in 20 members of Congress has no college degree. And 9 out of 10 have little if any background in science. No one running for elective office wants to appear ignorant on an issue, and not speaking about science is the safest path politically.

Avoiding science also costs candidates few votes. Members of the public may be enamored of scientists, whom they regard as extremely trustworthy and not in the least self-serving, according to recent polling. But their esteem for the profession does not translate into voting decisions based on science issues. Even among physicists, a candidate’s position on science plays no role in the voting booth.

Recognizing the disconnect between science and electoral outcomes, most campaigns at the congressional level devote scant resources to developing science and technology positions or targeting scientists as potential voters. Given the central role science and technology policy plays in the White House — from defense and energy to health and the environment — you might think that the presidential campaigns would be different. But, with rare exceptions, you’d be wrong.

Consider Barack Obama: He is without a doubt the biggest science booster to occupy the Oval Office in modern times. Two years ago, in an NPR interview, John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and assistant to the president on science and technology, said of Obama, “First of all, he is a science geek. He is the only president ever to have held a science fair, and he has held four of them [as of December 2014].”

Yet even Obama made few references to science when he campaigned for president in 2008 and 2012. There were instances when he spoke about the importance of science for economic growth and the importance of STEM education for the future workforce, but they were not part of his standard stump speech. During the Democratic primary campaign leading up to the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton made similar references, but again they were not integral parts of her stump fare.

As for the Republican candidates, they used to be strong promoters of science, dating to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, but they have also been loath to feature the issue in their public campaigning for the same reasons. Neither John McCain in 2008 nor Mitt Romney in 2012 had much to say about it as they campaigned across the country.

You have to go back to the 1960s to find a time when science and technology took center stage. That was the era of the “space race” and the Apollo moon program, and almost every politician, beginning with President Kennedy, recognized that exploration and discovery were winners on the campaign circuit. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, is best known for his aggressive defense posture and iconoclastic — for that time — adherence to conservative political principles. But he too promoted the benefits of science. Today, the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, established by Congress in 1986 in his honor, is one of the most prestigious undergraduate awards given in science, mathematics, and engineering.

The 1960s were an anomaly. The public was engaged and, to a person, enthralled by space exploration. Sending humans to the moon was a proposition that every politician could explain and receive plaudits for supporting it.

But in the last decade, the only science issues that get the political and public juices flowing are climate change, evolution, and stem cell research. Unlike the Apollo program, they do not find universal acceptance among office-seekers or voters.

Which brings me back to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention the evening of July 28. Sandwiched between her rhetoric on tax policy and immigration policy, she interjected these words: “I believe in science.” She paused, giggled and after the thunderous applause subsided, she continued, “I believe climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying, clean-energy jobs.”

It didn’t take long for a smackdown to materialize. Conservative syndicated columnist Ann Coulter was first out of the chute with her tweet: “I believe in science.... Dem code for we’re shutting down coal mines, steel plants and any other remaining manufacturing.”

Within hours, Trump retweeted Coulter’s barb. Not a surprise, since he had made his views on climate change well known months before, when he told a Hilton Head, S.C. rally in December, “Obama's talking about all of this with the global warming and … a lot of it's a hoax. It's a hoax. I mean, it's a moneymaking industry, OK? It's a hoax, a lot of it.”

Clinton succeeded in firing up the crowd, but in so doing she created the opportunity for climate change deniers to denigrate science in general.

So here’s the conundrum: If candidates don’t connect science to a hot policy issue, they run the risk of boring their audience to death. And if they do make the connection, as Clinton did, they run the risk of making science a wedge issue rather than a unifying theme.

The long-term remedy requires more scientists to run for elective office, make science a priority issue in the voting booth, and take the time to engage the public on the benefits of science. Of course that’s easier said than done.

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