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How would science have fared under Romney?

By Omkar singh, Administrator Science Relief

President Obama and Governor Romney

Yesterday, US citizens took to the polls to decide upon their nation’s next president. After hard-fought campaigns from both the Democratic and Republican candidates, voters opted to give incumbent President Barack Obama a second term in office. The key values that separated President Obama and his challenger Governor Mitt Romney were – as one might have expected – divisive. Perhaps because issues such as economic policy, healthcare and abortion have the power to polarise public opinion, 2012 served up one of the closest fought presidential races in recent memory.

An issue that doesn’t tend to register as prominently on voters’ radars is that of science policy. With other, more pressing priorities such as the economy and jobs, many US citizens will not consider science when visiting the ballot box. Despite this, it was estimated that in 2011, the United States was responsible for one third of global R&D spending. Whilst science might not be at the forefront of the average voter’s mind, their choice has the potential to affect the course of research and innovation at an international level.

Before the results of yesterday’s election were announced, Barry Bozeman, Ander Crenshaw Professor and Regents’ Professor of Public Policy at the University of Georgia, spoke to ScienceOmega.com about the relationship between politics and science in the United States. During the course of his career, Professor Bozeman has held posts at the University of CopenhagenL’Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and the Georgia Institute of Technology, authored and edited numerous books on public affairs, and served as science policy adviser to countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and France.

In a special election-themed interview, Professor Bozeman offers his expert perspective of the extent to which the outcome of yesterday’s election will affect US science policy, and considers how R&D might have fared under a Romney-led administration…

The following interview took place at 17:00 GMT on Tuesday 6th November 2012.

To what extent do you think that science will influence how the American public chooses to vote?
Oh, not at all. Maybe amongst some voters such as physicists, science will be in the top five or six things that they are thinking about, but very few people will be considering science policy when they vote. If you think back to the election rhetoric, what were people talking about? There was a little bit about energy research and there was some talk of improving basic research, but it was all very general. If you look at opinion polls concerning the matters that people care about, science doesn’t register.

Do you think that President Obama and Governor Romney have failed to ignite people’s interest in science policy?
No. From a political perspective, I think that it was completely rational for the candidates not to pay much attention to it. There is very good evidence to suggest that science policy doesn’t register with voters. A national poll was conducted about two years ago to identify which science-related policy issues were of interest to general citizens in the United States. Actually, one set of issues that is very interesting to Americans is medical research. After that, however, most people can’t really think of anything. There isn’t even much support for research within the fields of energy and the environment. In terms of US R&D, it’s all about health and medical research.

Even so, one of the major scientific issues about which President Obama and Governor Romney disagree, is that of the environment. What do you consider to be the main differences between the candidates’ environmental policies, and whose strategy do you think will prove most effective going forward?
It’s very difficult to say because if elected, Romney probably won’t adopt the scientific positions that he’s been talking about on the campaign trail. But let’s assume – just for the purposes of argument – that he does. I think that Romney is actually a pretty smart man but he sometimes has to play to a not-so-smart base. There are other members of his base who don’t care whether or not the environment is raped and pillaged, as long as economic growth rises. As a result, Romney has had to take certain stances on science in order to give himself a chance with these voters.

If Romney follows through with what he says he’s going to do, I think that we would see several differences in US environmental policy. We would have a much stronger commitment to ‘clean’ coal, which is certainly an oxymoron if ever there was one. We would also be likely to step away from some alternative energies such as solar and wind. Whilst President Obama’s commitment in these areas hasn’t been huge, Romney’s would be negligible. I think that we would continue to pretend – at least for a while – that extreme weather events have nothing to do with human action. We would probably keep saying that they are being caused by CO2-emitting giant sequoia trees or cow belching. Finally, I think that we would probably have more of a commitment to nuclear energy with Romney than we have had under Obama.

In broader terms, which candidate do you believe will be most likely to maintain the United States’ research competitiveness on the global stage?
I don’t think that there would be much of a difference at all, in terms of their respective commitments to basic research. The areas that voters do care about, such as R&D funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), are unlikely to be affected. One of the biggest differences would be in the overall size of the science budget. Science falls almost entirely under the discretionary budget and if Romney is serious about pursuing the fundamental deficit-fighting strategies that he’s been talking about, I don’t think he’ll want to increase R&D expenditure.

Much of the publicly funded research conducted in the United States has nothing to do with the NIH or the NSF. Areas such as homeland security, energy, transportation and agriculture, for example, represent the biggest differential between Romney and Obama. Romney might be tempted to use such branches as cannon fodder for deficit reduction, so scientists working in these sectors – not those involved in NIH- or NSF-funded research – stand to lose most if he is elected. To summarise, I think that there would be noticeable differences between the science strategies of Romney and Obama, but I don’t think that they would be as dramatic as some have suggested.

Finally, I’d like to ask somewhat of an unfair question. From the perspective of science, who would you like to see in the White House during the next four years?
I’m happy to answer your question, but I have to say that I’m like other Americans. I think that all kinds of things are more important than science policy. Personally, I would prefer to have Obama in the White House because I would like to see other issues addressed. With respect to science, I have a mild preference for Obama simply because I don’t believe that he will cut tertiary branches of scientific research that remain important. I also think that Romney would be more likely than Obama to cut the National Laboratory System (NLS). However, like everybody else, my primary motivations are not related to science; science is important, but it’s not right at the top.

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Posted by Omkarr singh on Thursday, January 03, 2013. Filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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