Election 2008

We Can't Afford McCain and Palin's Anti-Science Beliefs

Their combined anti-science positions may be devastating for the economy, the environment and our health.
One of the peculiar oversights of the Sarah Palin media blitz is her strong anti-science views. In keeping with her Pentecostal faith and alignment with the far right of the Republican Party, Palin is opposed to stem cell research, declaims evolution, and believes global warming to be a hoax. Of her many controversial qualities, this anti-science ideology may be the most troubling -- in fact, devastating -- for the economy, ecology, and health.

If the McCain-Palin ticket is elected, we would have the prospect of an administration constantly at odds with scientific advance. As vice-president, Palin would not only be the proverbial "heartbeat away" from the presidency, but the leading contender for the top spot eight years hence.

McCain himself shows some worrisome tendencies as well, supporting the teaching of "intelligent design"-- the beard for anti-evolution propaganda -- in schools, for example. Overall, the prospect of 8-16 years of this kind of bias sends a chill through the science community, even after years of dealing with the Bush anti-science agenda.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent watchdog group, has documented dozens of cases where the U.S. government has interfered with, undermined, or falsified science in public policy over the last seven years. It is a shocking record, revolving mainly around environmental issues but ranging from abstinence-only AIDS prevention (shown repeatedly to be ineffective) to phony information about breast cancer. Bush cut funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control, among other science agencies, in his final budget. Overall, he has starved non-defense R&D at a time when China, the EU and other rivals are investing vigorously.

More of the same, and possibly worse, is likely to be in store if Republican rule continues. The right-wing hostility to science is a mystery. Some years back much skepticism about scientific progress came from the left, ire focused on the way science was used to further corporate priorities. But an attack on science per se is now the province of the right wing, partially based on religious dogma (itself reserved to a tiny minority of the fundamentalist churches) and partly another way to divide the political culture into an us (small-town just folks) versus them (pointy headed intellectuals). But whatever the reasons, this steady assault on science is alarming. Why?

Science and engineering remain America's most powerful assets in the world economy. As we have lost steel mills and other hard-hat industries, innovation has become the font of prosperity. Without a robust scientific community, hopes for creating the new technologies and processes that fuel sustainable economic activity will surely decline.

Equally important, science offers solutions to urgent problems. The climate change threat is most obvious in this regard. We need to do more than burn less fossil fuel; we need to find ways to increase efficiency and develop new kinds of fuels to reverse the trends of global warming. Yes, we can do a lot with stronger political will to put in place what we already know about energy efficiency in particular. But given the scale of what we face-including the immense problems stemming from rapidly growing India, China, and other developing countries-new technology has to be a big part of the solution. Science and engineering is what will take us there.

Or consider stem cell research. The potential for developing medicines and other therapies from this research is virtually unlimited. Diseases and disabilities like diabetes, arthritis, heart ailments and other maladies that affect tens of millions of Americans are likely to be cured or their severity greatly lessened as a result. Yet stem cell research is now blocked and would face the prospect of further interference from an anti-science government. The Republican Party platform passed this month states that "we call for a ban on human cloning and a ban on the creation of or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes."

The best young researchers facing this harsh prospect would be better off going to Britain or Germany or Singapore or the many other places where their research can thrive, and where governments recognize its value. New talent in the form of graduate students from Europe and Asia particularly (and my campus is loaded with such young brainiacs) would likely choose other universities to earn their PhDs if their biological research would be constrained here.

In computing science, another field potentially buffeted by McCain/Palin's cluelessness, the "five-year stay rate for Chinese students with temporary visas who received [science and engineering] doctorates in 1998 was 90 percent. It was 86 percent among Indian students," says Computing Research News. Some of these numbers declined as a result of harsh homeland security barriers, sending a cascade of foreign students to non-U.S. grad schools. The increase in recent graduates seeking employment outside the U.S. jumped by 67 percent in 2004 from 1997 levels. With an anti-science government in Washington, the stay rates and new applications both will surely erode further.

This is not a flashy issue, needless to say, for the pyrotechnic campaign we're now witnessing. It is, however, the meat and potatoes of governing. There are certain things government can do to gainfully affect our lives, and promoting science, science education, research, and a spirit of discovery are high on that list. The McCain/Palin shakiness on science issues is not just another occasion for SNL skits or jokes about the U.S. being the laughing stick of the world. They're life-and-death issues for global health and ecology, as well as our own well being.

So we have both an economic liability and a moral deficit resulting from anti-science policies. The economic problem is that the U.S. will lose, possibly forever, its competitive edge in innovation. The moral setback is that we are unable, as a science community or as a nation, to help those most in need of these scientific advances. And of course the immense challenge of global warming-creating sustainable economic growth and equity-needs U.S. technological leadership.

Scientists, who are generally apolitical, are reluctant to call out the Republican establishment on its anti-science bias. But it is time for this to become a campaign issue, because the anti-science jeremiad could actually ruin the country that all the candidates profess to put first.

John Tirman is a Principal Research Scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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