Obama vs. Romney: Who Is Better for Science?

By Tom Hartsfield

Retain President Barack Obama, or hire Governor Mitt Romney? That’s the question facing Americans tomorrow.

You’ve already heard about the candidates’ positions on the economy, taxes, health care, the deficit, trade and even Sesame Street. However, you probably haven’t seen much about their stances on science policy.

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Let’s take a break from the horserace coverage. Who has the better policies regarding science, issue by issue?

Climate Change

Regardless of your opinion on this subject, it is an important one. Obama’s record is mixed. He believes climate change is a serious threat and has worked to federally fund energy generation that reduces greenhouse emissions. Contrary to what you might expect, Romney has said that he also believes that global warming is a reality and that humans contribute to it. He waffles a bit, advocating caution and restraint in policy.

Conclusion: A rough tie. Obama has vigorously addressed this issue, but has also made some major missteps. Though Obama’s EPA proposed rules to regulate carbon emissions from new coal power plants, Obama failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation, even when Democrats controlled the House and had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. However, it’s unclear what Romney would do on this issue. He was for cap-and-trade before he was against it. And his party has its collective head in the sand on climate change.

Energy

Obama has touted a plan to reach 80% renewable energy generation in the US by 2035. Unless there is an enormous shift in the energy market, this is a pie-in-the-sky energy goal. He also boasts increased natural gas production under his administration. This is somewhat disingenuous; his policies, far from aiding this development, have actually held it back by cutting permits for drilling on federal land. His administration also proposes more fracking regulation, though there is little scientific evidence to support it. Throw in the debacle over solar subsidies, and it appears that Obama may be pushing energy development funding the wrong way.

Romney’s policy hinges on more domestic drilling and fossil fuel production. This is an acceptable stance economically, given the dramatic drop in natural gas prices. It isn’t the strongest possible solution though. Instead, Romney should embrace nuclear power, using renewables to phase out fossil fuels as price allows.

Conclusion: Tie. Obama claims a more forward-thinking policy, but the economics of his plan don’t work out. Romney’s plan is less invested in the future, but more economically realistic.

Food & Agriculture

Obama supports an increase in organic food production, which is little more than an unscientific fantasy garden. However, his argument to reduce prophylactic antibiotic use in farm animals is solid. While lacking any striking proposals, Romney generally argues for less federal intervention and regulation. Leaving the business of farming to people with generations of experience doing it makes sense.

Conclusion: Romney would probably implement better policies.

Space Policy

Both candidates claim to support space exploration.

NASA, under Obama’s watch, has retired its only means of human spaceflight and has begun buying tickets to space on Russian spaceships. The administration cut funding for the next manned space program and has generally paid lip service to space exploration while quietly doing nothing. However, NASA does have plans to go to an asteroid by 2025 and on to Mars by the 2030s.

Romney’s space policy is extremely vague, but he claims he wants to “restore America’s space program.” He teased Newt Gingrich for his moon colony idea, but he has won some high-profile space industry endorsements.

Conclusion: Romney wins only by default. The President’s record is not good.

Biology and Medical Research

Despite what many people might think, Mitt Romney believes in evolution (as does Obama). So there is no need to worry that either candidate will enforce a “teach the controversy” education policy.

Obama gets positive marks for embryonic stem cell research, albeit with caveats. His new policy marks only an incremental improvement over that of Bush, but it’s still an improvement. On the other hand, it is deeply troubling that Obama has never fully broken from his association with the idea that vaccines cause autism, which is flatly untrue.

Romney’s shifting views cause him a problem with embryonic stem cells. While governor of Massachusetts, he supported all stem cell research. Later, however, he pivoted toward a position of being opposed to embryonic stem cell research and “embryo-farming.”

Conclusion: Obama wins in theory, but in practice, only a slight win. Neither candidate supports somatic cell nuclear transfer, the technology which may allow doctors to grow new organs via therapeutic cloning. This issue becomes even trickier as science advances.

Overall Conclusion

This debate has to be called a draw.

Neither candidate has a clear advantage on science policy. This might be a surprising result to some people who believe that Democratic policies favor science more than Republican policies. But, as shown above, this is just a widely perpetuated media myth.

Science may not have a favorite candidate in this election, but other issues are just as important. So go out and vote!

Tom Hartsfield is a physics Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas and a weekly contributor to the Newton Blog.

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