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The cover article in the current (October 2007) issue of Seed magazine is titled “Dr. President.” It’s the clearest example of what I see as a fair amount of optimistic thinking about the intersection of science and presidential politics. Written by Chris Mooney, who tread a lot of similar – but more partisan – ground in his book The Republican War on Science, the article reads like many laundry lists of policy prescriptions for the next president that tend to appear (and are typically ignored) in the months leading to a Presidential election. I helped put together one such list while working at the National Academies. Carl Zimmer, writing in The Loom, noted a similarly idealistic call for a Presidential debate on science issues. (And like he said, why is it in a section called “On Faith”? Because Matthew Chapman – the one making the appeal – is an atheist? A science debate will be narrow enough without restricting it by framing it with religion)
Working in Washington, I’m encouraged by the optimism (due to its scarcity here), but really feel the need to temper this optimism about having a ’science president’ or a public debate on science issues by critiquing some of the underlying assumptions common to the arguments, and others, that often come with calls for a science president, or presidential leadership on science. Mooney and Chapman aren’t the first, nor will they be the last, to make these arguments. But they will fall on deaf ears, much like Senator Clinton’s recent outline of her science and technology policy goals (note what ended up dead last).
Here are a few notions that need a re-assessment:
Good science underlies sound policy, so it should matter politically
It’s been at least two presidential election cycles since any serious discussions of policy choices were a significant part of political campaigns. Watch a Sunday morning news show. It’s never about what would be best for the country, but what is best for whichever campaign is the topic of conversation. If the importance of science policy choices is to be made part of a presidential campaign, the question, or dare I say it, the framing, should be how to make science something that gains valuable endorsements (nobody is going to care who Scientist and Engineers for America will endorse, if for no better reason than maybe 200 people know of the group, much less who leads it). So the arguments for “reason, logic, a consideration of fact, and healthy skepticism” Mooney makes may guide someone to better governance, but they won’t do a thing for political accomplishments, absent some demonstration that it will increase political capital or poll numbers. Candidates need to be convinced of how science and technology policy can get them the job before they can be bothered with how they can help them perform the job.